A large portion of the world fleet was grounded after the World Health Organization named COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020. That not only dealt a massive blow to airlines, but to the raft of suppliers which support their operations. For content service provider Touch Inflight Solutions, the crisis proved a catalyst for transforming business arrangements with all its customers to drive cost savings and a better return on investment.
The Coral Gables, Florida-headquartered company moved to a subscription model for inflight entertainment (IFE) content, and its clients, including LATAM, LOT Polish Airlines and WestJet, signed on from the early days of the pandemic. “We actually see this as a business model and not necessarily as a product or platform. We are doing this with any content,” says Touch director of business development André Valera, explaining that the subscription model covers everything from niche content to major Hollywood blockbusters.
An open-source flight tracking system is attached to Touch’s business arrangements with airlines “so the subscriptions we have designed are automatically adjusted based on the operational level” of each customer, ensuring operators have broad flexibility, and the ability to turn it on or off as needed, Valera tells Runway Girl Network.
Studios need to have visibility about what’s happening with their licensing and airlines want flexibility, so we married both ends and our job as the middleman was to design the new business model…
Facilitating this shift in model is Touch’s new ABOVE cloud platform, which encodes, stores and distributes video and related metadata for airlines’ IFE systems. Building on concepts tested and adopted with Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect wireless IFE system, Touch and its joint venture partner castLabs, a digital video technology company, announced the launch of ABOVE in the fall of 2019. Six months later, ABOVE proved to be the perfect platform to support Touch’s new IFE subscription model amid the pandemic.
Thus far, over sixty significant content sources, including Disney, HBO and Warner Bros., have agreed to allow their content to be processed through ABOVE, according to Valera. That means that these heavy-hitters have authorized Touch to process media files for its customers through the cloud-based pipeline, unlocking major savings for airlines.
Once an airline signs with Touch, the CSP immediately starts designing the operational profile of that particular customer. “We have their entire fleet configuration, the [IFE] systems’ specs, the parameters are defined, and we define that in our platform because that will be the input for all the automation. Then we design the specific subscription packages,” says Valera. For example, for LATAM, alone, Touch designed more than 60 different subscription options.
The CSP provides some curation as part of the subscriptions, he says, but “they can either follow our recommendations or pick what they want, and after making their final selection, then the automation starts.”
The heavy work that used to be done manually is now done by ABOVE. So, the platform effectively serves as the post-production for assets that have been approved to be processed by the system. (Any other content which is not part of ABOVE is sent to the content provider’s approved labs.) Value-added features, such as subtitle localization and managing metadata, are also available to airlines.
Valera credits Lufthansa Systems — a longtime partner of castLabs — and Lufthansa Systems’ chief consultant Michael Childers, for having the vision to drastically reduce the technical costs associated with delivering IFE by moving all the workloads to the cloud.
Childers serves as chair of the Airline Passenger Experience Association’s APEX Technology Committee. In 2017, the committee released APEX 0415, a content delivery specification that codifies the Common Media Application Format (CMAF) as the basis for encoding and encryption in the IFE content delivery supply chain. “The most important thing that APEX 0415 accomplished was to bring inflight entertainment into compliance with, and make it a part of, the broader content delivery ecosystem of the media and entertainment industry,” explains castLabs.
Childers tells RGN that the latest version — APEX 0415v3.1 — is presently in an industry assessment period, after which the document will be reviewed by the APEX Board for approval. APEX 0415v3.1 provides for the use of High Dynamic Range (HDR) content in IFE. HDR is a video and image technology that improves the way light is represented.
“Once the new HDR version is approved, the next steps will involve a review of emerging codecs to attempt to determine what the IFE codec of the future will be,” says Childers.
For Touch, the work accomplished over the last several years has been nothing short of groundbreaking, as it is driving a newly collaborative approach in industry. “APEX is pushing a lot of stakeholders to adopt encoding standards because the more we standardize, the more we have the ability to integrate with everyone, and can be agnostic and everyone can work together,” notes Valera.
Going forward, Touch’s goal is to bring more assets to ABOVE. “We want this to be such an easy-to-use platform and agnostic that we kind of trust that it could be a benchmark for the industry and could be used by others,” says the Touch executive. “That’s why we’re taking this approach that even when we communicate about ABOVE, it needs to be open-based and agnostic, so that we reduce the amount of interfaces, and adjustments in media assets.”
That’s good news for airlines and the entire IFE ecosystem.
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Featured image credited to LOT Polish Airlines