Super-thin large organic light-emitting diode (OLED) flexible curved screens, and a womb-like immersive video experience: these are a couple of the options being researched and developed now for the IFE displays of tomorrow.
The R&D visions range from the advanced to the seemingly outlandish, and on to the outright ‘belongs in the next Star Wars instalment’ type of notions. However, dig into the next generation of IFE display options being developed, and two facts become clear: these innovative IFE display options are technically possible, and their realization may be closer than one might think.
Looking for a win-win
For IFE display makers such as Panasonic and Thales, the goal is to create IFE displays that provide passengers in all classes with a better entertainment experience; whether they are watching movies, playing games, or surfing multimedia content. At the same time, IFE manufacturers want to develop displays that are lighter, simpler to install and maintain, and provide promotional/value-added benefits for airlines. After all, the business purpose of IFE is to keep the passengers quiet, engaged and happy – much like busy, contented toddlers in a well-run daycare center.
Compared with the heavy analog CRTs of yesteryear, today’s IFE displays are already on this track. “The latest IFE LCD displays are all HD, with 178° viewing angles,” says Neil James, Panasonic Avionics’ executive director of corporate sales and product management. “The extra viewing angle has enabled us to remove tilt mechanisms from these seatback monitors, which saves a lot of weight in the aircraft. Meanwhile, the move to backlit LCDs has substantially reduced power requirements, which is also good news for airlines.”
Left: Panasonic is striving to create the home cinema experience in the air. Interestingly, many passengers still demand touch screens in first-class suites
Current trends in IFE displays are pushing into technologies that improve passenger viewing experiences while further reducing power and weight demands, translating into less fuel being required to support onboard IFE systems. These trends include a push towards OLED displays in place of LCDs, and bigger, thinner and curved displays that give passengers more to see while further reducing aircraft weight for fuel-conscious airlines.
OLED displays have a number of distinct advantages over LCD displays. The organic material used in an OLED display emits its own light when electricity is applied, meaning an OLED display doesn’t require a backlight like an LCD display does.
Eliminating the backlight reduces power consumption and allows the OLED screen not just to be thinner, but also to be applied to a flexible plastic material. This makes it possible to create wider curved OLED screens, providing a more immersive viewing experience, even in a seatback monitor.
OLEDs also provide better blacks than backlit LCD displays, simply because there’s no background LED illumination to wash out the blacks. “They also provide a wider range and variety of displayed colors,” says James. “Meanwhile, as video content quality advances from HD to 4K resolutions – a four-times resolution improvement that is on the horizon – OLED technology is better suited to showing this content than LCD.”
Right: 4K TVs such as this model by Sony are now on the market, with a resolution of 3840 x 1260 – that’s four-times the resolution of HD panels
In an aircraft environment, curved/flexible OLEDs offer another advantage: they can reduce the severity of passenger head impact injuries incurred during turbulence and forced landings. Add the thinner profile, which fits better in today’s reduced-thickness economy seats, and OLED IFE displays are a natural fit for the airline industry.
At present, the cost of manufacturing OLED displays is keeping them out of aircraft. But Brett Bleacher, Thales’ director of innovations and R&D, expects this cost to drop soon. “Although Samsung has already been making a big push for OLEDs in HD TVs, we have to wait until this technology turns up in laptops and tablets,” he says. “Once this happens, OLED prices will drop sufficiently to allow us to use them in IFE systems.”
Flexible, super-thin curved seatback OLED displays are only one of the exciting possibilities for this technology. Given that seats in first and business class are usually too far away from the row ahead to make touchscreens practical, Bleacher foresees the use of flexible OLED screens to provide these passengers with touchscreen control units.
“They will be like the roll-down plastic screens seen in the sci-fi movie Red Planet,” he explains. “When you want to change the content on your display, you’ll pull out the flexible plastic touchscreen and make the changes you desire.”
