In a demonstration last year, Panasonic projected light down from a tray latch onto the tray when deployed, and included a “very simple” interface to order food or change the music playing on the IFE. Gesture control was accomplished by tracking the passenger's fingers using a high-definition camera in the seatback. The project was part of a broader program underway for the past three years to investigate whether there is a “new paradigm” that makes sense for the economy cabin, says Sizelove.
“It's still a study we're going through now,” says Sizelove. “The idea is how can we make the economy-class cabin more romantic and engaging that it is today?”
Possible solutions may not involve IFE in the traditional sense. One of the trade studies included a passenger bringing an iPad on board, and “interacting with the cabin” rather than a seatback display. Included was the idea of the iPad connecting to a projection system displaying on the stowed tray for ordering food, getting new photos and showing them on the iPad. Sizelove says the company is probably 9-15 months away from deciding whether that particular idea is worth pursuing for production. “Right now, laser projectors are still fairly expensive compared to an LCD screen,” he says.
Another technology on tap at Thales for the premium seat is directional sound, which would allow the passenger to hear complete quiet, music or IFE audio without wearing headphones, and without bothering the passenger in the next seat. Bleacher says the technology is not yet mature, as there is about 10 dB of “leakage” audio that other people can “slightly hear.” More work also is needed on noise-absorbing materials to keep sound waves from reflecting into the cabin.
“We're focus on beam-forming to just the two ears [of the passenger],” says Bleacher, noting that speakers will likely be placed near the seat-back display or in the headrest closest to the passenger's ears. “We're going to implement the design in a seat next year, collaborating with the seat manufacturer.”
Perhaps the most enticing work at Thales involves flight-attendant avatars.
Bleacher says engineers are investigating a holographic display system for premium seating that would project a 3-D image out 6-8 in. in front of a 20-in. IFE screen. “I want to project a little avatar into the first class seat—a miniature version of the flight attendant that is animated,” he says. “People don't get offended as much talking to an avatar.” Bleacher says the company will demonstrate the avatar, complete with emotions, in September 2013. A longer-term project, about 10 years out, will be a virtual 3-D flight attendan who could give the safety briefing in the cabin.
“The avatar created by projected holography is based on one focal plane,” says Bleacher. “With the projected flight attendant though, we would have to have everyone see it, and it's hard to see free-air projection.” Typically, he says, projection requires a “mist wall,” or other display surface, with proper lighting for everyone to see the image.
Sizelove says Panasonic is also working on 3-D visuals, including user interaction with the images, but there are broad issues to overcome. While some niche projects are underway to use special glasses to create a 3-D view, as in movie theaters and the company's new Altus monitor for a first-class cabin customer in 2014, Sizelove says the technology will be hindered from large- scale rollout until the glasses are gone. “Until non-glasses 3d kicks in, I don't see it as realistic for the aircraft,” he says. “From the avionics point of view, we see it as something to watch. Until we can get rid of those glasses, it's a niche and not a mainstream.”
Add to that, he says, there is a need for studies to determine how 3-D views might affect passengers' well-being, a nod to the gaming industry's experience with non-glasses 3-D screens potentially causing motion sickness. “We're not ready to do anything until we do studies to see how it affects people when in motion,” he says.