Monday, May 26, 2008

Breaking the 'Chat Barrier' at 38,000 Feet

Flying on Virgin America is probably as close as I'll ever come to a ride on the Pan American airline space shuttle from the 1968 movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" (interior screen shot above). My plane might not be waltzing to Strauss with an orbiting space station and my pen might not float out of my pocket, but this is a nice way to travel.

The Virgin America crew looks and dresses like the hip young staff at a W hotel. The sleek black and white seats and purplish mood lighting makes it feel like we're flying inside a giant winged MacBook. And the Airbus A319 is so emaculate that I feel guilty brushing crumbs on to the floor. There's even trendy "Method" soap in the lavatories.

A discovery on my first test flight with this newish airline is the "chat barrier" -- the altitude at which online conversation with strangers is apparently of no interest. The Linux-powered in-flight entertainment console in every seatback offers live discussion functions, including an aircraft-wide chat room, "seat-to-seat" messaging, and even chat windows tied to each of the system's satellite TV channels. But after more than three hours, the message on the mostly empty chat room screen emphasizes my virtual isolation:
    "participants in this chat: 1"
Many of the other features offered through "Red," the name of Virgin's in-flight "multimedia environment," would be familiar to passengers who are accustomed to flying first class or business class on transcontinental or international flights (games, music and on-demand movies on a personal monitor). And while in many ways it also is quite a bit like the JetBlue in-flight entertainment system -- albeit with a snazzier, more interactive interface -- Red is still plenty nifty for those of us who spend more time riding in the cheap seats on no-frills carriers such as Southwest.

In addition to Red's nine-inch touch-screen, a removable remote control is built into each arm rest. The remote is elegant and easy to use, especially given the range of controls. One side of the remote has a game controller and a full QWERTY keyboard. The other side has TV controls (volume, a channel changer) plus other options. Press the button with the cheesecake icon (or is that a slice of pie?) and you get the "Eat" menu, from which you can order meals or snacks, such as the $6.99 Yogurt Parfait I had for breakfast. Payment is made with a credit card using the reader under the screen. There's also a credit card reader built into the remote. If only all user interfaces were this intuitive.

The food-ordering system also appears to include a smart inventory-management function. The Yogurt, for instance, seems to be sold out now and no longer appears on the menu.

Many of the other options on Red's remote control are dead ends for now, which is why the opening screen prominently announces that the system is still in beta mode. Press the "WWW" button on the remote, for instance, and you get this message:
    "Stay Tuned...
    We're sorry but this feature is not yet available. Please check again the next time you fly."
The same message pops up for the "Read" and "Shop" options on the Main Menu bar, which runs across the bottom of the screen. Internet-based e-mail and text messaging also are coming soon.

One of the most intriguing things about the remote is the built-in speaker and microphone, arranged as if on a phone. Are the old air phones making a comeback in new form? Great. Now there really will be no escaping that chatty cell phone user on the subway.

I have mixed feelings about all of this in-flight interactivity. Long flights have become one of the few remaining havens from online communication. Perhaps other passengers on this flight feel the same way, which might explain the mostly vacant chat room screen I'm still staring at. Yes, I can create my own haven by simply turning off my Blackberry, laptop and mobile phone -- and probably should do so much more often than I do. But it still has been nice having some temporary midair communications blackouts imposed by on high -- so to speak. But with Red and systems like it on other airlines, telecommuting will soon reach new heights.

Also worth mentioning: Every Virgin America seat has its own 110v power jack. So even laptop battery life will no longer be a credible excuse for a little time off the grid sometime in the very near future.

[Notes: This entry was written in-flight and posted later. Virgin America's site has a Flash demonstration of its amenities, including its entertainment system (click on "See Our Difference" to launch it). "2001" screen grab above swiped from Mellow Monk's Green Tea Blog.]

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