iFLY uses Open Innovation to (Sky)dive into the World of Virtual Reality
Can a growing experiential entertainment company revolutionize its product offering? Leveraging open innovation and new technologies allows iFLY to soar to new heights!
iFLY Indoor Skydiving, an entertainment company focused on bringing the dream of flight to its customers, recently launched a revolutionary new product that is among the best uses of virtual reality within the entertainment sphere. Although iFLY has been operating for 20 years, with a current portfolio of 40+ company-owned wind tunnels, not much had changed about their fundamental product offering until early 2018 with the launch of the iFLY Virtual Reality Experience. iFLY’s Director of Product Development, Mason Barrett, leveraged open innovation to compensate for a lack of product and design experience within the company.
iFLY’s current locations (~70 tunnels including franchise locations)
Innovate or Stagnate
Although iFLY had seen success over the past 20 years with explosive global growth, the core customer experience had not changed significantly, resulting in the majority of customers being “first-time fliers,” with comparatively few return customers. To generate more repeat interest and greater same-store sales growth, iFLY knew it needed to diversify its approach. In early 2017, iFLY had no set innovation process, no formal product team, and no clear path for implementing and launching a new idea. Yet, a little over a year later, iFLY successfully launched a revolutionary tech-enabled product to 40+ location across the globe. How did they do it? iFLY’s Mason Barrett describes the situation he was tasked with in early 2017:
With the explosion of experiential entertainment concepts like Topgolf or Escape the Room, iFLY needed to innovate to stay on its rapid growth trajectory. The senior leadership team had great ideas of what they thought customers wanted, but there was no over-arching strategy connecting those ideas, no development team, and relatively few resources dedicated to innovation. If we were to successfully change how the world looked at our experience, we would have to look in new places inside and outside the company for help with all aspects of the product development process.
iFLY virtual reality promotional material
The Path to Launch
Open innovation was a key element of iFLY’s successful product launch. Barrett describes how the company’s UK team leveraged crowdsourcing by conducting interviews with customers with varying backgrounds – from children who just flew in the tunnel for the first time, to super-users who come multiple times a week to enhance their flying skills. This customer research revealed a clear unmet desire: to make the iFLY experience an even closer simulation of a real-world skydive. The team capitalized on recent improvements in commercial-grade VR technology to further improve the experience.
While virtual reality (VR) headsets were nothing new, iFLY was faced with designing a helmet-based VR system that could withstand 100+ mph winds in the tunnel. Operating on a tight timeline and with no real helmet design experience, iFLY leveraged open innovation to source feedback and potential solutions for “wind proofing” their new VR helmet, which eventually led to a patented design. Ideas were pulled from nontraditional sources within the company as well as external firms, with testing and feedback completed by employees and customers who had not previously been involved in the development process.
iFLY’s VR helmet design
With the successful launch of VR including 4 different virtual experiences, iFLY has continued to leverage crowdsourcing for new content ideas. iFLY employees and customers are encouraged to vote on next virtual reality video offering, thus providing “pre-screened” development opportunities. iFLY is also considering “Content Competitions” to see who can create the best new VR video. By encouraging skydivers and other extreme athletes to submit their own flight videos, iFLY can simultaneously generate new content and viral marketing throughout the skydiving community.
iFLY’s original 4 VR experiences
While crowdsourcing was critical across multiple steps of the VR product launch, iFLY will need to broaden its crowdsourcing capabilities if it wants to continue generating high quality ideas. Currently, iFLY’s crowdsourcing reach is limited to its previous customer base. iFLY can send out surveys and host focus-groups with previous customers; however, there is no centralized platform for idea sharing that can be accessed by non-customers. To keep innovating, iFLY will need to look beyond its current customers for ideas and open the innovation process up to non-customers. By doing so, iFLY could generate more diverse ideas and it could also attract potential customers that may not have been aware of the company before.
In the short term, iFLY could benefit from creating a customer portal where customers can vote on new ideas and see which ideas have the most votes. This could lead to increased customer engagement and excitement, translating to increased return customers.
Once the technology is in place with the internal customer platform, iFLY could benefit from partnering with other crowdsourcing platforms in order to access ideas from non-customers.
Is Open Innovation Sustainable?
Is iFLY’s innovation and product design process sustainable? Should they build more internal capabilities rather than relying on crowdsourcing?
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 “United States: Free-fall in love with beautiful destinations, where virtual reality meets indoor skydiving.” Asia News Monitor, May 7th, 2018.
 Indoor Skydiving Locations – Complete Worldwide Database. Retrieved from https://www.indoorskydivingsource.com/tunnels/
 Image source: iFLY company website, https://www.iflyworld.com/about-us, accessed November, 2018.
