November 05, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: THALES
John Croft Washington
Inflight entertainment manufacturers are preparing a slate of technologies designed to make the cabin of an airliner a destination unto itself.
From holographic video to headphone-less audio to social interactions among aircraft cabins and the ground, the main players in the market, Thales and Panasonic Avionics, are investigating futuristic embedded seatback offerings that will keep onboard in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems relevant in an environment where personal electronics and inflight bandwidth are burgeoning.
The projects in many cases are long-term, depending on technology that may not be ready for 10 years, if ever.
The seat evolution will likely start at the front of widebody aircraft, in premium seating, but some will transition to the coach cabin and narrowbody fleet as the technologies mature and cost and weight are reduced.
While the number of internet protocol-equipped aircraft (IP) is expected to grow from 10% of the global fleet today to 50% by 2021, according to IMS Research, IFE makers argue that connectivity speed limits and other factors will keep the bulk of entertainment on board. That's particularly true for widebody aircraft, where inflight connectivity (IFC) is beginning to supplement, but no usurp, IFE.
“To me, embedded IFE will never go away,” says Brett Bleacher, director of R&D and innovations at Thales's Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) division in Southern California. “Everyone is not bringing their personal electronic devices (PEDS) on board. We're giving them multiple options, including wireless.” For those who do bring an iPad on board, Bleacher notes that a display screen in first class is 23-26 in. wide, whereas an iPad is 10 in.
Panasonic, which has approximately 70% of the IFE market share, sees the combination of IFE and IFC as the spark that could ignite a new kind of holism in the cabin. A prototype system called Skymarks could allow passengers to share en-route experiences and tips with other passengers on the same aircraft, or in other connected aircraft anywhere. Steve Sizelove, product research manager for Panasonic Avionics, says passengers flying over the Grand Canyon in Arizona could post pictures to the site and interact on the topic.