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“A lot of people are hyping up High Definition (HD), but they’re often talking about solutions that ultimately won’t do the full job,” says Andrew Muirhead. “I believe some providers haven’t done all their homework on the requirements for the distribution of HD – and not just today’s requirements but also those likely to emerge over the next couple of years.”
As the boss of Hamburg-based Lufthansa Technik’s Cabin Innovation Centre, Muirhead is in the thick of a campaign to upgrade the company’s successful NICE cabin network to deliver HD end-to-end. “We’re focusing on the distribution of HD over our existing Ethernet infrastructure,” he says. “The enhanced system will be suitable for both business jets and the larger VIP aircraft, and it will conform with all the standards so that we’re fully prepared when digitally stored HD content is widely available.”
Lufthansa Technik is developing a pair of Blu-ray players – one aimed at VIP customers, the other for Bombardier’s new Learjet 85 bizjet – and readying its media server for the legal delivery of digital HD content. Muirhead’s team is also addressing novel sources such as HD-capable external cameras: “We expect someone to hit the streets with that before too long.”
Other names at the forefront of the HD gold rush include Rockwell Collins, Britain’s Airline Services Group and Panasonic Avionics.
Rockwell Collins has just announced that the latest version of its dPAVES overhead broadcast IFE system will include HD-ready LCD screens. Manchester-based ASG offers standard HD (720-line) screens ranging in size from 5 to 17.5in for overhead applications. And AVOD market leader Panasonic is committed to introducing HD over the next few years, starting with a 1080-line 32in screen for first-class suites that is due to be available by the end of next year.
Panasonic product marketing director Cedric Rhoads believes that limited availability of content is probably the main brake on the emergence of HD in aviation. “We have the technical ability to provide 1080 resolution but right now the content supply industry is nowhere near making the titles available in the necessary quantities,” he says. “Together with a number of other issues, that means there are still no systems on the market today providing HD throughout the airliner cabin.”
Rhoads and Muirhead both agree that HD for the ordinary traveller will have to wait until the consumer electronics market has adopted the technology widely enough to make it affordable by the IFE manufacturers: “At present, even if the whole IFE industry got together and agreed to buy the same HD-capable panels and promised to keep buying them, we still wouldn’t come close to putting a dent in the production runs the manufacturers want,” says the Panasonic man. “What we need is a panel that meets the technical specs, plus some assurance that it will be sold widely in other markets for several years to come. If production ends early, we have to re-engineer for a new panel – it’s one of the biggest challenges that we face.”
Says Muirhead: “When you’re building equipment for aircraft cabins, the quantities are really low compared with those of the consumer market. To get the necessary economies of scale when you introduce new technologies in the cabin you need to use things that are already in wide circulation in the mass market.”
Then there’s the question of whether HD is worth all the trouble and expense when it’s delivered to economy-sized screens – can anyone tell the difference?
“We did some experiments with different sizes of display and found that 720 resolution started to become visible only at 15in and above,” says Rhoads. “1080 is different – it’s more evident on screens as small as 12in or even 10.5in.” Muirhead takes a harder line: “I think that at screen sizes of 15in and smaller you would be hard-pressed to find someone who could tell the difference. Conversely, it begins to emerge at 20in, and you really notice it once you get to 30in.”
For Richard Cooke, head of IFE development at Airline Services Group, 17.5in marks the threshold: “Below this the screens will not resolve enough information to make the difference worthwhile. Above it, the HD effect can be seen with ease.”
Some people suggest that the screen size/resolution equation could lead to twin-track introduction of HD by the airlines, with the premium classes getting 1080 first while the back of the bus has to make do with standard definition or 720 HD for a few more years. Rhoads agrees: “We’re planning products now and I think we will initially see 720 resolution in economy, with its smaller screens.”
But Muirhead points to a big stumbling block. “I don’t see it happening on a class basis,” he insists. “Given the cost of the encoding, why would you have both standard definition and HD versions of the same content on the aircraft? And imagine the logistics of figuring out and supplying the right mix of SD and HD for each aircraft in the fleet. These are powerful reasons for offering HD throughout or not at all.”
So when might HD hit the seatbacks across the aircraft? “As far as we are concerned it’s going to be in the A350 timeframe, which means from 2013 to 2014,” says Rhoads. “We’re working towards the original timetable – Airbus has told suppliers that even if it does slip the airframe schedule, it’s going to hold the vendors to their agreements. So even if A350 entry into service goes out to four years from now, we plan to be ready before then.”
Meantime, Andrew Muirhead cautions, there are a number of things out there that could have a big effect on how HD content is distributed. The one most in need of urgent attention is the looming ‘Analogue Sunset’. Driven by digital rights management and piracy concerns, the equipment manufacturers and HD content providers have moved to shut down the use of analogue outputs from Blu-ray players on the grounds that analogue is too easily captured by the unscrupulous.
“This matters not just for our industry but also for anyone who plans to buy a Blu-ray player,” says Muirhead. “From 1 January next year, software built into analogue discs will start switching off the HD capability so that the image is permanently reduced to standard definition.” As if putting HD into aircraft wasn’t complicated enough already...
Brendan Gallagher is an expert IFE writer and commentator who has followed the subject for the last 20 years – he began his career in IFE/communications in the late 1980s with Inmarsat.
This article was first published in Airline Entertainment International Showcase 2010, now available to read online.
24 August 2010