The future of in-flight entertainment
Do you have a jet-setter’s lifestyle? Airports, queues, soul-crushing hotels and hour upon hour of high altitude boredom? Lucky you. Most frequent travellers have recently abandoned the small screen in the seat in front in favour of a tablet stuffed with their own movies or catch-up TV, but that trend has only made inflight entertainment even worse.
However, things are about to change with the arrival everything from BYOD integration and pre-flight apps to movie streaming and VR.
"The days of the traditional hard-wired in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems in seat-backs and ceilings on commercial passenger jets – poor resolution, poor viewing angles and limited content – is coming to an end," says Kevin Curran, senior member IEEE & reader in computer science at Ulster University. "Many airlines are now looking into IFE on tablets, laptops and smartphones that passengers are already carrying aboard, using their devices to provide the content."
Personalised entertainment and BYOD
What if you could decide what content was available? Singapore Airlines is now offering KrisWorld, a new inflight entertainment system that comes with a companion app.
At any point before the flight you can review a list of, and even cue-up, movies and TV shows you want to watch when aboard. When you get to your seat, the app works as a remote control, but also as a second screen for reading a digital version of the inflight magazine, or watching the moving route map.
"Personalisation will be the one of the key trends in the inflight experience," says Paul Margis, President and Chief Executive Officer of Panasonic Avionics, which created the system for Singapore Airlines.
For now, the app only works on the airlines’ business class cabin on its A380 and B777-300ER aircraft, but Panasonic Avionics also powers an app-based service for Air Canada Rouge, via which passengers can stream movies to a personal tablet via WiFi.
"BYOD will become more prominent in in-flight entertainment, and there will be more of a focus on content over equipment; you will be able to select which entertainment you want to view via an onboard web portal, and then able to download this content to view on your own device," says Joakim Everstin, head of innovation at travel technology firm Sabre.
"Lufthansa, Virgin Australia, El Al AirlinesSystems and others, are moving towards onboard servers installed inside a jet’s electronics bay and linked to several wireless access points, mounted in the aircraft’s ceiling," says Curran. "These can transmit customised entertainment that fits passenger requests on their personal devices via an app."
It’s not just for tablets and phones; devices like the Avegant Glyph headset, which offers viewers a private multimedia experience, could catch-on, as could other kinds of headsets.
High altitude immersion
An aircraft cabin is possibly the best place for pure escapism and to create an illusion of space. Cue virtual reality (VR).
"As the price of producing VR content comes down, we could also see VR being introduced more into the in-flight experience," says Everstin. "VR headsets could be used by airlines as a retail tool to offer people immersive experiences from their airlines and partner travel companies."
Want to see what the business class cabin is like before you book, and see how much legroom there is? Put on your Oculas Rift for a 360-degree video. Put a headset in the seat pocket and the same could happen for hotels and resorts (it’s already happening at Shangri-La and Jumeirah hotels), and anything else we could theoretically purchase during a long flight, such as excursions, tours and restaurants in the destination.
Ubiquitous Wi-Fi and connected cabins
The idea of armchair tourism has already been trialled by Quantas using its own app for Samsung Gear VR headsets for its First Class passengers.
Augmented reality could also take-off. Recently launched by Emirates in its economy cabin is an intriguing ‘interactive amenity kit’. It’s the usual bag of bits ‘n’ pieces – toothbrush, toothpaste, socks etc. – but this one can be scanned using the Blippar AR app to reveal activities and health tips. OK, so it’s not Pokemon Go, but what did you expect at altitude?
New cabin designs
For those who’ve actually tried VR and know all about it’s restricted field of view, the prospect of it at 40,000ft perhaps isn’t that exciting. If you’re after true immersion, why not just open the windows?
The Airbus Concept Cabin from a few years ago introduced the notion of transparent sides that could transform a night flight into a stargazing session, though vertigo suffers might complain.
Just as convincing from an IFE standpoint is the opposite; removing the windows altogether, which is what Trillenium promises.
