Linking, casting and streaming: The next generation of in-flight entertainment is emerging

Linking, casting and streaming: The next generation of in-flight entertainment is emerging

Casting content from a personal device to in-seat screens will be part of the next generation of in-flight entertainment
Casting content from a personal device to in-seat screens, as in this Apios demo, will be part of the next generation of in-flight entertainment.

The inflight entertainment industry has evolved tremendously since the days of overhead screens and pneumatic headsets. On-demand content and live TV on individual high-definition screens is a long way from a projector mounted on the cabin roof. But both suppliers and airlines are not sitting still.

The next generation of IFE is coming, and it will feature home entertainment concepts, including connectivity and streaming from personal devices, as well as streaming content from ISPs. And it is quite likely that a new generation of suppliers will also participate in the development.

Bluetooth pairing is going mainstream

For several years in the middle of the last decade, the idea of ​​Bluetooth pairing for headphones on in-seat IFE systems was considered impossible. Too much complexity and interference in the radio spectrum will mean poor quality and lost signals. It turns out that these challenges can be solved.

Today, new IFE installations include Bluetooth more and more. United Airlines does it on its fleet update right away. Delta Air Lines has it on its A321neo fleet, and it will fly on the A330neo and 767-400 as well. Saudia, Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways and many other airlines are also rolling it out. Bluetooth pairing is, at this point, table stakes for a modern embedded IFE solution.

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Streaming on the big screen

Going back to 2015 and JetBlue’s partnership with Amazon to support in-flight streaming content speeds, Viasat’s Don Buchman leaned heavily on the idea of ​​”Bring Your Own Rights.” Instead of airlines paying content fees to load movies on board, they would invest in better in-flight connectivity, and provide the internet tube as an in-flight entertainment solution. However, this content is usually viewed on a personal device, not on the screens installed on board.

Air Canada believes that model could change. Speaking at the World Aviation Festival in Amsterdam last month, Norman Haughton, director of IFEC Product and Analytics, explained a vision of streaming content fully integrated into the carrier’s fleet-wide IFE deployment.

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Haughton is clear that the airline largely plays a role in this new in-flight entertainment paradigm, but it is a passive position. He wants to be the middleman and coordinate the mix of content rights and connectivity. He describes it as “providing the fuel” for the experience (including JET-A). And partnerships with streaming content providers will play an overriding role:

Air Canada invested heavily in seatback entertainment, even on our fleet right away. And now we’ve gone down the road of high-speed Wi-Fi. Imagine what happens when the two roads cross. People want to consume content the way they do on the ground. We can bring in partners who provide additional value. Imagine where the internet and seatbacks merge, and then bring partners on board to be the gateway to that intersection, to be traffic controllers and to ensure that the experience we deliver at that intersection meets or exceeds what our customers expect on the ground.

The Android operating system also plays a big role in the process. It powers most modern in-flight entertainment displays today, and offers a familiar framework for application development and Digital Rights Management (DRM) services to satisfy studios’ licensing concerns.

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Streaming services already have an Android app available; Extending it to be a module on an IFE system is more of an interface tweak than a basic build. It makes deployment much easier for both airlines and IFE suppliers.

Haughton declined to give a timeline for this new IFE concept to take flight. But he indicated the shift will be on a timeline measured in weeks and months, not years.

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Also worth noting, this approach is different from what Delta did with Hulu back in 2019. That effort included a subset of content, cached on the planes. The new version of on-board streaming will take advantage of the aircraft’s connection to the internet, enabling the entire product catalogue.

Cast content to the screen

Air Canada is not alone in pursuing this concept, although it may be the furthest along from an airline’s perspective. Or at least the most willing to talk openly about it. However, other suppliers are also looking at options, including casting content from a personal device to the IFE screens on board.

Upstart Apios is not just talking about developing a casting solution. The company has now developed a proof of concept, which is capable of throwing content on a large scale.

It’s super simple. It is easy. It works. It delivers what the passenger wants. It delivers what the airline wants.

– David Thomas, Apio’s Chief Product Officer

Similar to a ChromeCast or AppleTV, passengers will be able to connect to the screen on the back of the seat to view their own content. The connection is operated via an on-screen QR code and a unique Wi-Fi SSID for that seat, making it easy for the passenger at that seat while reducing opportunities to abuse the system.

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It’s casting, not mirroring, so it depends on integration with the mobile application. It also allows offline casting (e.g. a plane with no on-board tethering connection), provided the app supports it. At APEX EXPO 2022 in Long Beach last month, the company demonstrated a stream from cached Amazon Prime content on an iPad to the system.

Apios can also support web streaming, provided the aircraft has an internet pipe and sufficient bandwidth. The flexibility built into the platform means that both airlines and passengers can have options when it comes to content.

A notable stay when it comes to casting is Netflix. But Apios also addresses that. The company built a Netflix web client into the screen. Passengers must log into their account while on board and navigate using the touch screen instead of their mobile device. But all their content rights can now fly with them.

As part of the launch of the Astrova platform earlier this summer, Panasonic Avionics executives also suggested that a casting solution was part of the architecture, although details were limited.

It is no easy task to get from concept to a deployed solution on board. It took years for Bluetooth pairing to develop into a viable product. Haughton argues that Air Canada is only able to deliver on its flow schedule now because of decisions made more than five years ago, along with a commitment to continue those investments even when funds were tight. Apios and others also face challenges in making streaming and casting of IFE ubiquitous on board. Not to mention that the idea of ​​pushing content from a PED to the screen goes back to at least 2009 and Panasonic’s eXport connector.

But it will be really cool when they pull it off with the updated tech stack.

More news from the World Aviation Festival 2022

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