Next-gen control… and beyond
Next-generation IFE displays aren’t just about better resolution, bigger yet thinner pictures, and less demand on their aircraft: they’re also about more intuitive yet less hardware-intensive control systems.
Already, the move to touchscreen seatback displays has reduced the amount of cabling and control systems required in the cabin, by removing the need to install separate chair-mounted display controls.
“To keep from annoying people in the seat on which the monitor is mounted, we have made our touchscreens very sensitive, so that
a light touch is all you need,” Panasonic’s James says. “After all, you don’t want passengers pecking away at the display while the person in that seat is trying to sleep.”
Thales is a leader in advanced control systems, as proven by its 2013 Crystal Cabin Award-winning eye tracking and gesture control technologies. Both of these take a nod from Microsoft’s Kinect video game technology, enabling users to operate IFE systems without physically touching a screen or separate control surface.
Right: An early version of the Thales system being demonstrated at Aircraft Interiors Expo 2013
“Our systems use cameras to track the users’ hand and eye movements,” says Bleacher. “They are being developed for first and business class, where passengers are too far away from the next row to use a touchscreen approach. Gesture and eye-tracking also relieves users from having to look down at a remote control, up to the screen, and then back down again. That can be annoying for passengers on long flights.”
These two control systems and many other advanced features are being harnessed by Thales in its immersive multimedia ‘pod’ prototype (pictured left). Designed to be large enough for a fully extended first/business class bed seat, with access to a window for outside viewing, the pod is a world within itself. Not only will passengers enjoy full wrap-around OLED screens for enjoying movies or games, they will also have multichannel audio, massage seats with transducers capable of vibrating in sync with movie/game effects, and aromatherapy scents to add an extra layer of reality to the experience. “If you’re looking at a forest, you’ll smell the forest,” Bleacher says. “Or if you’re in an orange grove, you’ll smell the fruit.”
Thales is even experimenting with bodysuits and slippers to provide tactile sensations in the pod. “If you’re standing foot-deep in the ocean, the slippers will chill your feet, a sensation similar to being wet,” says Bleacher.
With all of these incredible IFE display advances, one would expect 3D to be a part of this bold new future. But despite the fact that Panasonic is already offering 18-24in 3D-capable displays, there isn’t a tremendous amount of demand.
“The problem with 3D is the demand it puts on your aircraft system,” explains James. “Supporting two HD streams per monitor means twice the bandwidth is needed, plus twice the storage space on the IFE server. In an aircraft Ethernet environment, that demand can add up, and affect performance for other non-3D viewers.”
Even in a perfect world where 3D TVs didn’t require special glasses, the technology isn’t well-suited for aviation. “3D TV isn’t real 3D,” says Bleacher. “The way your eyes perceive three dimensions in reality is not quite the same as how it is simulated by 3D TV, which is why up to one-third of the population gets headaches and eye strain watching 3D content. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense to offer something that can cause nausea inside an aircraft.”
This said, Thales has a 3D application it is developing for the pod; a 3D hologram of a stewardess, programmed to interact with passengers, and capable of displaying different facial emotions.
“We’re thinking of something like the Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars: A New Hope,” Bleacher says. “She could be a first point of contact for passengers in the pods, enabling them to get some level of service and assistance without ringing for a human stewardess.”
When it comes to IFE displays, the aviation industry has come a long way since 1925. That is when Flight magazine reported that “an interesting experiment was carried out on 7 April, when a Handley Page aeroplane ascended from Croydon Aerodrome, with 12 passengers, and during half-an-hour’s flight the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was ‘shown’ on a screen fitted up in the cabin of the machine.”
Today, HD touchscreen displays are becoming commonplace. But when will they be replaced by flexible OLED displays, gesture and eye-controlled monitors, and immersive multimedia pods? “The technology to make them happen exists,” replies Bleacher. “So it is possible that you will see these devices turn up in aircraft in a few years’ time, and that they will become standard equipment not long after that.”