History of IFE Systems: The challenge to provide movies

Travelling couple in LH Economy Class

The beginning of digital IFE was marked by different challenges. Besides hardware and software problems, the IFE providers struggled to find an efficient technological way to provide movies to aircraft – safe and not too expensive. In part 4 of our blog series on the history of IFE we take a look at how to provide the content.

 

If perfecting digital IFE systems themselves was a problem, there were enormous issues impacting the content delivery supply chain. Initially digital hardware systems were built to whatever technical specifications the hardware provider believed appropriate. But providing motion picture content to such systems meant that digital files had to be “compressed” to enable storage and playback—a process which was initially enormously expensive.

To prevent having to compress the files separately for each system, the Technology Committee of the then World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA)—now APEX—created a working group—co-founded by this author and Jim Williams of Hughes-Avicom—that established a common industry standard that was issued in March of 1995 after two years work. The ongoing work of this standards group is essential to digital IFE by ensuring compression algorithms expressed in profiles to which digital platforms can be efficiently architected. (Note: Jim Williams went on the become VP of Technology for the MPAA.)


System reliability remains an issue

While system reliability has improved substantially over the years, it remained—and remains—an issue. At the turn of the millennium, consumer electronics against which IFE is benchmarked were moving in the direction of mobility and portability. Alaska Airlines told its employees that it wanted to find an inexpensive way to provide IFE, and a young baggage handler named Bill Boyer pointed the airline to a fledgling developer of a portable media player—a handheld device that stored content internally on a hard disc.

More than 50 airlines began using PMPs, particularly as consumer-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology brought price points down. But perhaps the most desirable characteristic of PMPs was their reliability. Some airlines with embedded systems also boarded PMPs for “service recovery”—i.e., for backup in the event of embedded system failures. While PMPs involved distribution logistics and content loading issues, they were inherently reliable, and with all content stored locally on each device, there was no opportunity for there to be a systemic point of failure.

Leveraging this concept into a new kind of system architecture—called “seat-centric”—The IMS Company launched an IFE system in 2010 in which seat display units (SDUs) were embedded in each seatback and contained SD cards for content storage and playback. The SDUs were linked by a wired network for content loading, but the playback was local from the device, not the head-end. Zodiac Aerospace developed a similar system, and in 2013 purchased The IMS Company.

Lumexis Corporation responded to the reliability issue and developed an embedded system that used fiber optic cables for faster, better and more reliable performance, and that was architected to provide content redundancy to decrease systemic failure and increase reliability. Lumexis’ system also reflected an effort to eliminate the boxes under each seat and dramatically reduce system weight, while increasing the bandwidth available for showing high definition movies at each seat.

 


Next week I will finish this blog series with the following topic: 
History of IFE Systems: The introduction of wireless systems

Be curious!

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