 “A Complete History of the Vertical Wind Tunnel.” Indoor Skydiving Source, July 7th 2016, https://www.indoorskydivingsource.com/articles/a-complete-history-of-the-vertical-wind-tunnel, accessed November, 2018.
 Interview with Mason Barrett, iFLY Director of Product Development, November 4th 2018.
 Image source: iFLY company website, https://www.iflyworld.com/discover/virtual-reality/, accessed November, 2018.
 Image source: iFLY company website, https://www.iflyworld.com/discover/virtual-reality/, accessed November, 2018.
 Image source: Jen Booton, “We went virtual reality skydiving and it felt like the real thing,” Sport Techie, May 29th, 2018, https://www.sporttechie.com/we-went-virtual-reality-skydiving-and-it-felt-like-the-real-thing-iFLY-indoor, accessed November, 2018.
Student comments on iFLY uses Open Innovation to (Sky)dive into the World of Virtual Reality
I do not think this is a sustainable approach to innovation. I am underwhelmed by the process of skydiving VR (isn’t the point of skydiving to feel the rush of pure adrenaline and have some risk in your life?!?).
This is an awesome example of open innovation. I’ve been to iFLY before and completely agree that they needed to improve the experience in order to drive same-store sales growth. I like your idea of creating a customer portal, although it’s unclear to me if people have enough brand loyalty to iFLY to spend time on it and help them innovate. I think iFLY should consider partnering with extreme sports organizations like the X-Games to create more diverse VR experiences for a wider range of customers (e.g. snowboard half-pipe), which would grow their TAM while generating more brand awareness.
How does iFLY prioritize what feedback and ideas to engage with? It seems like the sample includes consumers from diverse age ranges and levels of experience and expertise–that must be tough to sort through. For this to be sustainable, I think there needs to be a clearer funnel for evaluating information that comes through these crowdsourcing platforms.
This is a very interesting piece on using open innovation to improve the customer experience and product design process, and I think the question you pose is a thoughtful and relevant one. I would think that the more you go through a crowdsourcing process, the less new insights you can glean. This is likely due to the fact that customers have many unmet needs that may not come out during a second and third round of crowdsourcing. I believe an internal design and strategic capability is necessary to stay on top of the latest trends, to stay competitive in the VR environment, and to uncover features that customers do not even know they want.
I’d really like to skydive into the grand canyon, glide through the middle, then land on the back of a T-Rex and start charging around rodeo style.
But seriously, leveraging VR to recreate epic experiences is an awesome field that is only just starting to be explored. I love the concept and can’t wait to see where things go as the tech improves and people really start unleashing their imaginations.
Although I believe that iFLY has to continue expanding its methods to gather more information for generating high quality ideas, I disagree that the best option is to only expand its external crowdsourcing. I believe that to generate a sustainable business it is a key to balance both the internal capabilities and external crowdsourcing.
For obtaining relevant insights from external sources of information, it is a key to analyze cautiously the information taking in consideration since crowd participants are not always familiar with the company context. Only after a company processes the adequate information, external crowdsourcing allows companies to learn from different and perspectivees . Regarding the internal crowdsourcing it serves as a perfect complement since the participants present more practical ideas and also increase the ownership of employees. In conclusion, I would improve the internal capabilities while increasing the external database only if it gives valuable information.
 A. Malhotra, A. Majchrzak, L. Kesebi, and S. Looram. Developing innovative solutions through internal crowdsourcing. MIT Sloan Management Review (Summer 2017): 73–79.
iFLY’s example seems really fascinating. However, as pointed out in other comments, I am a bit skeptical about the sustainability of using VR to simply simulate the actual skydiving sensation since a – presumably – fundamental component is missing: the complete sensorial adrenaline triggered by being sky high.
On that sense, I wonder whether it would make sense to using VR with a different approach: to provide experiences that may be impossible to execute in real life (so far). VR skydiving in impossibly high peaks or even in outer-space may make this attractive to enthusiast sky divers who are more likely to spend the time and money on this luxurious experience [of indoor skydiving].
Hi Hermione, great piece! I haven’t thought about open innovation as the solution to increase repeat purchases and customer lifetime value before. I find what iFLY did quite brilliant.
Reading your post it seemed like all these content creators are currently non-incentivized and most of them are past or current customers. As an idea, to make this design process sustainable in future, the company could start an outbound marketing program targeted to the skydiving community through which creators are rewarded for VR videos with monetary and non-monetary prizes. And as you suggested when proposing to build an online platform, creating competition among creators can help making it even more engaging.
This strategy can be tested with very little capital. If it proves to be an efficient way of building content, drive brand awareness and have loyal customers, then multiple purposes are served at once.
If it doesn’t work, then iFLY probably needs to invest in in-house innovation as soon as the supply of content from the current customer base is not enough to meet demand.