Cameras, microphones and algorithms: How inflight entertainment is getting personal

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(CNN) — Home entertainment today is defined by sleek, high definition flat screen televisions, voice controlled speakers and cell phones that know us better than ourselves.

So when we board an airplane, the decades-old, giant inflight entertainment screens seem like a hangover from another era.

The latest inflight entertainment concept aims to revolutionize the current inflight experience, creating a personalized, high-tech cabin of the future.

If big names like technology company Panasonic Avionics and aerospace corporation Airbus have their way, you’ll soon be able to enjoy personal quirks like on-board movie selection, interactive in-seat games and video chatting with flight crew at 30,000 feet. .

Individual cabins

Astrova is an exciting new inflight entertainment screen from Panasonic Avionics.

Astrova is an exciting new inflight entertainment screen from Panasonic Avionics.

Panasonic Avionics

At the recent 2022 Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg, Germany, Panasonic Avionics unveiled the Astrova, a next-generation inflight entertainment (IFE) screen 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 address concerns surrounding cameras in airplanes, which occurred in 2019 when passengers discovered the lens in the existing, Panasonic-designed seat back IFE screen.

Panasonic defended the cameras, explaining that they were future-proofed in aircraft should airlines want to pursue concepts such as seat-to-seat video conferencing.

Malware researcher Vitaly Kamluk, whose 2019 Twitter thread about lenses on a Singapore Airlines flight went viral, expressed concern that passengers were not informed of the camera’s existence, and that there was no manual slider switch, making the camera potentially vulnerable to hackers.
Airlines including Qantas, Emirates and Singapore Airlines issued statements saying the cameras had been turned off, and that they had no plans to turn them on. CNN Travel’s report also infuriated US senators to speak on the subject.
Panasonic Avionics David Bartlett, then the company’s chief technology officer and chief information security officer, told CNN Travel That’s when he saw the response as an “overreaction”.

“I believe it’s going to settle, that the case for the positive benefits coming from the cameras is stronger than any concerns that they might be used for nefarious purposes,” said Bartlett, who has since left the company.

Three years later, the Astrova screen has re-ignited the conversation surrounding cameras in airplanes, but Panasonic hopes the on-off switch will alleviate any discomfort.

Speaking to CNN Travel at AIX 2022, Panasonic’s corporate communications leader Brian Bardwell suggested that “maybe some lessons were learned” from public feedback in 2019.

The physical shutter will be “very obvious,” explained Andy Mason, Panasonic’s vice president of product and portfolio management, who showed CNN Travel a model of the Astrova at AIX. Mason added that passengers will be given detailed instructions on how to use the cameras.

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

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

Panasonic Avionics

The Astrova also comes in a cameraless form, and it is ultimately up to the airlines whether they want to install this feature. Panasonic suggests that the camera option could allow for interactive games for passengers and in-seat communication with cabin crew.

“As an airline, we want to give them the option to use their personalization components — to understand you, your wishes, previous activations of the IFE system — to then play content that’s interesting to you or play games. Interesting to you, or your Run an app that’s interesting to,” Mason said.

Passengers will be able to manually switch off the cameras and opt out of this IFE data collection. But Mason believes that many travelers want an onboard experience that is as personal as possible, even though they are used to this at home.

“I generally think that people, when they come on board, are really looking for that engagement, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get that engagement,” he said.

2022 report by International aviation comms company SITA Examining the role of tech in air travel supports Mason’s claim, concluding that “the more technology there is during travel, the happier the passengers.”

The SITA report asked travelers from 27 countries in the first quarter of 2022 how they use technology at every stage of their journey, including booking, transit airport and flight.

Panasonic’s Astro is set to premiere on Qatar Airways’ Boeing 777X aircraft, with the airline installing a 22-inch version in its business cabin and a 13-inch screen in economy.

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

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

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Panasonic’s microphone functionality also allows passengers to use voice commands to search for IFE content, just as they can with Siri on an iPhone. This, plus cameras, could enable passenger-to-crew video conferencing, although CNN Travel understands that no airlines are currently interested in implementing the feature.

Creating a “Flying Smartphone”.

Airspace Link is an Airbus concept that envisions building an entire aircraft "A flying smartphone."

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

Dominic Menzos/Taylor James/Airbus

The SITA report indicated that most passengers use their cell phones, tablets and laptops.

As phones and other personal technology continue to evolve, it’s hard for airlines to keep up — and some carriers see travelers’ reliance on their devices as a disincentive to invest in updating IFEs. American Airlines, for example, has recently done so Removing the seat back screen altogether.

But IFE designers like Panasonic figure there is scope to use personal devices with built-in screens. That’s how the Astrova works, and the multi-screen approach is also in Airbus’ new cabin concept, Airspace Link, the latest iteration of its “connected cabin” approach.

Airspace Link is designed to transform the entire aircraft cabin into a “flying smartphone,” as Ingo Wugetzer, Airbus’ vice president of cabin marketing, told CNN Travel in a recent interview.

The result is a cabin where potentially everything is high-tech — from an overhead luggage compartment that lights up when full, to an airplane seat that adjusts to your personal preferences.

Airspace Link can offer travelers more personalized, interactive inflight entertainment options.

Airspace Link can offer travelers more personalized, interactive inflight entertainment options.

Dominic Menzos/Taylor James/Airbus

IFE personalization options may include a tailored 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 cell phone or use the built-in IFE screen to get involved.

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

“It’s not new,” said Wuggetzer of this data-gathering. “It’s just that we now apply the same things to aircraft.”

Airbus’ market research suggests that younger flyers are open to using their data in this way, but older generations are more hesitant.

“At the end, you might even have the option to say no, if you don’t want it,” Wuggetzer said.

The original iteration of AirSpace Link, known as the Airbus Connected Cabin, includes Cameras installed outside airplane bathrooms, designed to communicate information about how many people were waiting in line. Airbus said the faces will always be dimmed to ensure privacy.

It’s still a concept Airbus is experimenting with, but Wuggetzer says its designers aren’t looking at seat back camera options, at least not yet.

“Maybe that’s an option to consider,” Wuggetzer said, adding that his team is aware of the previous IFE camera controversy, and that any camera will always include a manual on-off switch.

It is less reassured by in-seat microphones, namely due to the possibility of noise disturbances affecting other passengers.

Passenger perspective

Frequent flyer and cybersecurity expert Vitaly Kamluk, whose tweets led to camera on plane conversations in 2019, told CNN Travel that he’s happy with Panasonic’s on-off switch solution for its Astrova camera.

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

“Any technology can be hacked one day. However, with a reliable cover for video sensors like cameras that is no longer a concern.”

More generally, Kamaluk said he embraced the idea of ​​a more personalized airplane cabin, whether it included cameras, microphones or data collection, as long as privacy concerns were fully considered.

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

“The need for privacy is here to stay with us. That hasn’t changed because of the pandemic and I hope we continue to develop new technologies with respect for users’ privacy as one of the foundational requirements for innovation.”

Top photo courtesy of Dominic Menzos/Taylor James/Airbus

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