TekTopic: Sky Definition

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This weekly issue of IFExpress will be the last for 2012. We hope you have had a good year and we are signing out of 2012 with our newest IFExpress Feature dubbed “TekTopic”. The idea here is to present an IFE solution or service with slightly more emphasis on the technology. Don’t worry, we won’t over-tech your synapses, but rather, try to explain the underlying technology that drives the newsy product. This is exactly what Bill Baltra did with today’s feature and if you have an IFE product or service that could stand some exposure, let us know… we like technology! – Patricia Wiseman | Editor

TekTopic: Sky Definition

Behind the door in our cover shot may be one of the most exciting developments in aircraft IFE video technology to come along in the last few years – and IFExpress has the story for you first.

To set the stage, we were contacted by a guy named Bill Baltra who is a savvy electrical engineer with a passion for watching high quality video. Bill told me, “Home entertainment systems have been changing. No longer are we limited to watching movies via DVD or Blu Ray players with their troublesome HDMI interfaces. We now have “smart” displays that are connected to our home network. The network connection allows us to stream on-demand movies or share video, music and photos with other devices connected to the network. At Sky Definition we have designed high definition network displays that deliver the same benefits of the network architecture to the business jet or VIP aircraft.”

The solution includes a small PC card with a network interface and powerful graphics processing that decodes the various HD video compression formats such as MPEG-4, H.264 and VC-1. “Our single board computer handles video content encoded at the highest bit rates ensuring the highest quality HD viewing experience”, says Bill. Media content can be stored locally in the network display or accessed from Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices, thus providing many hours of HD entertainment. These network displays also provide both analog and digital audio outputs enhancing the passenger experience by providing 5.1 surround sound audio.

Installation options are simplified as network displays interface directly with an aircraft’s network backbone. See: Basic Network Display System Configuration On the plus side you get nice long connections (150 meters) to the network router. There are no headaches of installing an external box with an HDMI output with cable length restrictions to a non-network display.

Rewind to the video technology backgrounder: there is little argument that as the pixel density of rich HD images appeared on the scene the difficulty of sending the images to displays that can exploit this video data has been limited by distance. In fact, sending HDMI video over standard HDMI cabling, especially on aircraft where noise can affect bits in a stream, is limited by the capability of the cable.

In real terms, 15 meters is for all practical purposes a limit of today’s HDMI transmitting sources without powered amplification. As newer, higher quality resolutions like Ultra HD with increased bit rates come along the airplane challenge becomes even tougher. The problem is not solved by cable alone, in fact, it gets even worse.

It is much like a highway that hits its’ congestion limit. For any given number of lanes, one can only make the cars so small. But if the goal is to carry passengers (bits of information) to a destination, why not pack the passengers in buses (compressed data) and arrive at the destination at the same time? That is just what Sky Definition saw as the company began researching the problem a few years back. Realizing that down a few data levels a PC card could easily handle decompressing the packets of information and protocols required for real time HD video playback. Adding the PC card means aircraft video monitors that eventually adapt this type system will cost more, but, and this is important, they will be able to do a lot more.

And speaking of more, in the Sky Definition demonstration, we saw playback of HD content (with 5.1 surround sound) via a wireless connection between a network display and remote media server that we could not believe! Bill controlled the HD playback from an app on his iPhone.

No doubt as the demand for quality outstrips cost applications like large, expensive business jets like the B787 and A380 will demand the best by their owners and this is where Sky Definition’s solution will find its first home. Readers should also note that Bill has held back a lot of tech tricks and experience-based knowledge but IFExpress saw the system in action on 24″ and 46″ monitors and we were knocked out. The network-based video display system is one of the best and most exciting developments in aircraft audio visual entertainment we have seen and if you are in the IFE business, you had better check this one out by contacting Bill and tell him IFExpress sent you.

Contact Bill Baltra at: 425 760 5985 or info@skydefinition.com

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