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October 1, 2012

The Future of In-Flight Amenities On Display at APEX Expo 2012

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By: Jason Rabinowitz
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The LiveTV display included a "Back to the Future" DeLorean. (Photo by Jason Rabinowitz)
The LiveTV display included a "Back to the Future" DeLorean. (Photo by Jason Rabinowitz)
The Long Beach Convention Center earlier this month hosted APEX 2012, aka The Airline Passenger Experience Expo, featuring manufacturers of everything an airline might need in their aircraft, from LED lighting to satellite internet.

Hundreds of vendors attended, all hoping to catch the attention of airline representatives in hopes of scoring big sales. Booths of all shape and size were filled with marketing materials and eye-catching products. The JetBlue subsidiary LiveTV even created a mockup of the Back To The Future set, complete with DeLorean, the idea being that they came back from the future to bring us Ka band in-flight satellite connectivity.

Two of the larger announcements made at APEX 2012 came from both Airbus and Boeing. Boeing, after years of avoiding the topic, finally revealed plans to offer in-flight connectivity and wireless IFE as line fit options on the 747-8 and 777 by the end of 2013. The announcement means that brand new aircraft no longer have to be torn down immediately after delivery in order to add the equipment and wiring necessary for connectivity and wireless IFE.

Additionally, Airbus announced that they will be offering the Global Communications Suite (GCS) from Panasonic Avionics as a linefit option on the A330 aircraft, adding to the current availability on the A350 XWB and A380.

Also announced in the realm of in-flight connectivity, Delta Air Lines and Gogo announced a fleet-wide upgrade to the Gogo Vision streaming IFE system, as well as the new ATG-4 network. Gogo Vision allows passengers to stream movies and television shows directly to their own device from an on board server, while ATG-4 will increase internet speeds and capacity. Movie pricing will be $2 less than Delta’s embedded IFE system, however, it will not include early release movies.

Wireless streaming of content was also a big product at APEX 2012. From major IFE manufactures such as Panasonic to the little known companies such as DigEcor, bets are being placed on passengers using their own devices to stream content. Wireless streaming IFE only requires a server, weighing about 20 pounds, and a few access points. This is in stark contrast to traditional embedded IFE systems, which add considerable weight to an aircraft. Wireless IFE is being touted as a viable, low-impact solution for airlines that are not able to install an embedded system.

While passengers will now be able to stream content to their own devices, how will they keep devices powered? While some airlines already supply power ports or USB ports to passengers, they often cannot keep up with today’s power hungry tablets. The in-seat power company Astronics AES has developed a 4 port, 5 volt DC USB charging system which is able to keep pace with even the most power hungry devices.

Peeking into the future, Panasonic demonstrated an eye tracking, motion sensing IFE system right out of the movie Minority Report. The system tracks a passengers eye movement in order to make movements on screen, while selections occur when the passenger points their hand towards the screen. The system also projects buttons onto the tray table, and selections are tracked by camera without any physical buttons.

While eye tracking IFE may be nothing more than proof of concept right now, it is clear that wireless streaming of content is ready for prime time, and that airlines are ready to bring it to your next flight. The APEX Expo 2012 showed the massive amount of planning and forward thinking that goes into the design of every airlines aircraft. We are at a time where many airlines are attempting to differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack with an updated and upgraded passenger experience, something surely every passenger will benefit from.