SPEAKERS’ CORNER: The Evolution of In-Flight Entertainment


If you think this week’s SPEAKERS’ CORNER is an IFE history lesson, you might be wrong. The article penned by Dr. Jorg Liebe, Lufthansa Systems CIO, is more about where IFE is going than where it has been. IFExpress asked Dr. Liebe to give us a view from the LHS streaming, Wi-Fi-based IFE perspective and we expect you will get an insight into the next phase of onboard entertainment. And, if you get a chance to meet our “speaker”, be sure to do so, besides being a knowledgeable expert, he is one nice individual!

The Evolution of In-Flight Entertainment – by Dr. Jorg Liebe

While the first in-flight movie was shown in 1921 to passengers onboard Aeromarine Airways, it took almost another 40 years before in-flight movies were offered on a regular basis to passengers on-board an aircraft. The invention of automated 16 mm film projection technology not requiring a projectionist to show movies was the cornerstone technology to enable this development.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, CRT-based projectors distributed throughout the cabin began to appear, offering in-flight movies not only projected on a screen at the front of a cabin, but making in-flight movies reasonably visible to all passengers. The first in-seat system was developed in 1988, using 2.7-inch LCD technology to offer audio / video content to an individual passenger.

At the turn of the century new systems appeared, offering for the first time on-demand content to passengers, thus enabling them to choose from a variety of movies and other content options, including which movie(s) to watch, and when during the flight to watch them.

At the same time live TV content was streamed for the first time to passenger’s individual screens. For the last 40 years, the evolution of in-flight entertainment has been from communal screens to individual seat-back screens, and from linear broadcast of content to audio and video on demand. Screen size has grown, picture quality improved, and as content storage capability increases, airlines race to increase the volume of content stored, often offering hundreds of hours of content to passengers. All this tremendously benefited the passenger who was required to remain more or less fastened to his/her seat, and whose attention was now occupied as time passed on-board an aircraft.

However, the systems airlines installed on-board became more and more complex. Most IFE systems in operation today are hardwired from a so-called head-end system all the way to the in-seat screens or drop-down screens. The system offers audio and video predetermined or on-demand throughout the cabin based on a head-end system storing all content, and distributing the content through wired connections over switches to seat boxes. The seat boxes in turn disperse the content to the individual screens or drop-down screen, with each seat box covering two or three screens. Failures in the distribution of the signal or the head-end system usually affect many if not all passengers. Also, occasional reboots usually affect groups of passengers.

To reduce systemic failures, suppliers are beginning to include content storage/delivery redundancies in their systems. Secondary paths between the head-end and in-seat screens are being built in, along with zone wiring redundancies. Installation is complex and generally requires substantial time during which the aircraft is out of revenue service. In addition, maintenance is complex and time-consuming as well. Due to the various components distributed throughout the cabin for operation the system weight is substantial, reducing the cargo or passenger capacity of an aircraft and adding to the carbon footprint of the airline.

In order to circumvent some of the issues of wired IFE systems, especially high total cost of ownership and system weight, handheld IFE solutions have sometimes been implemented. Initially flight crews distributed handheld DVD players and content DVDs. In later offerings digital players–purpose-built or consumer-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware repurposed for IFE–with internally stored content were used. Most recently, with the advent of tablet PCs those devices have been hardened and are now offered as handheld IFE devices. One of the biggest shortcomings of handheld solutions is the high logistics and maintenance effort. Especially, recharging of the handheld devices and content updates seem to prevent high implementation rates. Part of this limitation is being mitigated by expansion of in-seat power. Most airlines view handheld solutions especially valuable in cases where remaining aircraft utilization is limited and in turn render other IFE solutions commercially unfeasible. Still, the effort to (re-)charge the devices and update the content needs to be taken into account.

Seat-centric systems are an evolutionary step, being developed primarily based on the experience and feedback of handheld solutions. The idea behind seat-centric systems is to install a handheld device in the seat. Due to the standalone capability of the handheld device, almost no interdependency between individual screens exists. Therefore, only a passenger with a malfunctioning screen is affected—and spares can be made available.

Typically, a seat-centric screen will contain content storage such as one SD card with current content available for passenger screening, and a second SD card to which next month’s content is being loaded in the background over the wired or wireless system from a head-end. In turn, seat-centric systems do not require recharging nor manual content update, thus overcoming the predominant shortcomings of handheld devices. Installation is less complex and maintenance requires less effort due to fewer system components. Also, system weight is drastically reduced, seemingly making seat-centric solutions the new winner.

However, while content is usually updated via wireless LAN, current seat-centric systems are missing live video streaming capabilities. With the advent of live TV, broadcasting current news updates into an aircraft, as well as live streaming of camera views–e.g. cockpit view, tail mount and/or bottom view–such streaming capabilities are becoming increasingly important. To circumvent that issue and adding such capability, installations may add wired connection (screen to screen) to accomplish streaming capabilities as well as content update, however again adding weight and complexity to the setup.

At the time of the development of seat-centric systems, two other trends spurred the development of yet another system idea. On the one hand, passengers often brought their own electronic devices on board. Those devices had initially been primarily notebooks. But with the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, more and more these types of devices are seen in aircraft cabins. As market research shows, nowadays more than 80 % of passengers bring their own screens on board.

On the other hand, those devices are wireless LAN-enabled. And most often not just any wireless LAN, but increasingly a kind of wireless LAN that enables high quality video broadcast. Current wireless LAN systems still supporting previous installations in devices are capable of delivering high quality video content to tens of individual devices from one access point and–adding access points throughout the cabin–to literally hundreds of devices.

Both technology trends enabled a new kind of in-flight entertainment, getting rid of almost all wires altogether and at the same time not requiring in-seat screens. In-flight entertainment is, thus, a matter of providing appropriate software on passenger’s devices to ensure integrity and security of the entertainment content. Now this seemingly addresses all issues previously faced with installing in-flight entertainment systems on board aircraft. The systems contain only a few components, namely a content server ensuring delivery of encrypted content over a couple of wireless LAN access points to devices the passenger brings on board the aircraft.

Obviously installation time is drastically reduced as is maintenance and operational effort. In addition, the system weight is drastically reduced from almost a ton to less than 200 pounds. Also, utilizing passenger devices even enables higher innovation cycles, participating in new, ever-developing, fascinating device capabilities to enable things such as gaming functions based on accelerometers.

In addition to utilizing passenger’s personal electronic devices, developments are underway to develop wireless based in-seat screens. Losing some of the weight reduction – still based on fully functional tablet-type devices such as in-seat screens – enabling a seat-centric approach to in-flight entertainment while maintaining the streaming capability of the system, without adding wires and complex distribution of content, seems to be the logical step forward in in-flight entertainment.

Airlines deploying such a system can rely on every passenger having access to the system while still maintaining fast installation and ease of operation and maintenance. At the same time, new so-called second screen capabilities, to ancillary revenue generation, are available as passengers are still able to utilize their own personal electronic devices.

So what’s next in in-flight entertainment? Well, in-flight Internet is here already. With wireless entertainment and Internet capabilities, new passenger services are just around the corner. The seemingly unreachable passenger “strapped to their set” is suddenly well in reach…

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