We no longer expect to watch a movie at home. Instead we expect to be immersed in a movie experience, and it’s an expectation carried over into the cabin.
Consumers have been swayed by a raft of screen and content technologies, offering greater contrast, increased resolution, surround sound and, looking beyond much of the marketing hype, bigger screens just to impress the neighbours.
But there is much more to creating a truly immersive, top quality movie experience than a big screen and loud speakers. Ioana Predonescu, Manager for Custom Products at Lufthansa Technik/Panasonic joint venture IDAIR says: “High resolution and picture quality are key to delivering the optimal movie viewing experience. Technologies, including 4K and HDR, the size of the monitor, distance to it and viewing angle, combine to provide such an experience.
“Usually, larger screens provide an outstanding movie experience, but depending on airframe type the proportion between screen size and viewing distance is a deciding factor. It’s often also a matter of personal taste. Viewing angle is also important. Just like in the cinema or at home, there are preferred positions and optimal seats. These are typically carefully considered during the cabin layout design phase.”
There’s also the question of content compatible with the new screen specifications: “The latest HD technologies require 4K/UHD or HDR content. Yet 4K content remains a rare commodity, although the number of options is growing,” she says.
Cabin space and layout are clearly important in delivering the perfect inflight movie, so how do designers adapt their solutions to the available area? “The video and audio solution is usually scalable to suit the aircraft type. Larger screens, greater than 55in, are typically installed on widebodies, which may give the impression of a better quality movie experience than on a narrow body. But it’s important to remember the influence of personal taste and preference.”
For them to avoid becoming obsolete almost immediately, inflight entertainment (IFE) systems must offer considerable flexibility. Among them, Rockwell Collins’ Venue is a market leader and Chris Jameson, Fellow, Cabin Systems Engineering, explains how the manufacturer aims to keep it that way.
“Venue provides the best possible movie experience in a couple of ways. It was the first cabin management system to provide high-definition video to the business jet market, delivering 720p in 2008. Later in 2017, it’ll be delivering 4K/UHD video as it continues to enhance the best movie experience.
“Secondly, due to its fibre-optic backbone, Venue has the ability to deliver compressed and uncompressed video to bulkhead and in-seat monitors in its native format. When the content is already compressed, as it is on a server with a solid-state drive or on a USB device, it remains compressed until it’s decoded at the monitor. When the content is uncompressed, from devices including Blu-ray players, Sat-TV equipment, or a camera, Venue delivers the uncompressed content directly to the monitors. This is important, because real-time encoding and compressing of this type of content adds latency and possible artefacts to the video content. Venue eliminates that and delivers the best quality video.
“Because of the rapid and continued display technology improvement in the commercial market place, Rockwell Collins will be adding a display electronic unit to the Venue architecture. This will enable it to supply all its unique video functionality to any monitor equipped with HDMI or dual-link 3G-SDI inputs, up to 4K resolution. With this, we’ll be able to continuously support the best monitors with the best technology available.”
Jameson mentions a ‘fibre-optic backbone’, but what does it do? “The 67Gbps fibre optic backbone enables Venue to support up to 22 streams of uncompressed 1080p video throughout the cabin, as well as 4K video to bulkhead monitors, for the best possible video quality. To date, connections to monitors have then been wired with coax cabling for uncompressed content and Ethernet wiring for compressed content. Venue also delivers compressed content to personal electronic devices via WiFi.
“Each of the Venue monitors has the ability to play uncompressed and compressed content. This provides the ability to present the best video quality for each. Compressed content is delivered via the fibre-optic Ethernet backbone and each user can select any of the content that’s available. Most of the compressed content is delivered by a server, and more than one user can control (pause/fast forward) and view the same content simultaneously.”
While manufacturers grapple with the requirements for delivering HD content from Ultra HD Blu-ray DVD players and even via streaming server, there remains an insatiable appetite for inflight movies barely out of the cinema. These so-called early window releases are subject to detailed licensing agreements between service providers and studios, typified by the work Lufthansa and SD are doing as they prepare their nicemedia premium content service for mid-2017 launch. Via a lightweight 5×7×3in SmartBox, users will stream content to personal electronic devices including iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets.
The box will be preloaded with digital rights management (DRM) secured, licensed content, some of it HD, and including 50 movies and 15 each of 30- and 60-minute TV shows. Subsequent monthly updates on the ground – in the office, hanger or home – will add up to 15 additional movies per download, plus new TV shows, for a monthly fee. The SmartBox is carried onto the aircraft and PEDs connected via a one-time authentication.
Nicemedia works through Lufthansa’s agreements with the major Hollywood studios, allowing it access to purchase content. This is compiled through the assistance of a content service aggregator, before Lufthansa makes it available to SD nicemedia subscribers.
Movies will be available in early window content, recently out of cinemas but not yet released on DVD, although it’s worth noting that movies still in cinemas are rarely available in flight, even on commercial airlines. Nicemedia will, of course, also include late-window material, otherwise already available on DVD.
Sound is a major component in a convincing movie experience and one that an aircraft cabin is not ideally suited to delivering. Predonescu explains: “Background noise and even structural vibrations are challenging factors in creating an optimal movie experience. Active noise-cancelling headsets and environments, and overhead sound, are the latest technologies enabling control of the best sound position in the cabin. Combined with audio software, these new technologies allow overhead sound to be dynamically focused or repositioned. We use these technologies to deliver the industry’s most high-tech cabin experience.”
Beyond sound and vision, integrating cabin management with IFE further optimises viewing conditions, as Predonescu explains: “Inflight entertainment and cabin management system software harmonises cabin ambience and the movie experience. Dynamic lighting scenarios, dimming, window shades and audio technologies all combine to help create the best movie experience.”
Chris Jameson describes Venue as a ‘very customisable’ complete CMS/IFE. “It has a feature called ‘scenes’ that enables a user to press one button to select the setting on several systems simultaneously. For example, a user can select a ‘movie scene’ that turns on the Blu-ray player, sets the audio to the cabin speakers, lowers the shades and sets the cabin lighting to the desired level and colour. Users can customise the themes and control them via sideledge-mounted touch screen switches, in-seat touch screen displays and their tablets or phones.”
Has IDAIR delivered the ultimate inflight movie experience? Predonescu responds: “We trust that we offer a state-of-the-art IFE/CMS experience, but constantly look towards the future, considering new technologies that could help deliver the best experience possible for our customers.”
Jameson reckons: “The last decade has been incredible for the improvement of video in the aviation market. The advent of all-digital video distribution within the cabin has virtually eliminated the noise associated with analog distribution. The advancement of high-definition content and displays has also changed quickly, starting with 720i, to 720p, to 1080p and now 4K. The quality of LED backlit LCD monitors has also improved in resolution, contrast, brightness and viewing angle. The combination of these factors results in video quality that vastly surpasses that of 10 years ago.”
Looking into his high-definition crystal ball, he says: “The next 10 years will also be fascinating to watch. We can be sure that various implementations of organic light-emitting diode [OLED] displays will become mainstream within the home and aircraft cabin. Displays will continue to become much thinner as well.
“In particular, we should be asking: ‘How will flexible displays workout in the large-format screen arena? Where will transparent OLED displays be used? Will one of the new display technologies – micro LEDs, for example – replace OLED? Will 8K become the new standard?’.
“Although the improvements may well be less dramatic than they were in the previous 10 years, it’s certain video quality will continue to improve.”