Business & GA, Commercial

The Desire to Be Interactive

By James W. Ramsey | February 1, 2000
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In the booming in-flight entertainment (IFE) market—estimated at $1.7 billion in 1999—"interactivity" is the buzzword for the future. Yet nearly everyone in the industry has a different interpretation of just what interactivity means.

If you think of it as being "online," with full internet capabilities, then you have a considerable wait ahead of you. But if you think of it as a feature that is implemented in stages, beginning as early as 1993 with basic functions and continuing through today’s video-on-demand (VOD) and tomorrow’s intranet and internet, you are closer to today’s reality.

According to Alan Pellegrini, Rockwell Collins vice president-marketing and sales, whose responsibilities include the Passenger Systems division, IFE functionality comes in two flavors: the first is distributed video and the second is video on demad.

"Distributed [in-seat] video is really just showing movies and audio, with no choice, no interaction from the passengers except that they can select the channel. This has been around a long time," Pellegrini says.

"But starting in the 1993-94 timeframe, we introduced interactive [and] that brought about applications like interactive menuing where you could look at a graphical depiction of what is going to be shown and pick or touch the channel you want. It also had other features such as video games, shopping applications and the ability to conduct passenger surveys.

"Early interactive systems were simply a way of dealing with specialized applications that were developed for the system on the airplane. I would not even put this in the intranet category yet," Pellegrini adds. "The move to intranet implies a whole set of standards equivalent to Web-based applications today. We will be able to take applications very similar to what a company has on the internet today, like, for instance, and host that on a server on the airplane."

Pellegrini says several IFE providers introduced interactive systems (like predecessor Hughes Avicom’s APAX 150) and then, more recently, introduced follow-on products—like Collins’ TES (Total Entertainment System).

Systems like TES include the same capabilities as their predecessors, but have a more reliable system architecture. They also offer growth potential for new capabilities such as video on demand, audio on demand, intranet and, eventually, internet.

Rockwell Collins wasn’t the first in the IFE industry to have VOD up and operating. However, Pellegrini explains, TES, Collins’ flagship product for widebody aircraft, was designed from the outset to be upgradable, and he believes this ability to add new features is why his company has succeeded in selling more than 300 systems.

TES has been installed on some British Airways, Air France, American and Delta Airlines aircraft. Pellegrini adds it "will now be installed with Japan Airlines…with those installations we are adding video on demand."

Moving up to the Net

Beyond that, Collins will be introducing its intranet architecture aboard an aircraft by the third quarter of 2000. Current and future Collins TES customers will be able to upgrade to the new intranet function through a software change that adds a Web server to the cabin file server and a Web browser in the seat processor.

While the upgrade requires a simple software change, Pellegrini points out, "we’re continuing to evolve some elements of our hardware. Most of these systems have the equivalent of servers—state-of-the art PC processors that control the system—and we are now upgrading our primary cabin file server to the latest Pentium 2 processor-based system. That hardware modification will also facilitate our upgrade to this intranet software architecture."

Collins also designed its TES system with a modular upgrade capability for video-on-demand. "When you go to VOD, you add a couple of servers to host the digital content. You essentially replace your tape players with media file servers that are built to the same shape and size as the tape players," Pellegrini explains. "The seat and network electronics and wiring and control system remain the same."

Obviously proud of the TES system, Pellegrini admits to aiming his marketing guns at industry leader Matsushita. "They have had very good success with their System 2000 E, but it can only grow to a certain point. Now they are going to build a new (System 3000) system," he says. "This system has architecture very similar to our TES.

"TES has been flying since March 1998—a lot of mileage on the system—and we are continuing to upgrade it," he boasts. "We have essentially validated this product, while our competitor is introducing a new system to compete with it."

Large 2000E Backlog

Matsushita, which enjoys a large lead in installed IFE systems flying on the world’s airlines, will contend that it still has over 300 2000E systems on backlog, and of the Airbus 330/340s delivered to date, 220 have the Matsushita IFE system aboard. Matsushita says that while its new widebody digital System 3000 still seeks a launch customer, it is expected to be operational in the second quarter of 2000. In the meantime, offers an upgraded version of its 2000E system, which has VOD capability.

Added features aside, Pellegrini believes reliability is equally vital. "The ‘reliability first’ message has come through loud and clear," he says. "We have invested a majority of our research and development [dollars] this year and last in reliability improvements to our systems. The goal in the industry is 99% availability. We have examples of bettering that number, and others of working to get to that number."

Among the factors that contribute to reliability numbers are the currency of an airline’s software enhancements and logistics issues such as spares availability. For these factors, Collins has tapped into its large avionics support infrastructure, to make available some 50 service centers at major airports around the world.

How far away is true interactivity measured as ability to use the internet? Pellegrini sees current bottlenecks to providing internet service as technical ability and cost. While Collins can now install its Integrated Information System (I2S—see Avionics Magazine, December 1999, p. 26) server on aircraft for on-board internet capability, the communications path off the aircraft is constrained by limited bandwidth.

