Ongoing Evolution of In Flight Entertainment Systems
We've come a long way in 90 years of IFE
The world's first ever
in flight entertainment system debuted in this Curtiss F-5L
flying boat in 1921.
Maybe you remember back to when
in flight entertainment on a plane comprised sticking
'stethoscope' type headphones into your ears and accepting a
very uncomfortable experience and poor quality sound, in return
for which you could hear half a dozen channels of audio
programming, and - if you were lucky - maybe watch a movie on a
big screen in the front of the cabin as well.
These days we increasingly see
much more sophisticated entertainment systems on planes -
particularly on long international flights and sometimes, if we're
lucky, on domestic flights too.
Airlines such as Emirates offer
up to 1200 different channels of on demand entertainment to their passengers
- a mix of games, audio programming, television and movies.
And what of the future?
Read on to find out about the next planned enhancements to IFE, already
starting to appear experimentally and in limited trials on
The First Ever In Flight
This year (2011) sees
the 90th anniversary of In Flight Entertainment systems (IFE) in
Yes, the first ever IFE was
featured in an 11 passenger Curtiss F-5L converted navy flying
boat operated by Aeromarine Airways (see picture above) in 1921.
Believe it or not, the IFE was a movie.
The airline placed a movie
projector on a table in the plane's aisle, hung up a screen, and
showed a silent movie promoting Chicago to the passengers. The
movie was silent, not only because 'talkies' - ie movies with sound
- had yet to make their appearance (the first commercial screening
of a movie with its own soundtrack was not to occur for another
two years) but also because the roar of the powerful engines made
it close to impossible to hear anything inside the passenger
compartment at all.
For an interesting discussion
of some of the
early types of IFE and a selection of pictures, here's a good
story documenting a new exhibit on the topic at Seattle's
excellent Museum of Flight.
The Evolution of In Flight
A lot has happened since 1921,
as it has in every other aspect of electronics. Plane cabins got
quieter, movie projection became more sophisticated, and movies
the movie over the cabin's PA system was replaced by personal
headsets - first acoustically connected to the sound system
(remember the stethoscope type headsets with the hollow tube
connectors) and subsequently electrically connected for better
sound quality (and comfort).
However, until the late 1980s,
all planes were outfitted with 'one screen per cabin' type IFE
systems. Each cabin/section of the plane could only play one
movie at a time, and your choices as a passenger were to either
watch it or not. Depending on where you sat, you may or may not
have a good view of the screen.
An enhancement towards the end
of that period occurred when movies transitioned from being
projected from reels of film to being electronically projected
from videotape. The one screen per cabin was augmented by
additional 'tv screens' mounted on the overheads for passengers in
bad locations where the main screen could not be easily seen due
to distance or viewing angle.
The next revolution appeared
in two parts. The first part was the introduction of personal
video players at each seat (typically only in first class,
sometimes in business class too) - these players were either built
in to the seat or were separate stand-alone units you were loaned
for the flight.
As for the movies themselves, they were recorded
onto 8mm video cassettes, and you could choose from whatever
selection of movies were on each flight. Many is the flight that
has seen my choice already taken, and I've watched first enviously
as someone else has been watching the movie I wanted to watch,
then in frustration as they fall asleep half-way through, leaving
the movie unclaimable in their player.
I've also seen more than my
fair share of players get the video cassette jammed inside them
during the flight. There were special hidden reset buttons that
would sometimes force the player to unspool the tape and eject it,
but these did not always work.
Nonetheless, as limited as it
was, this marked a breakthrough into the field of individual movie
watching, where one could watch one's choice of movies as and when
one wished to - it was a precursor of modern 'Video On Demand
The second part was both a
backwards and a forwards step. The seatback video players (have a
look at this picture of the
first ever seatback video player, dating to 1988, with a 2.7"
screen - in comparison, an iPhone has a 3.5" screen and massively
more pixels of resolution, and massively more brightness of color)
now took their programming not from individual video cassettes,
but from a central library of movies somewhere on the plane.
There were maybe ten or so different movies (down from typically
the better part of 100 titles on video cassette) and they all
played simultaneously, over and over, all through the flight.
