We're going to have to get used to seeing people using virtual reality devices in public as the technology edges closer to the mainstream, but being one of the first people to use the technology around others can be a little bit uncomfortable.
In short: It's very strange, and it felt almost rude.
You can see them, they can't see you
You can turn on a pass-through camera on the Gear VR by holding down the button on the side of the headset if you'd like to see out, and this leads to strange interactions. I had a conversation with my wife while she was taking this picture, and it caused a few people around me to pull a double-take. Once it becomes clear that you can see someone through the hardware, even though they can't see your eyes, people don't seem to know how to react.
I turned on the camera once or twice just to look around, and a few people were openly gawking at me. So yes, you're going to get looks, and you kind of have to be comfortable with that.
It also felt way too strange to play any game that forces you to look around in an active way. It seemed almost weird to be sitting in tight space, whipping my head around to look at things only I could see.
I was very aware of how small my personal space was on the plane, and I didn't want to make anyone else uncomfortable. Looking around in that manner, and being in constant movement, could have made my seat mates uncomfortable or have made it harder for them to relax. I stuck to Oculus Cinema, a program that allows you to watch your own video files in a sort of empty movie theater.
It feels like the entire theater is sliding around
And it's amazing. The act of using the device is very strange in public, and I was very careful to be respectful of the people around me, but the plane fell away completely. My slight claustrophobia left me immediately; my brain thought I was in a large, completely empty movie theater. I was able to lean back, fold my hands in my lap, and watch movies on a giant screen by myself. It was relaxing.
I was a bit curious about how the flight attendant would react to my eyes being completely closed off, but she just passed by without asking if I wanted anything. I was also interested in what would happen if the plane were to turn, but your view simply moves with the plane. Which can be a bit weird at times; it feels like the entire theater is sliding around you when the plane makes even a minimal turn.
So to sum things up: It's a strange experience, and people around you don't really know how to react. I wouldn't play active games when you're stuck sitting next to others, and people get agitated when you interact with those around you through a large chunk of plastic. But the experience of being in virtual reality in an environment I often find very stressful? It's magical.
The Gear VR is now a mandatory piece of equipment for me when I travel.