(CNN) — Home entertainment today is characterized by sleek, high-definition flat screen TVs, voice-activated speakers and cell phones that know us better than we know ourselves.
So when we board an airplane, ten-year-old bulky inflight entertainment screens can feel like a hangover from another era.
Recent onboard entertainment concepts aim to revolutionize the current onboard experience and create a personalized, high-tech cabin of the future.
If big names like tech company Panasonic Avionics and aerospace company Airbus have their way, you’ll soon be able to enjoy personalized quirks such as a custom onboard movie selection, interactive in-seat games, and video chat with flight crew at 30,000 feet.
Astrova is a chic new entertainment screen onboard Panasonic Avionics.
At the recent 2022 Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg, Germany, Panasonic unveiled Avionics Astrova, a next-generation inflight entertainment (IFE) display complete with microphone functionality for voice commands, and an optional built-in camera with a sliding privacy cover.
This manual on/off switch is Panasonic’s attempt to allay concerns surrounding aircraft cameras, which came to a head in 2019 when passengers discovered lenses in existing Panasonic-designed IFE backrest screens.
Panasonic defended these cameras, explaining that they were there for future-proof aircraft, in case airlines later wanted to implement concepts such as seat-to-seat video conferencing.
“I believe it will settle down that the argument that cameras can bring positive benefits is stronger than any concern that they could potentially be used for nefarious purposes,” said Bartlett, who has since left the company.
Three years later, the Astrova screen is reviving the conversation about aircraft cameras, but Panasonic hopes the on/off switch will clear up any turmoil.
Brian Bardwell, Panasonic’s corporate communications leader, suggested during a conversation with CNN Travel on AIX 2022 that “there are probably some lessons learned” from the public response in 2019.
The physical shutter will be “very clear,” explained Andy Masson, Panasonic’s vice president of product and portfolio management, who showed CNN Travel a model of Astrova on AIX. Masson added that passengers will receive detailed instructions on how to use the camera.
The Astrova camera has a manual on/off slide switch.
Astrova also comes in a camera-less form, and it’s ultimately up to airlines to decide whether to install the feature. Panasonic suggests that the camera option will enable interactive games for passengers and in-seat communication with the cabin crew.
“As an airline, we want to give them the ability to pack their personalization elements – understand you, your wishes, previous activations of the IFE system – and then drive content that is of interest to you, or drive games that may be of interest to you, or power applications that may be of interest to you,” said Masson.
Passengers can manually disable cameras and they can also opt out of this IFE data collection. But Masson thinks many travelers want an onboard experience that is as personalized as possible, as they are used to at home.
“I generally feel that when people come on board, they’re really looking for that engagement, and they’re going to do whatever it takes to get that engagement,” he said.
The SITA report surveyed travelers from 27 countries in the first quarter of 2022, looking at how they used technology at every stage of their journey, including bookings, transit airports and inflight.
Panasonic’s Astrova will premiere on Qatar Airways’ Boeing 777X aircraft, with the airline installing 22-inch versions in its business cabins and 13-inch screens in economy.
Equipped with cinema-grade 4K OLED displays, Astrova includes Bluetooth technology that allows travelers to pair personal devices and charging ports for laptops, tablets and phones.
CNN Travel understands that Qatar Airways has opted for the camera-less version of Astrova.
Panasonic’s microphone functionality also allows passengers to use voice commands to search IFE content, as they could with Siri on an iPhone. This, plus the camera, could allow for video conferencing between passengers and crew, although CNN Travel understands that no airline is currently interested in implementing this feature.
Making a “flying smartphone”
Airspace Link is an Airbus concept that aims to turn the entire aircraft into a ‘flying smartphone’.
Dominik Mentzos/Taylor James/Airbus
The SITA report suggested that a majority of passengers use their mobile phone, tablet and laptop during the flight.
But IFE designers like Panasonic think there’s room to use personal devices along with built-in displays. That’s how Astrova works, and a multi-screen approach is also featured in Airbus’ latest cabin concept, Airspace Link, the latest version of its ‘connected cabin’ approach.
Airspace Link is designed to turn 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 where everything can be high-tech – from overhead luggage bins that light up when full, to an airplane seat that’s tailored to your personal preferences.
Airspace Link could offer travelers more personalized, interactive inflight entertainment options.
Dominik Mentzos/Taylor James/Airbus
IFE personalization options can include a customized list of movie options, similar to how the Netflix algorithm recommends movies based on your recent viewing habits. Travelers can install an app on their mobile phone to participate, or use a built-in IFE screen.
Airlines can then track passenger data and find out how they spend their time on board.
“It’s not new,” Wuggetzer said of this data collection. “It’s just that we now apply the same things to an airplane.”
Airbus market research shows that younger pilots are open to using their data in this way, but older generations are hesitant.
“Eventually, you probably also have the option to say no, if you don’t want to,” Wuggetzer said.
This is still a concept Airbus is experimenting with, but Wuggetzer says its designers aren’t looking at seatback camera options, at least not right now.
“Maybe that option is something to consider,” Wuggetzer said, adding that his team is aware of the past controversy over IFE cameras, and that every camera would always have a manual on/off switch.
He is less convinced about microphones in the seat, because of the possible noise nuisance for other passengers.
Vitaly Kamluk, a frequent flyer and cybersecurity expert whose tweets in 2019 presided over the cameras on planes, told CNN Travel that he is happy with the Panasonic power switch for his Astrova camera.
“I embrace their decision to address the privacy concerns of many passengers,” Kamluk said.
“Any technology can be hacked someday. However, with reliable coverage for video sensors such as cameras, that is no longer a problem.”
More broadly, Kamluk said he embraced the idea of a more personalized airplane cabin, whether that includes a camera, microphone or data collection, as long as privacy issues are thoroughly considered.
“A camera with privacy control is a great addition to IFE,” he said.
“The need for privacy remains with us. It has not changed by the pandemic and I hope that we will continue to develop new technologies with respect for user privacy as one of the fundamental requirements for innovations.”
Great photo thanks to Dominik Mentzos/Taylor James/Airbus