Is There a Future for Inflight Entertainment Providers? Here’s What the Big Guys are Working On

All last week as I roamed the halls of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) Expo 2010, I kept asking myself the same question. Will any of these guys even be here in 20 years? It’s one thing to look at the near future of inflight entertainment, but the long run is a different story. I met with the big inflight entertainment providers Thales and Panasonic to see what they have in store for the future.

Recaro Seats with Panasonic In Arm IFE

I fully expect that in 20 years, we’ll all have implanted iPads in our arms (Steve Jobs will stop at nothing less). Bandwidth will be far greater than what we imagine today, and that means all we’ll need is an internet connection and we can get all the content we’ll ever need either on the ground or in the air. So if that’s the case, then why do we need any other kind of inflight entertainment? I asked both Thales and Panasonic that question, and I’m not convinced that either one had a great answer.

Both of these companies have moved toward providing connectivity options, and they do see that as an integral piece of the future of IFE (to the point where it’s usually referred to these days as IFEC where the C is for communication). So for both companies, the future lies more with integration with other technologies than being a standalone.

Both providers have shiny new screens that look prettier, are more reliable, and are lighter (very important for the airlines to save fuel, of course). That’s important but it’s not revolutionary. They’ve also created more interactive remote controls that end up being mini-inflight entertainment devices themselves. So you can now watch a movie on the big screen and watch the moving map or play games on the remote control. (Some airlines could simply install the remote in the armrest and use that as their IFE.)

Remote Screen

This is all fun and cool, but it’s not the main thrust of their efforts. It seems that the biggest move is toward personalization. Both providers are working on systems where you can create your own inflight entertainment experience before you even get to the airport. For Thales, they’ve created a system where you can go online and browse entertainment options. You’ll be able to create movie or music playlists and set a variety of custom settings, including meal choices, etc. The way they envision it, you’ll then be able to take your boarding pass on to the airplane and each screen will have a barcode scanner. This will then load your preferences.

Personalized Content

For Panasonic, it’s a similar idea but I was shown how it would work from an iPhone. In that case, you’d be able to create your playlists and set everything up as you wanted. Then using the wifi on the airplane, you would be able to sync your seatback with your phone and your preferences would load up. This becomes particularly helpful when you’re on multiple flights. Let’s say you don’t finish your movie on one flight. When you sync up again on your next flight, it will have your movie right where you left off.

So these ideas are great for improving the experience that’s out there today, but I still envision a day when providing hardware isn’t necessary. Everyone will have their own connected device and the screens will either get larger or will incorporate projection technology of some sort to make it a better experience. I realize this is still years away, but I would think that these guys would at least be addressing that, and to a small extent, they are.

At some point way down the line, it will become an issue of either simply providing connectivity or providing superior content that people can access onboard. Right now, for example, the movie studios have deals that give what they call “early window” movies to airlines. So you can see movies on the plane that you aren’t available to rent yet. There could still be a place for things like that, if the system still works that way in 40 years, but that can be streamed to a device that you bring onboard.

For Panasonic, probably the best thing I saw that addressed this shift was a special error correction technology. In the future, the idea would be to allow people to use a Panasonic app to watch movies on their own devices with higher quality and less buffering. Of course, that’s only an issue in today’s bandwidth-constricted world. In 40 years it might not be necessary, but it was the best attempt I saw at an IFE provider trying to stay relevant in the distant (or not-so-distant) future.

Panasonic also showed off a simulated window technology. That’s right. Think about an airplane with no windows or with a different shape that makes people further from windows than they are today. This system would be like the holodeck on Star Trek where you could project windows on the wall with a view from outside. Or you could project a beach, or a movie. It’s up to you.

This was in the “cool” room, which means it’s cool, but it’s not happening in production anytime soon. I tend to think they’re going to need to keep stocking that room with new ideas for a day when regular hardware just doesn’t matter.


14 Responses to Is There a Future for Inflight Entertainment Providers? Here’s What the Big Guys are Working On

  1. frank says:

    why do we need any other kind of inflight entertainment? I asked both Thales and Panasonic that question, and I’m not convinced that either one had a great answer.
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    I’ve watched entertainment trends for several decades now. The flying public tends to bring with them the latest electronic innovation onboard aircraft as soon as it hits the market. The current example are Ipads. They’re quickly filling the cabin for inflight entertainment. Back in the day, the sony walkman was one of the first devices that came onboard when I began my career. And, over the years, Portable DVD players and of course, Laptop computers.
    Will Airlines spends millions and millions of dollars to upgrade entertainment systems while fewer and fewer passengers are willing to “purchase” the product?
    I dont think so. Currently only 5 PERCENT of passengers onboard purchase Wifi, yet everyone demanded it. Passengers can download entertainment to multiple devices and now travel with what they want as entertainment compared to what is offered to them.

  2. Do you really need inflight entertainment on flights around the USA? No, given that North America is a large chunk of land, you can still travel with what entertainment you want to bring with you. And that includes one of those old fashion things called a book.

    It’s a different story on long haul flight and some sort of inflight entertainment is needed to keep people from thinking that they are still on a plane 12 hours after taking off with more hours to go.

    Doesn’t it become a waste to have if no one wants to pay to use it? And if you do pay for it, are you getting value for your money on short flights, no.

