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There are several drivers of long-haul business class seating design. Which of these factors you view as the most important? 

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Panasonic's meaning of IFE


Aircraft Interiors International catches up on IFE giant Panasonic Avionics' latest IFE developments with Neil James, executive director of corporate sales and product management.

On developing the world’s largest economy-class seatback IFE monitor, integrated into the Quantum Seat from Encore Aerospace:

“In 2009 we did a project called Fusion with three seat vendors, the most famous of which ended up being the Weber 5751 seat. During the project, they [Weber] were halfway through the design of the seat, we were halfway through the design of the display, and towards the end we put the two together and came up with something pretty compelling. This project ended up driving what we call the ECO series of monitors, of which we have sold thousands.


Left: Neil James showing off the 14in IFE display, integrated into an Encore Aerospace economy seat


"With this new concept, the guys at Encore were designing the Quantum seat from the ground up and we were just beginning to develop the new range of ECO displays, so we started integration earlier in the process. Encore were trying to increase passenger comfort by coming up with a new way of getting rid of the cavity where the arms are, and came up with the concept of the collapsible arm. Also, if you have two or three seats you get a flatter surface you can lie on.


"Encore gave us a much larger surface to work with because the seatback is physically wider than usual, with no gap between seats. We were working on a next-generation range of very thin, low-power LCDs and we collided the two together and said ‘What if you came up with an industrial design that reflects very high-end home theatre?’ Thus we integrated our very latest 14in 1080p panel called the Elite 14, and worked closely with Encore to create a seamless industrial design.


"Some people would consider the screen to be too big at a short pitch, so we are now looking at the concept of the passenger deciding how big they want their viewing area to be. This means they can use their finger to drag a movie to the side, and use the rest of the space for social media, moving maps, etc – basically having multimedia in a single screen. Any of the Panasonic X series systems can run it. We made a 13.3in economy monitor for Emirates, but this takes it a step further. We were reasonably confident we could fit a 15in screen on to this seat, but because there’s a maximum height for the seat, you end up looking over your knees.


"Our CEO is a perfectionist and will say that the bezel gap is too big, so that will be tightened, which will also allow for easier cleaning. Maintainability is a big consideration, so we worked with the seat vendor to ensure the display can be snapped out in 30 seconds, and have created new concepts of how to do that. We also design the channels to make sure they are really intuitive for the seat vendor to install. And if its easier, it’s cheaper for the airline to maintain. Some of the very premium airlines have looked at this concept, and three we know of are looking very keenly.

On first-class entertainment and the B/E Openframe seat:
We’re very successful in the premium end of IFEC and have done a lot of projects with B/E Aerospace. The 32in Altus hi-res panel we have demonstrated with this seat is the largest in-seat display today, but most customers are taking the 24 or 27in versions. This is the next big thing coming to customers, getting close to a true home theatre experience. Customers still ask for the monitor to be a touchscreen, believe it or not, because some seats may have a desk near the screen so the passenger would rather touch the screen rather than reach for the controller. They will be able to take control of the display using their own devices too. If you think of the 14in display as a business-class monitor in an economy-class seat, this is a home TV in a first-class seat.


On the increasingly popular ideas of gesture control and eye tracking:
We have demonstrated gesture control and eye tracking over the past three years, and Panasonic, as a company that invests heavily in R&D, has done a huge amount of work with forms of gesture control. However, the feedback we are getting from customers is that gesture is something interesting to keep an eye on, but they don’t know if they are ready to make it ubiquitous on their aircraft until the technology has been proven out a lot more – probably proven out in the consumer world, where it is now being used in some TVs and mobile phones.


For gesture control, we’re looking more at micro than macro gestures because we don’t think people will want to wave their hands around in the cabin. For eye tracking we want to make sure it works for people who wear glasses, and also for passengers lying in the prone position. We want to get these things right before we implement them, because the cameras and devices aren’t necessarily cheap or easy to integrate, and at the end of the day if you cant make them work all the time every time, the airlines will choose a handset anyway. So these ideas are still in the R&D phase. But most customers are looking for the home theatre experience, so our touchscreens work with the same responsiveness as an iPad, and you can have a second-screen experience with the handset or your own device.


You want to make the IFE controls as familiar as possible – that’s one of the things we learned from automotive entertainment, which Panasonic is a leader in. With a car, you drive it every day and have time to master technologies like BMW’s iDrive. But in an aircraft the controls must be intuitive immediately. A lot of airlines have overcomplicated their interfaces, and most are now looking for more simplicity.


On directional sound technology:
Four years ago we created the ‘cone of silence’ for noise cancellation in a premium cabin without headphones. One of the biggest use cases of Bose headphones is people pulling the wire out and going to sleep, and we want to create that silence in the seated environment.


We could also use the cone of sound for directional audio for music or movies. We have a laboratory in Osaka where we have first and business-class seats set up with noise cancellation and audio technologies. There are challenges with integrating the technologies, as if they are integrated with the seat then there are certification challenges to be overcome. However, just as we really started to refine them, the A380 and B787 came along, which are very quiet inside. Panasonic is experienced though, and we are big in noise cancelling in vehicles – indeed Honda found it was lighter and cheaper to use noise cancellation technology than to fit soundproofing materials.

On regional IFE:
We developed the eXLite system last year, and it is now slimmed down enough for use in narrowbody regional jets. The small passenger service display shows seatbelt nomenclature and no-smoking signs, and can also be used for advertising, moving map or even movies. The beauty of having it small and at every row is that it doesn’t need to retract, so there are no reliability or weight issues. Uniquely for Panasonic we provide the whole system including the cabin lighting, temperature control, toilet and water handling, all as part of the attendant control panel. This is our first foray into complete aircraft interior systems. The cabin system is standard fit on the Bombardier CSeries, with seatback IFE as an option.


We are now talking to regional jet OEMs about putting similar systems on their aircraft – the whole cabin system and IFE. Going into regional jets was a natural evolution. We already have a position on the Embraer 170 and 190 – a previous-generation IFE system – but we can now use this system instead. For the seatback system we’re down to 3 lbs a seat, so the system is very lightweight. There are options of a credit card reader, USB reader, or noise cancelling or audio jack on the seatback unit, and it can also incorporate an attendant call button so you don’t need PSU buttons. This all helps to make the system lighter and lower maintenance.


Many customers are fitting hybrid IFE systems now, so they mix and match, for example taking weight out of economy class so just wireless connectivity or overhead displays are offered, while 24in seatback monitors are offered in business.


On Panasonic Avionics’ role within the organisation:
The avionics division is expanding. You may think of Panasonic as a TV company, but we are opening people’s eyes to how much B2B work we do. Panasonic Automotive Systems is a huge profitable organisation, and you may not know that our semiconductor group is heavily involved in the iPhone’s features and functions. Panasonic Avionics used to fly under the radar but now we are very much at the surface. There’s a lot of B2B work going on that the public doesn’t know about. The automotive division is larger, but we’re the only international company in Panasonic that is headquartered outside Japan. We’re unique in the Panasonic organisation.

Interview from May 2013


20 June 2013


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