You lost the ability to start
and stop your chosen movie on your own schedule, and you had fewer
movies to choose from, but those that were available were guaranteed to
be available, without you having to fuss over cassettes or wait
for someone else to finish watching it first.
Was this a backwards step or a
forward step - it was easier for the airline, but of uncertain
improvement for the passengers (not that passenger experience is
often a major criteria in airline decision making!).
The next revolution occurred
during the first decade of the 2000s. This was in two parts -
first, the appearance of video on demand. You no longer were
subjected to the tyranny of the fixed schedule for when movies
would start and stop; you could again customize the movie playing
to suit your own schedule.
The second part of this was an
explosion in choice, with airlines such as Emirates with their ICE
system offering an extraordinary range of movies, television
episodes and audio programming too, all or any of which you could
select at any time. There were even video/computer games
available, and often the ability to send text messages also, with
up to 1200 different entertainment choices in these sophisticated
Which brings us more or less
to the present day.
Internet and Phones on Planes
At the same time that this
'one way' transfer of entertainment from a central system on the
plane to us was evolving, there were other developments
on planes too.
Remember the phase of offering
Airfones on planes? First there were maybe two or three units
either at the front or back of the cabin, and then the airlines
went all-out and offered then in every set of seats. Ridiculously
high costs per minute of airtime meant they were never a success
due to almost no-one ever using them,
and so eventually the airlines took them out of their planes again.
One has to wonder what would have happened if, instead of pricing
the cost per minute prohibitively high (from vague memory, $5 and
more a minute, and this was back in the 1990s when $5 was worth a
lot more than it is today), the airlines had been a little less
greedy and offered service at half the price. Or a quarter the
price. This would have encouraged more people to use the
service more often, and maybe it might have ended up not only as a
positive passenger convenience but also a profit item for the
airlines and the service providers who installed the systems.
In other parts of the world,
but notably not in the US, airlines have subsequently added in-plane cell phone
service, allowing passengers to talk on their cell phones while in
flight. Strangely, the US remains a hold-out, with most
US passengers strongly opposed to the concept of having cell phones
working on planes, even though the general background noise of the
plane would drown out all sounds of people conversing on the phone
other than the people almost immediately next to one.
The next step forward in
interactive connectivity was - and still is - the internet, and
after some false starts (most notably the ill fated Connexion
service from Boeing in the first half of the 2000s) a number of
different companies (for example, market leader Gogo in the US), are offering
reasonably fast and affordable internet connections on flights.
Passenger usage of these in-flight internet access services have
reputedly been lower than expected, although costs are reasonably
Virgin America claims that up to one third of
its passengers use the internet service on all its planes.
Of course, the phrase 'up to' includes all numbers lower than
that, including zero.
The Future of In Flight
We are now on the cusp of the
next revolution of In Flight Entertainment. Airlines - in their
ever present desire to reduce weight and cost - see a new way to
provide IFE programming to their passengers.
In its ideal
ultimate expression, airlines would simply broadcast on-demand IFE
through an in-plane Wi-fi network, and passengers would connect to
it with their own devices which they bring on the plane with
them. These devices might be smartphones, iPads and other
tablets, or netbooks and laptops, or even eReaders - anything with
some local intelligence and a decent screen plus a Wi-fi
This would save the airlines
the cost and weight of having to add a screen and control unit at
every seat, plus eliminate the need to run (costly and heavy)
wiring throughout the plane to all the seats.
Not only would it
reduce the upfront costs, it would also reduce the ongoing
maintenance problems - chances are you too have more than once
been in a seat with a faulty player, or - even worse - been on a
plane where the entire system has been faulty, needing repeated
system-wide reboots which may or may not resolve the problems.
Some airlines are planning for
a future where passengers must bring their own screen with them.
Other airlines are planning to offer (either for free or rented)
iPads or other playing/control devices for passengers on each
Here's an article about
American Airlines' new service (based on a 'bring your own
screen' model) which is currently available on 15 of their
767-200s (mainly used for longer trans-continental flights - few
people would want to pay to watch a movie on a short flight that
finishes before the movie ends) and is planned to be added to
additional planes in the near future.
