Even as the world’s widebody and narrowbody fleets are gradually being fitted with inflight connectivity – or earmarked for such – seatback IFE remains an important comfort factor for passengers on longhaul and even medium-haul flights. That’s why industry stalwarts are still very much in the business of providing embedded IFE systems to airlines, and in rolling out next generation systems aimed at delighting passengers. It’s also the reason why portable IFE specialist digEcor is jumping into the market with its seat-centric GLIDE solution. We recently caught up with digEcor to get an update on the company’s progress, and to understand how it sees the industry evolving. Our one-on-one with digEcor CEO David Withers is below.
When did digEcor decide to jump into seatback entertainment?
DW: I think the moment happened before we bought digEcor; I bought digEcor coming up to three years ago, and we were really coming from a basis that we saw seatback entertainment as the core of IFE. There is obviously Wi-Fi and lots of other things happening but seatback is here to stay. That’s clearly our position, and I bought digEcor to get access to their screen technology and the relationships they had, but with the aim of turning it very much into a full-service IFE company.
Tell us about the rollout of GLIDE on Lisbon, Portugal-based EuroAtlantic.
DW: We’re starting with three aircraft initially, three 767s. The first shipset of that shipped out [on 1 April]… Whilst we have other fleets flying, this is the first time we have the whole airplane with different cabins. We’re providing laptop power (we have our own power solution), USB power in business class, noise canceling headphones, 15” screens, a new really exciting passenger controller; and in economy we’re doing 10” screens in every seat and USB power. And we’re also replacing all of the passenger service functions, such as the reading light control, etc. We’re gutting the airplane and doing the whole cabin. We’re doing it all.
From a connectivity standpoint, do you remain hardware and service provider agnostic?
DW: Yes, absolutely. We’re very much focused on what we’re doing; we do it well. We’re staying in the cabin. There are a lot of people fighting it out in connectivity, I’m not sure they’re making much money as yet. I’m sure they will in time. At the moment, we’re happy to work with any of them and continue to do so.
You also provide in-house content service provisioning. What’s happening in that space?
DW: Yes, we’ve been doing that for 12 years, and have strong relationships with all the major studios. One of the interesting things… is we launched last year at the APEX MultiMedia Market quite a different short-segment commercial model, and we’ve been able to bring a lot of smaller providers on board airplanes that haven’t been traditionally able to get places, and that’s given us a much greater breath for short segment programming. And we’ve been really excited about that because I believe there is a huge range of new and innovative content providers, making great films, great documentaries and great content that people are really interested in, spreading the whole range of languages, the whole range of geographic locations – a lot more than traditional Los Angeles-based Hollywood content and American TV. I’m not critical of American TV at all; I love it. But it’s great to see so many different providers around the world, and of course we have airlines all over the world and of course, not everyone is into American content. So we can bring a huge range of content on board our airplanes and we’re really excited about that.
In working with non-mainstream providers, you can provide short content at a price point that’s more palatable. What are the storage considerations?
DW: We can ship today with up to 2TB per screen. In the next short while, that’s going to grow into 10TB and possibly hundreds of terabytes. The challenge becomes not one of getting the content, but of actually making it commercially [viable] to acquire and put that content on board. I think we have a market now, certainly there are generational changes coming through. I look at my kids and how they access technology; they are looking for things that are short, quick, things they can get to very rapidly, with lots of variety in it and a huge amount of depth. And we have to expect that that’s what people want on airplanes so we need that storage but need a commercial model so that it makes sense for people to put that content on board. And that’s the evolution I think we’re going through in the content space.
DW: No, we’re updating with wires. You’ve got to provide power to the screen so there is absolutely no point in not providing data over the same cable. We don’t have any head-end LRUs at all so we’ve got nothing at the head of the airplane other than the control panel, which is the crew interface, it’s a 10” touchscreen – the crew control the system – and behind it is all our avionics interfaces, all our passenger address interfaces, all the technology that is normally mounted in the video control center (VCC). So we don’t have a VCC. And on the side of that is a removable hard drive; it’s blocked away to meet MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] requirements, and you can simply replace that hard drive and it pushes the content to all the screens. It does it in about, just a little bit faster than two minutes per gigabyte so for an average content set you’re talking about a few hours, and that happens in the background while the airplane is operating normally.
We can run power and [data] into Ethernet over a cable that’s about half the size of my little finger. If you just did power alone, it’s a cable that’s about half the size of my little finger. It really doesn’t make any difference at the end of the day. My view is that Wi-Fi is a limited resource on an airplane and it’s much better off being used for passenger devices than sending content to a screen that can be easily wired. So I’m not trying to have passengers on my customer airlines getting a great service out of their own devices using WI-Fi [but] actually dragging that bandwidth down on a seatback solution.
Outside of more legroom, what do you think economy class passengers want when flying longhaul?
DW: I think an economy class passenger is looking for a high-definition screen. And let’s put that into some context; when you’re sitting 8-12 inches in front of the screen, it doesn’t need to be 4K, but it needs to be a good quality screen with good quality contrast and a reasonable level of brightness and a good degree of control over that brightness so it’s not sore on eyes at night. They’re looking for a really easy to use UX. They’re looking to be able to get to content easily and a great range [of content]. I think increasingly, they’re looking for noise canceling in their headphones to get rid of that ambient noise and get a more relaxed environment. And of course they’re looking for power. Gone are the days of people getting on board an airplane and turning their devices off. They want to be able to plug their device in. Probably USB power, not 110 volt, but power is an essential part of that passenger experience.