"Windowless planes may sound grim, but they offer a wide range of entertainment options," says Niall McBain, CEO of global entertainment, publishing and media sales company Spafax, who suggests that outboard cameras, connectivity and servers have the potential to make any surface a projected image. "If you make the walls of the fuselage invisible to the naked eye, the experience of a windowless flight is likely to become the most immersive flying experience of all."
An end to seat-centricity
Another option is to move entertainment away from the seat altogether.
"The opportunities for entertainment spread beyond the individual passenger’s seat," says Hugo Jamson, Associate Director at airline innovation and design studio New Territory, who adds that expecting passenger seats to give adequate comfort, sleep, dining and entertainment is unrealistic.
"Rather than accepting the flight experience as one that is uniform throughout the cabin, delivered through a uniform seat/entertainment platform, we want to be treated to more unique and flexible experiences," says Jamson. "This suggests entirely new spaces on board, new types of digital and analogue experiences, new ways of being alone or socialising."
From dining to working, from culture to gaming, new spaces will break down the ‘seat-centricity’ of the flight experience. However, creative thinking like this will come at a price, with access to these spaces offered as part of a web of upgrades.
Ubiquitous in-flight Wi-Fi and connected cabins
Almost 13,000 commercial aircraft are forecast to offer in-flight connectivity to passengers by 2023. Though satellite-powered internet access for planes – and Wi-Fi connectivity in the cabin – certainly isn’t everywhere, it is spreading.
Emirates reports that over a quarter of all passengers use the internet during their flights, which increases to half on flights over 12 hours.
"The economics of in-flight Wi-Fi services now make sense. Guests can experience internet speeds similar to what they have at home, and there’s a large movement toward personalisation," says Don Buchman, vice president and general manager, Commercial Mobility of satellite communications companyViaSat, one of the major providers of inflight internet.
Buchman believes that the cabin crew will soon be able to know the preferences of every passenger, perhaps delivering a snack at a specific time via an app.
"In-flight Wi-Fi will completely transform the passenger experience, allowing passengers to order duty free and arrange for items to be delivered straight their homes, make last-minute Uber collections, read TripAdvisor articles, and even connect with other tourists travelling to the same destination," he says.
Wi-Fi faster than the speed of sound
In theory, access to Wi-Fi could supersede the need to access a carrier’s in-flight entertainment.
But there’s a problem.
"In-flight connections are often slow, unreliable and expensively priced," says Curran. "Carriers still rely on a network of 3G ground stations, which communicate with the plane as it passes over."
In fact, the total bandwidth for an entire plane can be less than 4MB. You want Netflix or live TV? Forget it. Both are only possible if the plane is fitted with satellite internet access, instantly jumping to 50Mbps.
"In the future, it is expected that more airlines will move to using Ka-band (26.5-40GHz) satellites, which provide up to 100 times the capacity of regular Ku-band," says Curran.
Cue cloud-based inflight entertainment systems like Aircell’s GoGo Cloud, UltraViolet and Arconics’ CloudStore, which can deliver Netflix and live TV streaming. Netflix is something already offered by some airlines, including Aeromexico and Virgin America.
Sports at 40,000ft
There’s nothing worse than realising you’ve booked a flight that clashes with a big game. That’s why there’s Sport 24 and Sport 24 Extra, two live sports TV channels available through Panasonic’s eXTV television network.
This multi-timezone, multi-sports channel is a tie-up with IMG, and Barclays Premier League, Bundesliga, UEFA Champions League, Formula 1, NBA, NFL, Ryder Cup, golf majors and tennis grand slams.
They’re available on 13 airlines including Emirates (any B777 flight with Wi-Fi – and, therefore, global satellite coverage), whoseice TV Live also includes myriad live news channels. The two channels will also provide live coverage of the Rio 2016 Olympics this August.
Now, if only airlines could crack the big one: standardising in-seat USB slots for refuelling phones and tablets.