If there’s anything that moves more quickly than the technology of in-flight entertainment (IFE) on aircraft, it’s passengers’ expectations. Not long ago, we were happy to have our own individual monitor in the back of the seat in front. Now we want the ability to stop, start and pause, play games and choose from a full range of Hollywood movies, as well as select from hundreds of audio options. Yet this is only the beginning.
Along with Thales
Panasonic Avionics is the major supplier of IFE systems to the airline industry. The rapid advances occurring are down to the ability to store more and more content on board the aircraft. “Systems today are capable of up to a terabyte of storage capability, and are also high definition and widescreen capable,” says Neil James, executive director of corporate sales and product management at Panasonic Avionics. “They also have picture-in-picture ability, so you can keep track of the moving map while watching other entertainment.” The moving map – still the most popular option on IFE systems – is a good example of how things have advanced. The new systems can provide flight data, various resolutions, and the ability to zoom in on your location on the ground. So what else will we soon be seeing on our monitors?
To view a website on your screen, the aircraft doesn’t necessarily have to be connected in real time to the internet. Cached versions can be uploaded at the gate prior to take-off so that the passenger can surf all, or a selection of, the pages on a site. When the aircraft next reaches the gate, it then synchronises with the onboard IFE system, allowing the website to be updated and the information on page impressions to be downloaded.
So, for instance, an airline might have a cached version of its own website on board for passengers to log on, change their preferences, make enquiries about future flights, or even provide feedback on the flight they are on. This would then be downloaded on landing. The advantage for the airline is that it can collect information on the passenger, as well as increase traffic to its site.
Airlines can provide a library of magazines digitally, including their own duty-free brochure. This would allow 3D impressions of the objects on sale, a far greater range of goods than could be carried on board, and home delivery. Imagine having a list of hundreds of magazines, including Business Traveller, available to read on screen during your flight. In the future you might even be able to download your magazine on to a plastic flipbook for easier viewing, which could be plugged into the USB socket, although the technology for this is still several years away.
Connectivity is the real key to providing websites and email, and whatever we think about the use of mobile phones on board aircraft, according to Neil James, connectivity will be “ubiquitous”. In part, this is because of the operational benefits to the airline of avionics equipment – if the aircraft is connected for operational reasons, why not use that connection to give benefits to the passenger? It also allows for basic yet useful things such as real-time credit card validations for onboard duty-free purchases, as well as enabling airlines to integrate passenger data in real time.
This isn’t the first time connectivity has been offered – the Connexion by Boeing service gave passengers wifi on their laptops, but was discontinued in 2006 after a lack of take-up. It’s something James is confident the new system can overcome. “Previous business models relied on having worldwide coverage from a series of satellites that were all lit up simultaneously, so there was always going to be an issue with take-up rates to make it economical,” he says. “Our approach is to buy the bandwidth by the drink, and our agreement with the satellite provider is that we only light them up when we need them and get more airline customers coming on board. So we are doing it on an on-demand basis. The second thing is that satellite antennae technology has moved on tremendously in terms of how it operates.”
How we will access the web and our emails might be subject to different business models from different airlines. What’s certain is that as the cost of providing the service comes down, more and more travellers will benefit. “The airline can choose how to use the bandwidth, so they can allow certain things and not others, such as streaming videos, which uses a lot of bandwidth,” James explains. “It can also choose whether to have browsing from the seat through the IFE system, or via laptops. Either is possible.”
Whether we are travelling with children, or are, at heart, children ourselves, the games being offered on IFE systems are more sophisticated than ever. Although it’s possible for games such as chess to be played via touchscreen, the IFE providers pride themselves on having handsets that satisfy the needs of gamers, and are providing hundreds of games and handsets sophisticated enough for us to play them. “The layout of the buttons, the squash pads and the tactile feel are all done in the same way as you’d expect to find on most gaming sticks,” James says.
All the new systems can provide a USB for peripherals such as keyboards, mice and games controllers. While you can’t stream video from an iPod yet, you can view pictures and documents, although not all PDFs can be displayed. The USB can also be used for charging devices.
Launching next year is Karma, a new type of handset, about the size of an iPhone. It has a touchscreen in the middle so you could be watching a movie on your main screen and still have the moving map on the handset. It can be turned into a phone, it knows its orientation and it has accelerometers built in, so you can use it to play games.
Free or pay for view?
On low-cost airlines, we might end up having to pay for a lot of this technology. “The airline can charge for an individual movie, a fee to access the system or a charge for games,” James says. “We also support rich media for advertising so they can track all the statistics to see if it was a click-through or they watched the advertisement. We have already provided a system for Virgin America allowing passengers to order food and be charged for it on board.”
When is the future?
“The fundamentals never go away – safety, reliability, power, weight and size. The airlines are driving us very hard on all of these,” James says. Systems will get smaller and lighter and conserve less power. “We want to give the passenger as much room as possible, particularly in economy, and the new generation of super-light seats can’t have the older, more archaic electronic systems in them, so we are reducing weight and space.”
Panasonic is keen for the new technologies to be adopted as soon as possible. That includes Mpeg 4 on the aircraft; closed captioning, allowing full descriptions for deaf or hard-of-hearing people; and new OLED screens, which consume less power, are light and thin, and allow passengers to view their own media devices on the high-resolution screens installed.
“There will also be a new generation of 3D moving maps, not as enormous as Google Earth but similar, and we are investigating technologies for headsets providing special and surround sound,” James says. HD will arrive “within the next year”, something the new 15-, 23- and 32-inch screens will be able to display.
One note of caution is that while it is not always the newest aircraft that has the newest system, “generally the flagship systems for us are flying on the newer aircraft”, he says. “Every A380 flying today is Panasonic, and we will continue to have the lion’s share of the A380 aircraft and are on the launch of the B787 Dreamliner with ANA.”
Technology aside, what IFE systems offer in the future will depend on what customers want. “We are in the middle of defining our 10-year roadmap for IFE and getting ready to launch a new generation of IFE systems,” James says. “We’re looking at things such as micro-gaming, the idea of mobile devices becoming the remote for one’s life, and virtual worlds. There’s a whole bunch of emerging technologies that we keep tabs on and we have a group of people monitoring them, so when we are defining our new systems we take that information to our airline customers. We say to them: ‘Knowing that the expectations of customers are driven on the ground, and that the demographic that will be flying in business class on your B787s are your teenage kids today, we need to help you anticipate their expectations in five or 10 years.’”
In fact, the only thing holding back some of this progress is the state of the airline industry, which has never been in such difficult circumstances. “We wish the industry could support changing the systems more often, but realistically airlines expect a 15-year life out of them,” James says. As a result, Panasonic builds in as much overhead in there to try and anticipate what will be needed in the future, without adding too much cost.
“The systems we deliver now have a gigabyte Ethernet backbone and we did that on purpose because HD will come along and airlines will push more and more down that road,” he explains. “Our architecture is modular so we can update them and keep them current. Singapore Airlines is a good example – some aircraft started with our System 2000 and then upgraded to 3000 and 3000i, so we were able to keep a lot of the system the same while upgrading over time. We always try to do that to make sure the systems have long legs – but there comes a time when we have to say that there’s a real sea change in technology so we need to go to a completely different architecture.”
For more information visit panasonic.aero.