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Wireless Streaming Entertainment Comes of Age at APEX And On Your Flight

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Wireless Streaming Entertainment Comes of Age at APEX And On Your Flight

Wireless Streaming Entertainment Comes of Age at APEX And On Your Flight
September 29
10:00 2014

MIAMI — Wireless streaming has been billed as the Next Big Thing in inflight entertainment for years. But last week at the APEX Expo, the big entertainment-focused trade show, a series of developments means airlines will stream more and more — both on their own devices and to your tablet, phone and laptop.

(Credits: Qantas)

(Credits: Qantas)

In the US, carriers including American, Delta, United and Southwest offer what’s called BYOD streaming, where they have a server on the plane with entertainment (think a mini Netflix box on board, rather than streaming to the ground). You connect to their Wi-Fi as normal, though you don’t need to use the Internet – just stream from their onboard library.

JetBlue, meanwhile, is taking another track and making the most of its superfast FlyFi Ka-band network, provided by ViaSat’s Exede. Rather than being a content provider itself, JetBlue has the capacity to let you stream Netflix, Hulu, YouTube or whatever you prefer from the ground. That saves the airline a fair bit on royalties, and on having to staff up in order to negotiate getting you those movies.

US airlines who adopted inflight Internet early have a streaming advantage: it’s quick and easy to add streaming to existing installations. If the Wi-Fi is there for the Internet, the Wi-Fi is there for wireless streaming. Internationally, fewer airlines have Wi-Fi, due to compounding factors including a lack of ATG provision outside North America, a dearth of faster satellite capacity in the Ku and Ka bands, and increased scrutiny of satellite radome birdstrike survivability by the FAA and other regulators over the last couple of years.

Tablets are the obvious way to watch streaming content, not least because few economy seats are pitched far enough apart to use a laptop.

(Credits: Alaska Airlines)

(Credits: Alaska Airlines)

That explains why a huge focus of this year’s APEX Expo was the frustration airlines feel about the excessive paranoia by entertainment studios in terms of early-window content (just out of the movie theatres, before the DVD release) being pirated from tablets on the plane. Let’s be clear, content piracy is a bad thing. But it’s highly unlikely that even the most DRM-free tablets would be a significant source of piracy, not least because everything anybody would want to pirate has already been pirated by the time that the early window opens.

A potential solution for airlines to the early window problem is to leverage the eternally increasing size of SSD storage and offer a huge catalog of cult TV and classics. Think of it as a combination of Netflix and Nick at Nite.

The backend tech options also give airlines a significant amount of choice. Some airlines decide to install streaming permanently, while others have a quite literally hot-swappable option. Lufthansa subsidiary LSG Sky Chefs is offering a fully plug-and-play system that slots into a galley oven and creates a plug-and-play option for airlines to provide on some routes. Add the wide reach and supply chain of a global catering business — and perhaps a galley cart full of rental tablets to use with the system — and LSG may be on to a winner.

Yet seatback screens aren’t going away anytime soon. A quiet focus of this year’s APEX expo was on the options for airlines to maximize advertising revenues from inflight entertainment.

Clearly, the captive audience factor of a seatback screen is a bonus here — and not just on long-haul aircraft where holding a tablet for 14 hours would be a pain. Delta has retrofitted a significant proportion of its domestic narrowbody fleet with seatback IFE, and American is opting for it on many of its newest domestic aircraft as well. It’s a rare international aircraft that doesn’t come with full on-demand seatback IFE these days, with Philippine Airlines’ OnAir streaming an exception.

A hybrid solution is embedding tablets in the seatback, pushed particularly by Lufthansa Systems and, in a last-ditch attempt to remain relevant in an iPad world, digEcor, the company that made the pre-iPad digEplayer device. BAe Systems is also offering a Samsung Galaxy Tab-based system that feels very similar to tablets that passengers will already own. Embedding the tablet allows airlines to reduce the time-to-market of seatback entertainment in the fast-paced world where anything appearing on a brand-new seat today is essentially two-year-old technology.

The problem to overcome for embedded systems is safety. One of the reasons that seatback systems take so long to develop is that regulators must be satisfied that they are HIC (head injury criterion) compliant. Options to pass HIC include a protective film (similar in concept, though not materials, to the films many smartphone users use on their screens), a slide-up safety plastic protector that can be raised during the critical phases of flight like takeoff and landing, or a recessed placement to take the screen out of the “arc” of a pivoting passenger’s head.

A complicating factor: current HIC testing is essentially done with an automotive dummy, which measures 5’10”. By extension, passengers whose heights diverge from that standard may well raise questions about their own safety. After speaking with a dozen interiors manufacturers at APEX and elsewhere, the generally secretive interiors industry is quietly expecting a re-examination of the HIC standards and a requirement to use different sizes of safety dummies to ensure that all sizes of passenger are protected to the same standard.)

But the real killer application will be letting passengers use their own devices for dual-screening with a seatback option, whether embedded tablet or traditional screen. IFE systems can do more than ever before, including interactive moving maps, duty-free shopping, ordering food, destination content, connecting flight details, and airport gate info, but nobody wants to stop their movie or TV show to do it.

Making the most of the reduced attention spans of today’s — and tomorrow’s — passenger, and making more ancillary revenue while doing it, is truly the future of IFE.

 

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John Walton

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