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Sunday, April 1, 2007

Wide Bodies, Big Screens

New in-flight entertainment systems like Panasonic’s eX2 bring larger screens, more entertainment options to the latest widebody airliners

Douglas W. Nelms

The new generation of widebody, long-range aircraft, including the Boeing 777 and the superjumbo Airbus A380, is spurring a new generation of in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems designed to offer more options for passengers on those long flights.

Panasonic Avionics Corp., a North American subsidiary of Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., says it is on track to install its eX2 IFE system on more than 600 aircraft by 2010, seven years after it was unveiled.

As of February, the company said it had sold the eX2 system to 16 airlines, and it will be flying on more than 180 aircraft.

When the Lake Forest, Calif.-based company released the eX2 in 2003, the system was billed as the next-generation widebody IFE solution.

The eX2 is a twin-aisle follow-on to the single aisle eFX systems currently used for domestic flights. (The systems are pronounced "X2" and "FX.")

The first eX2 customer was Singapore Airlines, which launched the system on its 777-300ERs last December.

Panasonic has sold the eX2 for the Airbus 330-200, 330-300, 340-300 and 380-800, and the Boeing 747-400, 767-300, 777-200, 777-300 and 787-8. The system will be delivered installed in A380s as they go on the line, the company said.

In 2004, Dubai-based Emirates Airlines announced a $1 billion order for eX2 systems to be fitted on its new Boeing 777-200LRs and 777-300ERs and said it would be the original equipment on 45 A380s, scheduled to begin arriving in the summer of 2008.

Emirates currently uses the Panasonic 3000i IFE system, which provides more than 600 channels of what the airline calls ICE, for Information, Communications and Entertainment.

"As we look around the world, we want to provide more entertainment choices for some of the niches and also some of the particular cultures, such as more Chinese films, more German films, more South American films and so forth," said Patrick Brannelly, Emirates vice president of passenger communications and visual systems..

"We need to have more media storage, as the current servers are full. The eX2 provides that extra storage," he said.

The companies project that passengers will notice right away that the screens will be larger and "envelope" shaped, with a screen aspect ratio of 16:9, as opposed to current screens, which are like standard television at 4:3 (for every 4 units wide, the screen is 3 units high).

Most cinematography and quite a bit of content meant for TV have for some time been shot in widescreen formats such as 16:9, the High Definition TV (HDTV) standard, or even wider.

Modern TV formats (especially HDTV), and most LCD TVs are widescreen. "That is the way the world is going now," Brannelly said.

Screen sizes will vary somewhat based on airline requirements. Singapore Airlines said its screens will be 23 inches diagonal length in first class, 15.4 inches in business and 10.6 inches in economy.

"Panasonic took the lead in providing widescreen in-seat and overhead monitors to the commercial airline market in 2003 with the eFX product line, and has continued this with the launch of eX2," the company declared.

Emirates had not announced its screen sizes. However, Brannelly said, "we will maintain our position as having the most comfortably sized large screens in all classes. I think I can say that economy will get a 10.6-inch widescreen, with first and business classes much larger to account for the fact that they are positioned much further away."

Diagonal screen sizes offered by Panasonic are 9, 10.6, 12.1, 15.4, 17 and 23 inches. The three largest sizes — 15.4, 17 and 23 inches — can support High Definition programming.

Panasonic said the smaller screen sizes, down to the smallest, 9-inch LCD Smart Monitor, will have the processing capability but not the screen resolution to make HD programming a viable option.

The current Emirates ICE system provides more than 600 channels of audio/video entertainment, of which 150 are movies ranging from current box office hits to classics to foreign films, plus 192 TV shows from comedy to music videos.

The system also has more than 40 games that can be played in-flight. All entertainment is "on-demand" Digital Video Recording viewing, allowing passengers to start and pause any program, the company said.

The eX2 system launched by Singapore Airlines, which the airline calls its "KrisWorld" IFE system, provides 900 channels for audio/video entertainment and 130 games. It also is capable of word processing, spread sheets and presentation applications.

A "Learning Applications" portion offers Berlitz World Traveler, Health Notes, Executive Books Summaries and "Culture Quest," the airline said.

"The recent launch of our network-based eX2 system brings a significant increased capability to the passenger, by providing unprecedented bandwidth for high quality movies, audio, 3-D games and connectivity support," Panasonic said. "This will enable Singapore Airlines and any airline choosing our eX2 system to deliver an enriched content experience to their passenger and extend their in-flight entertainment into the next generation," the company said.

The information aspect of the programming will provide near real-time (roughly a two-second delay) news and sports.

The news, Brannelly said, is currently a text news service, which basically takes the headlines from the BBC News Web site and re-transmits to the aircraft via satellite.

