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Virgin, the co-created airplane and the internet of things

Johnnie Moore spotted a little while ago a report on the PSFK blog on Virgin America’s inaugural flight, which featured a number of innovations for passengers (as you’d expect).

I’ve been musing on this for a while, as what Virgin has done seems to me to take elements of Web 2.0 – in which the users take over the system and create an experience themselves – and apply it to World 2.0. In doing so, they’ve more than subtly changed the whole dynamics of passenger flying, particularly removing some of the passivity and powerlessness that goes with sitting in serried rows and waiting to be served.

The new Virgin America planes are wired to be interactive instead of for one-way communication. This is what allows the pasengers to at least partly take over the creation of their own flight experience.

The usual flight experience is, well, “Sit down and shut up”, apart from when you want to get up for the loo, or to stretch your legs, or annoy the flight attendants by pressing the call button. Beyond that, your active participation in your own flight experience was limited to fiddling with the air jet above your head, adjusting your seat back a few inches one way or the other (and spilling the person behind’s dinner in the process) and generally fidgeting around.

Until the arrival of the in-flight entertainment system, of course, when you could add to your activities fiddling with the headphones to get them to work, finding a music channel that works and trying to find a movie you hadn’t watched before or that you would want to watch if you weren’t held captive in your seat.

The new Virgin planes have taken passenger participation in co-creating the flight experience to a new level. There is a full querty keyboard for each seat, and it’s wired for seat-to-seat chat. So, you can ‘tap someone on the shoulder’ (virtually) in the next aisle and five rows up if you want to chat with them (or chat them up).

You can choose from a ‘movie on demand’ system and select music downloads from the plane’s 3,000 tunes. The next time you fly Virgin, the system remembers what music you like.

The interactive wiring will allow you to play multi-player games with people in other seats, with the screen in front of you doubling as a video console.

Instead of being served painfully slowly from a trolley as each individual transaction is accompanied by the search for the right change in that paper cup air stewards use as a till, you pay for refreshments by swiping your card in a card swipe in the back of the seat in front of you.

Instead of being woken up by the lights coming on at odd hours, the plane’s lighting is programmed to mimic the time of day outside the plane, gradually fading and getting brighter, so that you can adjust to the time zone you are heading to.

The interactive airplane crept up on us a bit over the past few years. But, Virgin America just pushed it forwards into new territory.

I’m struggling a bit to explain the significance of this, but I think it’s huge – This is internet technology being used to make a real world experience interactive and participatory. Web 2.0 doesn’t just happen behind the screen on your desk. It’s merging with our real world experiences to make World 2.0 .

Roland Piquepaille wrote tellingly about this a while ago with his ‘Pigeon that blogs’ story – no, it’s not an allegory, it’s an actual flock of pigeons that blog. They have atmospheric sampling sensors attached to them and air quality information they gather is relayed into the internet by radio transmitters. Piquepaille uses the phrase ‘the internet of things’ to help break us out of our faulty mental model in which the internet happens behind the computer screen and the real world is separate.

If you have customers and want to design their experience, you have to understand this merging of Web 2.0 and World 2.0 from the ground up – as Virgin did when they decided to completely rewire their planes to be interactive.


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