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.

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