"You have a phone [telephony] system that is nowhere near the bandwidth you need to handle internet traffic," he explains. "You can probably handle e-mail, if not dealing with big attachments. Collins currently is testing flight deck e-mail in its Condor Aircraft Integrated Network (CAIN) project with Deutsche Lufthansa."

Until higher speed communications channels are available, e-mail messages may have to be stored in the server and then downlinked at a certain point, or saved until the aircraft reaches the gate, when a low power microwave airport gatelink can transfer the information. Pellegrini also sees use of intranet on-board sites being substantiated for a number of years before true internet is available.

"But there are higher speed satellite communications capabilities out there that we are working with that will eventually allow that two-way, high-bandwidth communications path on and off the aircraft," he predicts. "I see that in the future, but let’s walk before we run. Walking is e-mail and intranet. And then let’s go to internet."

In the Same Boat

Matsushita Avionics Systems Corp. (MASC) director of strategic marketing Russel Johnson is even more pessimistic about the timeframe for internet availability on-board aircraft.

"All IFE manufacturers are in the same boat as far as internet capability. We’ve got to go through satcom or some other satellite type communications—a mature type of bandwidth. Existing Inmarsat satellites will not allow it. We’ve got high-speed data coming out in 2000 that gives us some, but a very limited, capability.

"But I don’t think it will ever meet passenger expectations," Johnson continues. "If you drew a graph of modem speed over the past 10 years—we are now seeing cable modems getting 100 megabits per second (Mbits/sec)—that curve is growing exponentially.

"The gap between what the passenger is getting at home and what is on the airplane is steadily widening. It takes five to seven years to design and build a satellite. I do not see in the future having home-like internet capabilities. It will always be limited."

Does Matsushita see Ethernet in its future as a data transmission network? (see Avionics Magazine, January 2000, page 26). "Not necessarily in our application," Johnson answers. "We have a token ring with our 2000 E system that handles things quite well. Traffic on the LAN [local area network] is very low even with today’s level of interactivity. There’s a lot of growth potential.

"In our new System 3000, we take that backbone and add a high-speed data download to the seats, which is in the neighborhood of 2 Mbits/sec. This allows us to do most of what we need to do," he says. "But we’re pretty open to what technologies are best and most affordable."


The direction interactivity is taking "clearly is to include video on demand," says Hank Evers, Sextant In-Flight Systems’ vice president-sales and marketing.

"Today there are quite a few aircraft that are flying with what is called interactive capability, but they do not have VOD capability," he tells Avionics Magazine. "By interactivity today, some of the airlines and IFE companies are referring principally to the ability to play games. With real interactivity, it will also be the ability to select programmed material and view the material when you want it. That is VOD and it is not the future; it’s the present for us.

"We are the only company today that has VOD installed and being used in a non-test mode," Evers maintains. Sextant has retrofitted five JAL 747-400s with its second generation VOD server, and a sixth new JAL Boeing 747-400 was delivered in November with the system factory-installed. These are full-ship installations, Evers says, with in-seat video screens and interactive PCUs (passenger control units) installed at every seat.

Touting a Competitive Edge

Taking off his gloves, Evers says that competitor Collins "does not have a VOD server installed and operating today and will not have one until well into the year 2000. And Matsushita recently unveiled what it calls the 1.5—which is its second-generation server. It is being tested."

Sextant is not about to discount the value of its non-VOD systems that are still being sold. In late November, Sextant-IFE announced that United Airlines ordered an additional 16 of the company’s d2000 in-seat distributed video system for retrofit aboard Boeing 777-200s. The order brings to 112 the number of Sextant systems either installed or on firm order for United’s Boeing widebody fleet.

Looking at the not-too-distant future beyond VOD, Evers sees the industry moving towards "what I consider real interactive capability—beyond telephony and into e-mail and e-commerce. In that respect, we’re meeting regularly with airlines and working with companies like AT&T and British Telecom."

Evers agrees that technical limitations and cost currently are the two restrictive factors. To proliferate, costs will have to come down, he claims, and he anticipates this will happen in the next three to five years.

"In this business, things don’t happen overnight. The build cycle for IFE is 12 months. Installation takes another 12 months. We’re looking at several years for this to happen."

The capability for this move ahead is presently available essentially with software updates, Evers says. "This is the beauty of our system; very few changes are required to the system itself.

"We’re looking at adding an airborne data file server [ADFS], which involves simply adding one box. We don’t have to change anything at the seats. It’s a very simple addition, but is required for the next step ahead in interactive IFE that will enable e-mail and e-commerce messaging."

ADFS also can be used to send BIT [built-in-test] information on the IFE system to the ground to facilitate rapid installation of replacement spares upon arrival at the gate. This feature will enhance reliability, which, echoing Pellegrini, Evers says is of paramount importance.

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