VIDEO: Thales reworking IFE remote after execution disappoints

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As inflight entertainment screens in premium aircraft cabins grow larger and passengers sit even further away from them, vendors have had to come up with new ways to interact with the system from a distance. What was once just a rudimentary remote control with a few buttons has now become a second screen experience onto itself. However, a certain deployment has seen varied success.

Thales, a long-time provider of in-seat IFE, has been shifting interaction completely onto its tethered remote control on aircraft like the British Airways Boeing 787-9 in first class, and Qatar Airways 787-8 in business class. The main screen, up to 23″ in BA’s case, is relegated to content display only, with absolutely no menu system whatsoever.

Thales AVANT 2The idea was to have passengers interact with the system in a way they are familiar with; a smartphone-like device with capacitive screen that mimics everyday smartphone use. The execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired, as the author learned on board the BA 787-9. The small handset often exhibits annoying input lag, awkward performance, and truncated text, while the large screen goes unused.

“Yes, in hindsight, I can see some of the flaws in that thinking process, and I myself struggled with using it at times, and we see people struggling, so we have a revision plan…” said David Pook, director of IFE marketing at Thales InFlyt Experience at the Dubai Air Show.

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Pook described the design process, and the multitude of input methods Thales experimented with. “Obviously, direct touch is the most intuitive simple thing to do,” he remarked, nothing that screens are typically now out of arm’s reach in premium cabins. “We had other methodologies that we were looking at, like just use it as a remote control, but the problem with that was people were having a hard time with the buttons, figuring out ‘how do I touch this and know where I’m touching?’” Another idea was to simply mirror the main display on the remote, but working with such vastly different screen sizes did not pan out.

While the graphical user interface Thales settled on for the remote is adequate, the lackluster performance is actually partly the victim of an incredibly lengthy development and certification cycle that often plague this space. The current remote Thales has deployed contains a small 3.8″ screen and single core processor, all running on Android 2.3. Translated into smartphone terms, that would equate to an Android smartphone produced in late 2010, half a decade ago. Nobody would ever use it in 2015.

Thankfully, Thales is already hard at work on its next generation remote. The specs jump to a much more modern 5″ 1080p display with quad-core processor, powered by Android 4.4 (released in late 2013). Using accelerometers and gyroscopes (both included in modern smartphones), the new remote acts as virtual controller, where motion is relative and controls what the passenger sees on the main screen, much like a Nintendo Wii controller. I was able to understand the gestures and overall in no time, and the performance bump was legitimate.

All of this sounds like a big improvement, but there’s a catch. The upgraded remote won’t be made available to airline customers until Q2 2017, with Qatar Airways launching the product on the Airbus A350. While the hardware is certainly more capable this time around, the underlying operating system of the remote will be four years outdated. Additionally, due to the larger screen size, the updated remote is not “plug and play” with existing systems, though it is retrofittable.

Although Thales had good intentions, this is a prime example of how inflight entertainment and connectivity systems continue to lag behind consumer grade technology.

See a demo of an early mock-up of Thales’ new remote in the video below.

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