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The Exciting Ongoing Evolution of In Flight Entertainment Systems

We've come a long way in 90 years of IFE

Curtiss F-5L

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 airplanes.

The First Ever In Flight Entertainment

This year (2011) sees the 90th anniversary of In Flight Entertainment systems (IFE) in passenger planes.

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 Entertainment

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 got sound.

Playing 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 (VOD) systems.

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 systems.

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 moderate.

 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 Entertainment

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 connection.

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 flight.

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 technology.

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?

 Will 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 to you?

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 extensive testing'.

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 here.

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 user.

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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Originally published 23 Sep 2011, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.


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