"In the future we expect to migrate these types of news feeds to broader, cheaper, data pipes, then offer feature news as well as headlines," Brannelly said.

Panasonic also announced plans to launch a global communication service to provide aircraft with broadband data and digital voice communications via Inmarsat satellites. This will be through a broadband antenna system that can be paired with a direct broadcast television antenna in the same radome.

A new Wireless Access Point will provide broadband data connectivity to passengers over a high-speed, secure wireless distribution network.

"The Panasonic DBS [direct broadcast satellite] TV service allows reception of the many channels of regional television programs from direct broadcast television satellites all over the world," a Panasonic spokesperson said.

The system supports communication via Inmarsat’s current, 64 kbps-per-channel Swift64 aeronautical service, and will support SwiftBroadband when that service is available. The system also supports communications via broadband services such as Boeing’s now-defunct Connexion and any future broadband services.

Lighter weight

Along with being able to provide more entertainment than can possibly be watched in even a 14- to 15-hour flight, benefits to the airlines include getting the bigger screens at less weight and less power requirements.

The viewing screens "are not light, but they have gotten a lot lighter. We are looking at about two tons per aircraft [system weight], probably more with the later aircraft because the screen sizes have grown and these are particularly heavy," Brannelly said. "Weight is still a problem," he said.

Weight varies per configuration, Panasonic said, but the eX2’s overall system weight is typically between 25 percent and 35 percent less than an equivalent 3000i system weight. Depending on aircraft configurations, the systems could weigh less than 2,000 pounds for a smaller aircraft, and up to 5,000 pounds or more on an A380, the company said.

The eX2 system does have a major weight advantage in that all the seat-box electronics are being incorporated into the screen, rather than a separate seat box and screen.

This will make the system about 20 to 30 percent lighter per seat unit.

"It not only gets rid of the box under the seat, but it reduces the bulk and weight of the system," Brannelly said.

Panasonic said it also has managed to reduce the system’s power requirement by about 20 percent over the 3000i system.

The company said it achieved the reduction in weight and power consumption "even with the integration of fully integrated laptop power," and despite a 500 percent higher seat microprocessor speed and 300 percent more seat memory.

The eX2 system has an open architecture to the extent that upgrades can be made to just the Smart Monitor, to increase performance or add new features, or to the head-end media servers or drive arrays, to increase bandwidth, performance or storage capacity.

"The fact that the network is Ethernet-based and standards-based on top of that means that it is vastly easier to upgrade or otherwise modify individual components and the ways they interact than was ever the case in older systems," Panasonic said.

"The Gigabit Ethernet network backbone was intentionally architected to future-proof the eX2 system to accommodate size and bandwidth increases," the company said.

The head-end units provide data to each seat computer using the latest robust network technologies — Gigabit Ethernet for carrying data, and Web technologies found for supporting the individual passengers.

At each seat is a smart display equivalent to a modern laptop, with a handset and touch screen, USB ports, RJ45 Ethernet connector and plugs to provide AC and DC power to laptops or other personal electronic items, Panasonic said.

"Essentially one could think of the system as a large Internet service provider’s network, with each seat being someone’s home," Panasonic said.

"The head-end has servers that talk to the aircraft, servers that provide content to a person’s seat, and a distribution network in the aircraft that connects them all in a robust fashion using latest robust network technologies," the company said.

Cost per seat for installation of the eX2 system will be about the same as for the current 3000i system, Brannelly said, "but you are getting more advanced technology."

Installation of the seat equipment and wiring are done by seat manufacturers, then sent to Boeing and Airbus for final installation prior to aircraft delivery.

Panasonic said Boeing generally prefers to install the head-end equipment on racks of their own design, while Airbus uses a Panasonic pre-built IFE rack and cabinet module, and installs it as a single unit.

In January, Panasonic got a big boost when All Nippon Airways’ (ANA), the launch customer for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, selected the eX2 system for the new aircraft, which is slated to fly later this year. ANA said it will take delivery of the 787 in 2008.

"ANA’s selection of the eX2 in-flight entertainment system is consistent with our goal to provide easier system control and more enjoyable content to our passengers," said Osamu Shinobe, senior vice president of marketing and sales with ANA when announcing the deal. "eX2 was also highly rated from the standpoint of reliability. We can also make significant savings in fuel consumption, and thus be kinder on the environment, thanks to the weight reduction."

Panasonic said it is building a derivative of the system specifically for the B787. The company said it had originally planned to offer a wireless-capable system for the B787 but abandoned those plans following Boeing’s decision in January to scrap the option of wireless connectivity, citing weight concerns and its failure to secure frequency permissions from some countries.

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