(CNN) — Home entertainment today is defined by sleek flat-panel HDTVs, voice-controlled speakers, and mobile phones that know us better than we know ourselves.
So when we step onto a plane, the bulky inflight entertainment screens of a decade ago can seem like a holdover from another era.
The latest in-flight entertainment concepts aim to revolutionize today’s experience, creating a high-tech bespoke cabin of the future.
If big names like US tech company Panasonic Avionics and French aerospace corporation Airbus have their way, you’ll soon be able to enjoy personalized perks like a bespoke selection of in-flight movies, interactive in-seat games and video chats with the flight crew at 30,000 feet.
At the recent 2022 Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg, Germany, Panasonic Avionics introduced Astrova, a next-generation Inflight Entertainment (IFE) display with microphone functionality for voice commands and a optional integrated camera with a sliding privacy cover.
This manual on/off switch is Panasonic’s attempt to ease concerns around cameras on planes, which came to a head in 2019 when passengers discovered lenses on existing Panasonic-designed IFE screens in the air. seat backs.
Panasonic defended these cameras, explaining that they were there to future-proof planes, in case airlines wanted to implement concepts like seat-to-seat video conferencing at a later date.
Malware researcher Vitaly Kamluk, whose 2019 Twitter thread about a lens on a Singapore Airlines flight went viral, expressed concern due to the fact that travelers were not aware of the existence of the cameras and that there was no manual slide cover, which made the cameras potentially susceptible to hackers.
Airlines such as Qantas, Emirates and Singapore Airlines issued statements insisting that the cameras were off and that they had no plans to turn them on. A CNN Travel report also prompted US senators to weigh in on the issue.
David Bartlett of Panasonic Avionics, then the company’s chief technology officer and chief information security officer, told CNN Travel at the time that he saw the response as an “overreaction.”
“I think it’s going to calm down, that the benefits of the cameras outweigh the concern that they could be used for nefarious purposes,” said Bartlett, who is no longer with the company.
Three years on, the Astrova display reignites the debate about cameras on planes, but Panasonic hopes the on/off switch will resolve any concerns.
Speaking to CNN Travel at AIX 2022, Brian Bardwell, head of corporate communications at Panasonic, suggested that “there were probably some lessons learned” from the public response in 2019.
The physical shutter will be “very obvious,” explained Panasonic vice president of product and portfolio management Andy Masson, who showed CNN Travel an Astrova model on AIX. Masson added that passengers will receive detailed instructions on how to use the camera.
Astrova is also available without a camera, and it is up to the airlines to decide if they want to install it. Panasonic suggests that the camera option could enable interactive games for passengers and in-seat communication with cabin crew.
“We want to give airlines the option to be able to understand their personalization elements, understanding the passengers, their wishes, the previous activations of the IFE system, and then push content that is interesting for them, or push games that may be interesting for them. , or push apps that might be interesting to them,” Masson said.
Passengers will be able to manually disable the cameras and will also be able to opt out of IFE data collection. But Masson believes many travelers want as personalized an onboard experience as possible, since that’s what they’re used to at home.
“In general, I think people, when they come on board, are really looking for that kind of involvement, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it,” he said.
A report of 2022 of the international aviation communications company SITEwhich examines the role of technology in air travel, backs up Masson’s claims, concluding that “the more technology there is during the trip, the happier the passengers.”
The SITA report surveyed travelers from 27 countries in the first quarter of 2022 and analyzed the use of technology in all phases of the journey, such as booking, transiting through airports and flying.
Panasonic’s Astrova will debut on Qatar Airways’ Boeing 777X aircraft, which will install 22-inch versions in its business-class cabins and 13-inch screens in economy.
Equipped with cinema-quality 4K OLED displays, the Astrova includes Bluetooth technology so travelers can connect their personal devices and charging ports for laptops, tablets and phones.
CNN Travel understands that Qatar Airways has opted for the cameraless version of the Astrova.
Panasonic’s microphone functionality also allows passengers to use voice commands to search for content on the IFE, much like they would with Siri on an iPhone. This, coupled with the camera, could allow passengers to video conference with the crew, although CNN Travel understands that no airlines are currently interested in implementing this feature.
Create a “flying smartphone”
The SITA report suggests that most passengers use their mobile phone, tablet and laptop on board.
With phones and other personal technology constantly evolving, it’s hard for airlines to keep up, and some companies find that travelers’ reliance on their devices makes them hesitant to invest in an IFE upgrade. American Airlines, for example, recently removed the screens from the seat backs.
But IFE designers like Panasonic believe there is room to use personal devices alongside built-in displays. That’s how Astrova works, and a multi-screen approach also features in Airbus’ new cabin concept, Airspace Link, the latest version of its “connected cabin” approach.
Airspace Link is designed to transform the entire aircraft cabin into a “flying smartphone,” as Airbus vice president of cabin marketing Ingo Wuggetzer told CNN Travel in a recent interview.
The result is a cabin in which everything is potentially high-tech, from baggage compartments that light up when full to an airplane seat tailored to personal preferences.
IFE’s customization options could include a list of tailored movie options, similar to the way Netflix’s algorithm recommends movies based on recent viewing habits. Travelers can install an app on their mobile phone to participate, or use an integrated IFE screen.
Airlines will then be able to track passenger data and find out how they spend their time on board.
“It’s not something new,” says Wuggetzer of this data collection. “It is that now we apply the same in an airplane”.
Airbus market research suggests that younger passengers are open to their data being used in this way, but older generations may not be as open.
“In the end, they’ll probably also have the option to say no, if they don’t want to,” Wuggetzer said.
The original version of Airspace Link, dubbed the Airbus Connected Cabin, included cameras installed outside the plane’s lavatories, designed to communicate information about how many people were waiting in line. Airbus said faces would always be blurred to ensure privacy.
This is still a concept that Airbus is experimenting with, but Wuggetzer says its designers aren’t looking at seat-back camera options, at least not currently.
“Perhaps that option is something that could be considered,” Wuggetzer said, adding that his team is aware of the earlier IFE camera controversy, and any camera would always include a manual on/off switch.
Wuggetzer is less convinced about microphones in the seats, especially because of the possibility of the noise affecting other passengers.
The passenger’s perspective
Frequent flyer and cybersecurity expert Vitaly Kamluk, whose tweets spearheaded the conversation about cameras on planes in 2019, told CNN Travel that he’s pleased with Panasonic’s on/off switch solution for its Astrova camera.
“I acknowledge your decision to address the privacy concerns of many passengers,” Kamluk said.
“Any technology can one day be hacked. However, with reliable coverage for video sensors like cameras, that’s no longer a concern.”
More generally, Kamluk said he welcomes the idea of a more personalized aircraft cabin, whether it includes a camera, microphone or data collection, as long as privacy concerns are thoroughly considered.
“A privacy-controlled camera is a great addition to the IFE,” he said.
“The need for privacy is here to stay. It hasn’t changed because of the pandemic and I hope we continue to develop new technologies with respect for user privacy as one of the fundamental requirements of innovations.”