Here's an announcement about
Virgin America's plans to add service to their fleet, but the
first this will start to appear is currently expected to be late
2012. Stripping the press release of its hype, it seems to be a
hybrid system with programing that will be available both through seatback
monitors and also through passengers' own devices.
Although Virgin America
proudly talks about being the first US carrier to use the
underlying technology, when it eventually deploys the system it
will be far from the first carrier in the world with such
Here's an article about
Qantas' new Q streaming service, initially to be trialed on a
single 767 in Australia from mid October through early December, and using
the same technology.
In the Qantas scenario, each
passenger will be loaned an iPad for the flight, although they
could also use their own device if they preferred.
A Possible Problem with the
New Wi-Fi Technology?
This all sounds wonderful,
doesn't it. And if you've ever watched video on an iPad or other
large screened computing device, you'll know that it is capable of
showing remarkably clean crisp video (ignore those awfully
over-compressed Youtube clips!).
But - and here's the but - how
much bandwidth will there be on a plane to support every passenger
watching their own personalized video simultaneously? Or, to put
it another way, how massively compressed will the videos be, and
what will the resulting picture quality be?
the experience be any better than the often disappointing
experiences with current IFE systems? Will it be more like an
over-compressed 240 line resolution Youtube clip, or will it be
like having your own personal DVD player wirelessly transmitting
The answers to all these
questions is a massive 'Don't yet know' - indeed, in a commendably
frank reply, a Qantas spokeswoman advised The Travel Insider 'As
Qantas is the first airline in the world to launch this technology
onboard an aircraft, a key objective of the trial is to prove the
capability of the system'. She further explained 'We want
our customers' experience optimized, so we are still carrying out
Virgin America claims that each Wi-fi hub will be capable of supporting up to 60 simultaneous
streams, and says it plans to have three hubs per plane. Their
A320 planes have 149 seats, so this seems to be a fair ratio - if,
indeed, each hub truly can support 60 simultaneous streams.
Qantas says they will have
five hubs, and with about 250 seats on the 767, this also seems,
on the face of it, to be an appropriate ratio.
But how about the claim of a
single hub supporting 60 streams simultaneously? Interestingly,
the ability of the hubs to support this depends not only on the
technology in the hubs, but also on the technology in the
passenger playing devices as well. If the devices use state of
the art 802.11n type Wi-fi, then there is much more bandwidth
available than if they have an old 802.11b or a more recent
802.11g Wi-fi transceiver in them.
The Qantas system uses
perhaps the very best of current data compression and streaming
services - Microsoft's Smooth Streaming service. There are some
fascinating pages on Microsoft's site that allow you to see for
yourself what type of video quality you can expect at different
data streaming rates - but beware that their
main demo page uses a very forgiving type of video that is
most amenable to data compression! Some more demanding video
clips from movie trailers can be seen
Qantas say they believe their
hubs will be capable of a maximum of 65 Mbps (assuming all the
passenger devices are connecting through 802.11n protocol).
This would fairly allow reasonably good bandwidth allocation per
It seems you need at least 1
megabit of bandwidth to get reasonable video streaming, and 2+
Mbps gives appreciably better picture quality.
There's one more variable as
well - the number of passengers who are actually watching video at
any given moment. It is unlikely that every passenger will be
watching video simultaneously, and so if you're one of those few
souls who can't sleep in what is claimed to be 'the middle of the
night' on a long flight, you'll find the video quality should
improve massively when few other people are simultaneously
watching video (although the upper limit of video quality will be
whatever video compression rate was used to store the video on the
plane's server to start with).
One is left with the slightly
uncomfortable feeling that there is an opportunity for some airlines to
cut costs by reducing the number of Wi-fi hubs they put on their
planes and reducing the bandwidth available to each passenger.
We'll have to wait and see what the reality of such new types of
IFE turn out to be - will it be as good as it promises to be, or
will the airlines cut corners to cut costs and cheapen the
experience we receive?
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23 Sep 2011, last update
21 Jul 2020
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