December 3, 2019

Air Canada uses VR to showcase its top-flight business class service

By Keef Sloan

Air Canada is justifiably proud of its business class offering, having recently won Best Business Class in North America 2019 in the Skytrax World Airline Awards. For years, however, it had to rely on taking a physical business class seat to trade shows in order to demonstrate this to prospective customers. 

That was until immersive content studio Neutral Digital delivered a fully interactive solution that replicated the whole award-winning experience in VR. Now, instead of the logistical headache of transporting an airplane seat from country to country, Air Canada has a simple, easy-to-set-up system that fits into a Pelican case.
Spotlight_AirCanada_blog_body_img1.jpgNot only is it easier and more cost-efficient to transport—it’s a more effective tool too. “Before, where we had hundreds of people trying out the seat in a day, now we have thousands,” says Jackie Harkness, Senior Director of Brand Marketing and Sponsorships at Air Canada. “We got a lot of extra customers and travel agencies we weren't expecting.”

An engaging and cost-effective VR experience 

Transporting a physical airline seat to trade shows around the world is logistically challenging and expensive. “The seat could only accommodate so many people in one day,” recalls Harkness. It had to travel with its own electrician, and required a special passport to import it temporarily into the destination county. “These passports, and the fact that you had to ship these rather large seats, meant that it came with a quite a cost,” continues Harkness. 
Spotlight_AirCanada_blog_body_img8.jpgAir Canada began to explore more cost-effective and efficient ways of showcasing its business class service and found Neutral Digital. “They came to us and asked, ‘Well, how much can you do in virtual reality with this seat?’” says Sergio Irigoyen, Head of VR at Neutral Digital. “We created not only the seat, but also the whole passenger experience to show how great the service is.”
Spotlight_AirCanada_blog_body_img4.jpgGiven a free rein to develop the project, the team at Neutral Digital brainstormed ideas for user interactions that would not only be true to the real experience, but fun as well. “I think that if the fun element isn’t there, people get bored,” explains Matt Laverick, Lead VR Developer at Neutral Digital. 

Almost everything that you might interact with while sitting on the seat in real life is interactive in the VR experience. That includes adjusting the fans, turning the reading light on and adjusting its position, and putting on the headphones. Spotlight_AirCanada_blog_body_img6.jpg

Innovative VR airline marketing 

To test out ideas and enable non-technical members of the team to contribute to the project, the team harnessed the power of the Blueprint visual scripting system. Providing the ability for designers and artists to use the full range of concepts and tools generally only available to programmers, Blueprint enables you to do everything visually, from dragging and dropping nodes to easily setting parameters in the UI. By leveraging Blueprint, the team also managed to sidestep a number of technical challenges on the project. 

“Around 97 to 98 percent of the project was done with Blueprint, and that allowed us not only to rapidly prototype things, but also to expose things for artists who weren't necessarily confident with Blueprint,” says Laverick. “We can drop a cinematic camera in, take some amazing-looking videos or stills with nice post-process effects, and then use them for marketing. Unreal gave us the ability to do that.”
Spotlight_AirCanada_blog_body_img3.jpgThe new and innovative solution they now have in place fits into part of a wider story at Air Canada. “This project very much aligned with our ambition to be one of the top 10 global airlines in the world,” says Harness. 

Want to create your own immersive, interactive visualizations for compelling marketing experiences? Download Unreal Engine for free today!