How to innovate in the confines of an airplane cabin

Virgin Atlantic’s inflight entertainment system for visually impaired passengers has been collecting some industry awards as of late, with the company who designed the technology - Bluebox Aviation Systems - winning many plaudits in the process. We caught up with Catherine Brown of Bluebox to learn a little more about how they developed their innovative product...

Hi Catherine, let’s start with how Bluebox aIFE came about - why did you create the product and what were the main hurdles when doing so?

As an existing customer of ours, Virgin Atlantic’s commitment to accessibility was well known to us, so we asked if they’d be interested in collaborating - they not only agreed, but really drove the project internally. Their relationship with the charity Guide Dogs also helped us get introductions to a group of users willing to provide their input on the project. This proved critical, to educate us in the range of visual impairments and how each required something different from the system, and importantly, to help us avoid letting our personal experience with IFE system design and touchscreen technology unconsciously bias our design assumptions.

To pull it off we just needed two things: to design a version of Bluebox Ai with functionality that suited the needs of passengers with sight loss, and to understand how airlines deliver accessibility services, especially in terms of identifying who would need the platform on each flight, logistics and crew training. By working together, each party in the collaboration not only contributed to but benefits from the resulting solution - a win-win-win.

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Innovating within the confines of an aircraft can’t be easy, what are the greatest challenges when doing so?

Safety, certification, cost containment, logistics, crew training, and passenger needs - all these and more factor in everything we do. But they actually present opportunities as well, especially as we focus on portable solutions. These minimise or eliminate many of the complexities around those factors that seatback IFE companies must contend with to a much greater extent than we do, such as installation costs, which just aren’t a consideration with portable solutions.

Bluebox aIFE is an example of this. Airlines may have a single visually impaired passenger on every flight. How do you deliver equal access to the same IFE as other passengers? An airline could upgrade the entire seatback IFE system throughout the aircraft, but it may be old and very difficult or impossible to upgrade without replacing the entire system; or the system on board may differ between different passenger classes on the aircraft or between different aircraft in the fleet; and they’d have to take each aircraft out of service in order to deploy an upgrade, which is another cost in terms of lost revenue.

Read: Five ways to free yourself to think creatively

How do you encourage creative thinking at Bluebox amongst the team?

By providing the freedom to create, try, challenge and learn, leading by example, encouraging teamwork - inside and outside the company - and by rewarding effort and sharing success. Bluebox aIFE - from its inspiration, to its development and what that involved, internally and externally, and through to the Crystal Cabin Award submission and win - is just one example of this. From a certain perspective, much of it was outside the norm of what we do, and required creativity, flexibility and a willingness to learn at every stage. In reality though, it also is exactly what we do every day - provide our airline customers with creative and engaging solutions for delivering value to their passengers.

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A few members of the product launch team (from left): Steve J. Pollard, Virgin Atlantic; Geraldine Lundy, Virgin Atlantic; David Brown, Bluebox; Faye Bridle, Virgin Atlantic; Paul Smith, Guide Dogs; Pedro, Paul’s guide dog; and, Simon Cope, Guide Dogs.

Is there such a thing as a perfect environment for creativity?

There are probably as many different environments for creativity as there are different people and contexts. Rather than one perfect environment, I’d suggest one absolute requirement for making an environment as creative as possible is to involve different perspectives. The development of Bluebox aIFE proved this necessity - quite simply because none of us had the personal experience of being blind. In itself the idea of focus groups is pretty old school product development. But our user group’s initial feedback on our first prototype sent us back to the drawing board, and the real creativity came at that stage – once we really understood needs, knowledge and behaviours that we didn’t possess ourselves before that first session.

Solving problems, such as visually impaired flyers not having access to an IFE experience, can be a spark for innovation - is it important to always start with a problem?

While problems by their nature invite solutions for the problem solvers of the world, sometimes it’s just clever thinking that comes up with an alternative way of doing something, or learning something new from a project gone wrong, or an idea that taps into an as-yet untapped need. The iPhone completely transformed the simple mobile phone from a device to call someone to a device that rarely leaves our sides for a variety of disparate reasons. Suddenly the vast majority of us ‘needed’ a smart phone. And of course the existence of such devices ultimately led to new ways of doing all kinds of things - including what we do at Bluebox, using tablet devices and passengers’ own smart devices for the delivery of IFE.

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2018 Crystal Cabin Award presentation (from left): David Brown, Bluebox; CCA judge, Joe Leader, Airline Passenger Experience Association; Paul Smith, Guide Dogs; Steve J. Pollard, Virgin Atlantic.

Beyond the 2018 Crystal Cabin Award, what do you carry forward from this development?

The user group we worked with on this project taught us so much about their experiences with technology, as passengers experiencing airlines’ special assistance support, and in particular why this project was so important to them. For them it was about independence, personal control, and equality, which in many ways was so much more important to them than the entertainment they could enjoy on board.

You can hear all that from one member of the group, Paul Smith, who was interviewed in a video produced for the Virgin Atlantic launch. It has been inspiring for us to know we are playing a role in bringing all of that to their passenger experience, not just entertainment. In fact, Paul himself not only inspired us by his contribution to this project, but well beyond - he just completed his third consecutive Virgin Money London Marathon, and over all three has raised over £10,000 for two charities, Guide Dogs for the Blind and Kent Association for the Blind. With inspiration like that, how could we ever forget the impact we can have when we all step up to the challenges and the opportunities in front of us?

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