I recently flew Virgin America, the new airline from Sir Richard Branson's Virgin group of companies. The airline is targeting the young and tech-savvy—power outlets adorn every seat; purple "mood lighting" attemts to makes your plane feel like the inside of a downtown lounge; and personal entertainment centers in the seatbacks let you play anything from
DirecTV Dish Network (free), a good selection of movies ($8 each), or recent episodes of TV shows like 30 Rock ($2 each). You even order your food and beverages—paid for, like everything else, with a credit card swipe—through the entertainment center's touchscreen.
And that's where the trouble started. Though a recent post at Wired Science lauded the experience ("As I walked into their new Airbus 320 . . . all the stress of getting to the airport melted away," the author wrote), perhaps Virgin made sure not to fill the plane during that inaugural flight. Why? The airline has subscribed to the worst idea to hit the airline industry since Atlanta-Hartsfield became a hub: touchscreens in the seatbacks. Imagine sitting in front of a toddler who keeps kicking your seat throughout a six-hour flight, except that toddler is really a middle-aged sales rep who channel surfs. Every 30 seconds, a poke pushed me forward. Turn on the TV. >Poke< Order a drink. >Poke< Try to get a little sleep. >Poke< >Poke< It was incessant, and the unresponsive and sometimes frustrating interface the gentleman in back of me was trying to pound his way through couldn't have helped matters much.
I was eventually forced to get up and move from my aisle seat to a center seat that didn't have anyone sitting immediately behind. I couldn't relax, and it's not like you can politely ask the person in back of you to stop changing the channel. Maybe next time I'll bring $8 and offer to buy him a movie. A small price to pay for two hours of peace, mood lighting notwithstanding.—Michael Moyer
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.