In-flight entertainment needs some serious upgrades.

Let’s face it, long flights are boring without decent in-flight entertainment. I have been in flights 16 hours long and must have gone through at least couple of movies through the flight. Most of the airlines try to keep the content as fresh as possible but not always. You can’t really expect what content the airline is currently offering. While most airlines try to have as diverse content as possible, they usually prefer to offer local content more since most flyers are from the country of airline origin. From what I have seen airlines usually offer local content in addition to some good Hollywood content with local subtitles.

But from current technology point of view I think the current in-flight entertainment is ancient. The displays have horrible touchscreens and the interface is painfully slow to respond and feels like its running a modern operating system on a computer from the 90s. I think the airlines can do better today. Not only is the current technology much better but I think it’s power efficient to save on some precious on-board battery.

Recently I took a trip on an airline that probably is trying to solve this problem. The airline had a heavily modified Android OS running on a tablet that was fixed on the seat. It was not possible to figure out it was Android until I accidently tried some gesture on the screen that put it into multitasking interface where I could see multiple apps running in an Android-like interface. The system was a lot faster and smoother than the legacy in-flight entertainment you can see on usual flights. The display had a pretty good resolution and the interface was snappy. I have noticed many times that displays and the entertainment system gets unusually warm after hours of playback or browsing through catalogs for a long time. I noticed no such issue with this one. Also, fast forwarding and rewinding through the movies was very quick with no noticeable lag. Something I haven’t experienced in an in-flight system yet.

While I have never travelled via Business class or First class, it’s unlikely this is just something of an issue with Economy. A passenger once told me they do it on purpose so that you would want to upgrade but using ancient technology onboard will want you to switch airlines, not upgrade to Business class on the same Airline. Also, it makes more sense to offer better technology since its 2017 and airlines even have free Wi-Fi (if it works or doesn’t work is a different issue) on board.

What I see in the future with in-flight entertainment is that these systems will get a lot smarter than what is currently offered. Most of the travelers, if not every one of them, taking these long flights carry a smartphone. People with smartphones usually have some sort of content or streaming service active on it. Netflix even offers downloading for offline viewing. I did download a few episodes on my device but watching it on a small display for hours was tiring since the display was not only small to watch on for so many hours but also I couldn’t find a comfortable position for viewing for hours. The mounted display does a perfect job at that. I believe future systems will have some sort of overlay like Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Not only would it charge your device but also will become easy to play your own content from your own device.

I think people would prefer using their own devices on-board. Watching movies is not the only thing people enjoy onboard but also they enjoy playing games on their devices and listening to music. Plugging your own device and using the onboard display for this might make this process very easy. Not to mention the fact that it would save the Airlines from a lot of trouble of keeping its content fresh since it must cost them to rent that content.

This is something of a long shot though. Mostly because the airlines must make sure that Apple and Google will play nice with them. What I see more of a possibility is that the airlines will make some sort of custom versions of Android (like the airline I recently experienced) and get streaming content from content providers like Netflix and Spotify. Of course, they will not stream live content off the internet (although in the future if satellite internet is speedy enough that could be possible) but more like maintain a database onboard like they do currently and stream from that. It would become easier and profitable for both the content provider as well as the airline. The content would be something that the locals as well as internationals are familiar with since Netflix is becoming a global phenomenon. The devices running Android will also help the airlines to make sure they are up to date with the technology and running Android will be a lot cheaper and easier than running some custom operating system over some custom hardware.

The only problem would be security. These devices onboard usually have access to things like lights inside the cabin, air conditioning fans and many other controls. The Android device I recently saw on the airline offered these settings through the interface. I thought it was a little scary since it had a USB connection where you could connect an iPhone or iPod to play music off it. Someone could have easily used this port to connect something other than an iPhone. This is where I think Apple and Google could help with their overlay systems to make sure they release regular security updates to the systems. Security is something that needs to be very important on these onboard systems for obvious reasons.

I think in-flight entertainment will soon take a new turn simply to stay updated with current technology. Airlines have massive orders for new flights and want to add more flights to their existing routes as well as new routes. These new flights will soon need some new goodies to get customers attracted and something like this along with Wi-Fi will become a normal feature very soon. But until then you will have to do with sluggish touchscreens and poor content.

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Author: Chinmay Thosar

Personal blog. Mostly tech stuff.

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