Maybe I’m a weirdo, but I actually kind of enjoy long flights, despite the leg cramps that come with flying economy.
It’s basically the only time where I can unplug for a solid five or six hours and get some solid, unbroken time to myself without worrying about my email inbox.
(Sure, you could always use the inflight WiFi. But that usually means paying $40 or more for WiFi that’s slower than a crowded city bus and half as reliable. It’s absurd.)
On my latest cross-country flight this week, I figured, hey, Facebook boasts that virtual reality can almost “teleport” people. So why not see if it could teleport me off that plane and into a virtual wonderland?
And so, I strapped on a Samsung Gear VR — the entry-level $99 virtual reality headset codeveloped by the phone giant and Facebook’s Oculus VR subsidiary — to see for myself if cocooning myself in the virtual world was preferable to the reality of a fully-booked flight from New York to San Francisco.
I learned that virtual reality has the potential to make flying a vastly more pleasant experience. But it’s impossible to avoid feeling like the king of the dorks when you’re wearing a set of Samsung-branded goggles over your glasses at 39,000 feet.
Why the Gear was the perfect choice
There are a few options for virtual reality on the market right now. At the lowest end, you have the Google Cardboard, a $15 viewer literally made of cardboard. It works, bu it’s not very immersive and you have to hold it up to your face when you’re using it. That wouldn’t work on a long flight.
At the higher end, you have Facebook’s $599 flagship Oculus Rift headset and the $799 HTC Vive Pre. These two headsets represent the current bleeding edge in virtual reality technology. But they also require a connection to a super-beefy gaming desktop PC. Even if I had one, I’m not sure how the flight crew would feel about my setting up a PC gaming battlestation at my tray table.
But the Samsung Gear VR is really the only way to fly: It’s powered by a Samsung phone (in my case, it was a Galaxy S6) slotted into the headset. That means it’s totally self contained. Gear VR has a lower image quality than the Oculus Rift, its big brother, but it’s worlds better than the Google Cardboard, and it’s totally portable.
The Gear VR comes with Oculus Video, a nifty app for watching videos from services like Facebook, Vimeo, Twitch, and a fairly well-stocked video store of recent Hollywood blockbusters.
You can also copy your own movies to watch. If the video you’re watching was filmed in 360 degrees, it will render it as virtual reality, where you can move your head around and explore the scene. If it’s a normal, everyday movie, you get placed in a nifty virtual movie theatre that simulates watching it on a gigantic screen in a private showing.
I loaded up “The Martian,” which I had previously downloaded, and tried to bliss out in my own personal movie theatre at 39,000 feet. It worked! It totally worked. Mostly.
I found that it was oddly relaxing to leave the plane behind and exist in this weird fascimile of a movie theatre. It got even more zen once I switched it from the default movie theatre experience to watching the film from a theatre seat placed on the surface of the Moon.
There was something holding me back, though: I just couldn’t stop remembering that I was sitting there, on a crowded plane, with a phone strapped to my face, actively trying to pretend like I wasn’t actually there. It’s a weight on your face that’s hard to ignore, especially on a flight when you don’t have much else to think about. And it doesn’t look even slightly cool.
I actually had to constantly shift my body because I kept slouching like I was actually sitting in a movie theatre seat. At one point during the movie, I hunched over to find my cup of water by touch and bumped my head soundly on the seat in front of me. I’m 80% sure I heard some of the high schoolers on my flight laugh at me.
Not exactly the coolest moment of my life.
About 45 minutes into the movie, I ended up putting the Gear VR away, for a combination of reasons including an oncoming headache, a desire to nap, and a vague but abiding sense of shame. Your mileage may vary, depending on your capacity for withstanding eye strain and how much you care about the opinions of strangers.
At a Facebook conference earlier in April, Mark Zuckerberg promised that Oculus has a ten-year plan to bring virtual reality down from dorky headsets into something a little bit more like your normal everyday pair of glasses.
Man, I hope that works out. Because this little episode demonstrated, to me, that virtual reality has tremendous potential for taking us places we’re not, whenever we want to go. But unless it really, truly hits the mainstream, it’s going to feel weird using virtual reality in all but the most private settings. That’s a shame, because it also limits that amazing potential for all but the most socially oblivious users.