    • Ken says:

      Jet Blue, Virgin America, Continental, and Delta have all decided to put some form of Personal IFE on their domestic flights. While many will bring entertainment with them, for video they are still significantly in the minority.

  3. Oliver says:

    I’ve pretty much carried on my own IFE for the past five or six years. Also helps me avoid the random editing such as United blotting out all AA logos in “Up In The Air”.

  4. If would be really cool if IFE providers used an OS like Android instead of a proprietary Linux. That way they could benefit from thousands of apps and games. But really they need to stop editing the movies, play it raw or not at all.

    • CF says:

      I didn’t mention it, but they’re both working on Android-based systems and had ones available for viewing. Both are expecting to have app stores that will approve Android-based apps before being allowed into the system on the airplane. So they are at least moving that way.

  5. james says:

    re: iPhone. In that case, you’d be able to create your playlists and set everything up as you wanted. Then using the wifi on the airplane, you would be able to sync your seatback with your phone and your preferences would load up. This becomes particularly helpful when you’re on multiple flights. Let’s say you don’t finish your movie on one flight. When you sync up again on your next flight, it will have your movie right where you left off.

    For Thales, they’ve created a system where you can go online and browse entertainment options. You’ll be able to create movie or music playlists and set a variety of custom settings, including meal choices, etc. The way they envision it, you’ll then be able to take your boarding pass on to the airplane and each screen will have a barcode scanner. This will then load your preferences.

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    Good lord this all sounds extremely unwieldy and complicated. Seriously – just give me power ports. That’s all I want on a flight. Lots of battery juice for my own stuff.

    Barring non-stop transcons most domestic flights are 3-4 at most, usually much less. For many their cross country trips involve a hub connection, whittling their in flight IFE time (after “electronics on” mode is permitted) to less than 1.5-2 hours per flight. Recent Flyertalk threads discuss CO and UA “buttoning up the cabin” earlier for whatever reason (thus ending the FAs “service” responsibilities earlier) which gives even less time to play with the toys.

    On international flights I usually check out the movie list and try and catch one I haven’t seen, but for the most part I watch movies and TV shows I’ve downloaded on my Mac (hence my pining for power ports to extend my battery life), listen to my iPod and read in between movies. (And I can read on ALL portions of the flight.)

    If WiFi was strong enough to allow streaming (Netflix on demand for example) I’d consider using it. But rather than fancy IFEs I’d rather have power ports and Economy plus, allowing me to watch my own content. And as Oliver says my content isn’t edited.

    My amenities in order of importance are power ports and WiFi. That’s it.

    And I certainly don’t ever see a day where I would sync my iPhone with an unknown 3rd party device.

    • CF says:

      I was a little loose with my words. You’re not exactly syncing it completely with the system. You get a Panasonic app and use that to pick your playlists, etc. So it syncs with what you’ve done in the app.

  6. All of the “syncing” options (although most of them just seem to be a way of communicating your custom preferences quickly) seem to suffer from not being realistic on how their users actually use their system.

    I’d really be curious how many people actually would be willing to customize their preferences in advance? The better question is how many of them would even realize that they can? This would be a big education effort on the part of the airline.

    I also worry as these systems become more and more complex how much time and effort do they need to be properly supported? The flight attendants probably are at the extent of what they can do given the 85% load factors. That being said they’re being developed by geeks and technologists, and thats not your average passenger. (okay you can’t develop an IFEC for the SJC to AUS flight..)

    If I were an airline I’d like to see how they’d answer this.

  7. Jason H says:

    It seems several comments are of the me-first variety. Not everyone wants to haul their electronic toys on every flight. If you have movies on your computer, good for you, but not all fliers do. I am happy to see some of these technologies coming out. I really like the Thales idea of personalization using boarding passes.

    Airlines aren’t just to serve the techno-geeks and plane-dorks. They have to serve a cross section of people. And some techno-geeks enjoy traveling without their electronics to some destinations. For instance, my upcoming flight to Kona will be without any electronics beyond a basic cellphone.

  8. FBKSan says:

    Another issue is gate to gate IFE. More airlines have this, and it’s nice to start the movie as soon as you sit down and not get cutoff until you deplane. The day may come when we can use electronic devices whenever we want, but are we moving in that direction any time soon? Until then built in IFE that’s gate to gate will have a leg up.

    • I wonder if there is any push toward making the safety announcement an integrated part of the IFE. Allowing passengers to bypass the mandatory nature of listening to the FAs. I know the FAA would throw a fit but perhaps a reasonable traffics would be to give passengers an easy quiz on the info presented?

      • Or maybe make the FA announcements closed captioned(and able to be muted) or something. If it is my third flight of the day, I don’t care to hear you stumble through the announcement of what Coke products, snacks, and food for purchase you have available. Especially when you are interrupting live TV.

        How does that work for deaf people anyways?

        • frank says:

          Written by James Williams on September 21, 2010.
          Reply Or maybe make the FA announcements closed captioned(and able to be muted) or something. If it is my third flight of the day, I don’t care to hear you stumble through the announcement of what Coke products
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          And, i dont care to hear, WANT-D-YA-HAVE?????? a hundred times!

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