Cameras, microphones and algorithms: how in-flight entertainment becomes personal

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(CNN) — Today’s home entertainment is defined by sleek, high-definition flat-panel TVs, voice-activated speakers, and cell phones that know us better than we know ourselves.

So when we board a plane, clunky decade-old in-flight entertainment screens can look like a hangover from another era.

Recent in-flight entertainment concepts aim to revolutionize the current in-flight experience, creating a personalized and high-tech cabin of the future.

If big names like tech company Panasonic Avionics and aerospace company Airbus succeed, you’ll soon be able to enjoy personalized quirks like a bespoke in-flight movie selection, in-place interactive games, and video chats with the flight crew. at 30,000 feet.

Custom cabins

Astrova is a swanky new in-flight entertainment display from Panasonic Avionics.

Panasonic avionics

At the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) 2022 in Hamburg, Germany, Panasonic Avionics unveiled Astrova, a next-generation in-flight entertainment (IFE) display featuring microphone functionality for voice commands and a optional built-in camera with a sliding privacy cover.

This manual on-off switch is Panasonic’s attempt to alleviate concerns about cameras on planes, which came to a head in 2019 when passengers discovered lenses in existing Panasonic-designed seatback IFE displays.

Panasonic defended these cameras, saying they were there for future-proofing aircraft, in case airlines want to implement concepts like seat-to-seat video conferencing later on.

Malware researcher Vitaly Kamluk, whose 2019 Twitter feed about a lens on a Singapore Airlines flight went viral, concern expressed that travelers were not informed of the existence of the cameras and that there was no manual slider, which made the cameras potentially vulnerable to hackers.
Airlines such as Qantas, Emirates and Singapore Airlines issued statements insisting that these cameras were off and that they had no intention of turning them on. A CNN Travel report also sparked US senators to speak on the subject.
David Bartlett of Panasonic Avionics, then the company’s Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Security Officer, told CNN Travel at the time he saw the response as an “overreaction”.

“I think it’s going to calm down, that the case for the positive benefits coming from the cameras outweighs any fear that they could possibly be used for nefarious purposes,” said Bartlett, who has since left the company. .

Three years later, the Astrova display is reigniting the conversation around cameras on airplanes, but Panasonic hopes the on-off switch will resolve any concerns.

Speaking to CNN Travel at AIX 2022, Brian Bardwell, Panasonic’s corporate communications manager, suggested “there were likely lessons to be learned” from the public response in 2019.

The physical shutter will be “very obvious,” said Panasonic vice president of product and portfolio management Andy Masson, who showed CNN Travel a model of Astrova at AIX. Masson added that passengers will receive detailed instructions on how to use the camera.

Astrova's camera includes a manual on-off slider switch.

Astrova’s camera includes a manual on-off slider switch.

Panasonic avionics

Astrova also comes in cameraless form, and it’s ultimately up to the airlines to decide if they want the feature installed. Panasonic suggests the camera option could enable interactive games for passengers and onboard communication with cabin crew.

“As an airline, we want to give them the ability to be able to wrap their customization elements – understanding you, your desires, previous IFE system activations – to then generate content that interests you, or pilot games that might be interesting to you, or driving applications that you might be interested in,” Masson said.

Passengers will be able to manually turn off the cameras, and they will also be able to opt out of this IFE data collection. But Masson thinks many travelers want as personalized an onboard experience as possible, given that’s what they’re used to at home.

“I generally feel like people, when they’re on board, are really looking for that commitment, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get that commitment,” he said.

A 2022 report by international aeronautical communications company SITA examining the role of technology in air travel confirms Masson’s claims, concluding that “the more technology there is during travel, the happier passengers are”.

The SITA report surveyed travelers from 27 countries during the first quarter of 2022, examining how they used technology at every stage of their journey, including booking, transit airports and in-flight.

Panasonic’s Astrova is set to premiere on Qatar Airways’ Boeing 777Xs, with the airline set to fit 22-inch versions in its business cabins and 13-inch screens in economy class.

Astrova, which is equipped with cinema-quality 4K OLED displays, includes Bluetooth technology to allow travelers to connect personal devices and charging ports for laptops, tablets and phones.

CNN Travel understands that Qatar Airways has opted for the cameraless version of Astrova.

Panasonic’s microphone functionality also allows passengers to use voice commands to search for IFE content, much like they would with Siri on an iPhone. This, plus the camera, could enable video conferencing between passengers and crew, although CNN Travel understands no airlines are currently interested in implementing this feature.

Creation of a “flying smartphone”

Airspace Link is an Airbus concept that envisions making the entire aircraft a "flying smartphone."

Airspace Link is an Airbus concept that envisions making the entire aircraft a “flying smartphone”.

Dominik Mentzos/Taylor James/Airbus

The SITA report suggests that a majority of passengers use their mobile phones, tablets and laptops in flight.

With phones and other personal technologies constantly evolving, it’s hard for airlines to keep up – and some carriers say travelers’ reliance on their devices discourages them from investing in updating IFE. American Airlines, for example, has recently been completely remove seat back screens.

But IFE designers like Panasonic think it’s possible to use personal devices in tandem with built-in displays. That’s how Astrova operates, and a multi-screen approach also features in Airbus’ new cabin concept, Airspace Link, the latest iteration 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 is potentially high-tech – from overhead bins that light up when full, to an airplane seat tailored to your personal preferences.

Airspace Link could offer travelers more personalized and interactive in-flight entertainment options.

Airspace Link could offer travelers more personalized and interactive in-flight entertainment options.

Dominik Mentzos/Taylor James/Airbus

IFE customization options can include a personalized 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 get involved or use an integrated IFE screen.

Airlines will then be able to track passenger data and determine how they spend their time on board.

“It’s not new,” Wuggetzer said of this data collection. “It’s just that we apply the same things now on an aircraft.”

Airbus market research suggests younger pilots are open to having their data used in this way, but older generations may be more hesitant.

“At the end of the day, you’ll probably also have the option of saying no, if you don’t want to,” Wuggetzer said.

The original iteration of Airspace Link, dubbed the Airbus Connected Cabin, included cameras installed outside the aircraft lavatory, designed to communicate information about the number of people queuing. Airbus said faces would always be blurred to ensure privacy.

It’s still a concept that Airbus is experimenting with, but Wuggetzer says its designers aren’t looking into seatback camera options, at least not currently.

“Maybe that option is something that could be considered,” Wuggetzer said, adding that his team was aware of the previous IFE camera controversy, and that any camera would always include a manual on-off switch.

He is less convinced by the microphones integrated into the seats, in particular because of the potential for noise disturbance affecting other passengers.

Passengers’ point of view

Frequent flyer and cybersecurity expert Vitaly Kamluk, whose Tweets spearheaded the camera-on-plane conversation in 2019, told CNN Travel he was pleased with the on-off switch solution from Panasonic for its Astrova camera.

“I approve of their decision to address the privacy concerns of many passengers,” Kamluk said.

“Any technology can be hacked one day. However, with reliable coverage for video sensors such as cameras, this is no longer an issue.”

More generally, Kamluk said he’s embraced the idea of ​​a more personalized aircraft cabin, whether it includes a camera, microphone or data collection, provided privacy concerns are carefully considered. account.

“A camera with privacy control is a great addition to the IFE,” he said.

“The need for privacy is here to stay with us. It has not changed because of the pandemic and I hope we will continue to develop new technologies with respect for user privacy as one of the requirements. fundamentals of innovation.”

Top photo courtesy of Dominik Mentzos/Taylor James/Airbus

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