future of wireless devices on planes

panel discussion, CES 2011

clouds in the clouds

This year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2011 I moderated a panel discussion on the future of wireless devices on airplanes. My panel included a group of experts representing different perspectives on the topic: Patrick Brannelly, President of the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX) and Vice President, Corporate Communications Product, Publishing, Digital & Events at Emirates Airline; Todd Hill, Director, Global Consumer Services, Technical Operations at Panasonic Avionics Corp; Eric Lemond, Director, Product & Platform Management at Aircell (Gogo); David McLaughlan, Senior Business Development Manager, Microsoft [Zune].

As background, consumer electronics and aviation have a love-hate relationship; while consumer electronics trends have been born from in-flight technology (e.g., personal monitors, touch screens, video-on-demand, etc.) airlines struggle to keep up with leapfrogging consumer electronics trends. Airline technology needs to last 12-15 years, so airlines have to work around legacy infrastructure. Airlines are trying to accommodate consumer demand for connectivity as best they can within their financial, infrastructure and regulatory constraints.

It’s a paradox. On one hand, in-flight entertainment can showcase emerging technologies that are making their way into mainstream consumer electronics. For example, trendy new iPads are the in-flight entertainment platform on Jetstar Airline (Australia). On the other hand, the airline industry is recognizing that consumers are boarding with their own electronic devices, and thus their own entertainment (books, movies, music) raising the question “should airlines even offer entertainment?”

device-agnostic content is king

Panasonic Avionics and Microsoft both reinforced that their mission is ensure that airplanes can support all kind of consumer electronics. Panasonic Avionics is following the consumer electronics market and working with regulators so planes can safely allow an array of devices on board. Microsoft/Zune partnered with United Airlines to trial Zune HD devices on long-haul routes (rented for $10, preloaded with movies, tv, games, etc.). Microsoft/Zune learned that:

  • Passengers will pay for content that they really want to see (especially exclusive content)
  • Resolution is more important than screen size (3.3” screen isn’t too small is res. is good)
  • Weight matters: lighter screens are preferred for handheld devices
  • Bandwidth needs to be super broad to accommodate all the content
  • Content needs to be tailored to be streamed onto multiple devices (not just Zunes) – PC, Macs, phones, etc.

wireless devices in planes today

From the experiences of Emirates Airlines, which has 83 wifi/cell-phone enabled planes, and Aircell/Gogo in-flight Internet, who’s US usage in 1 month equals the population of Houston: consumers love being connected in the air!  Emirates reports that 5 million passengers have used their cell phones in-flight and 2.8 million SMS have been sent. About 50 passengers each flight switch on their mobile phone, averaging 3 calls. (Note: there was one passenger who made 140 calls on a flight! Ugh!)  But thus far there have been no complaints…

However, the noise/annoyance factor is largely due to the plane’s seating layout and ambient noise/acoustics.  Rampant cell phone usage on a small, cramped domestic US flight might not be so tolerable. What if you’re trying to sleep and the teenage passenger next to you wants to Skype? Spill-over headphone noise is already an issue. Will there need to be Quiet Zone seating on planes, like on trains? After all, about 50% of all travelers are, what I call “eggs”  (introspective frame of mind) they just want to zone-out, be left alone and not be disturbed. Not everyone wants to be connected when flying. Some use flight as an escape. (See earlier post)

future wireless devices on planes: what if?

It’s exciting to imagine the future of wireless technologies in-flight beyond in flight entertainment, Internet (surfing, emailing, social networking) and making phone calls. Cell phone-enabled planes means the cabin is transformed into a vibrant, interactive space. Imagine the new in-flight user experiences created by wifi and gsm:

  • Very targeted/tailored interactive HD in-show advertising (enabled by rich tracking logs)?
  • A coupon for free food might be pushed to your cell phone (the airline engaging you during the flight)?
  • You might be able to look out your plane window and see Augmented Reality (AR) tagged terrain?
  • The Sky Mall catalog could offer demo videos of its’ products via QR codes?
  • You might be able to use a facial recognition App to get profile info on a flight attendant?

These are exciting times for the aviation and consumer electronics industries as new relationships are being forged between the aviation, content providers, electronics and technology industries. A great example of this is Panasonic Avionics’ system called “neXperience.” It’s a 3D, touch based interactive experience that enables the airline passenger to virtually travel between information destinations, filled with advertising and e-commerce. (See image.)

issues:  the ethics & etiquette of a wireless plane

The wireless airplane raises some provocative issues. I can think of three issues, or opportunities:

  1. content appropriateness. Imagine the passenger sitting next to you is watching a movie with violence or nudity, but not necessarily porn? Or is fooling around on Chat Roulette? Culturally, what’s appropriate content for personal devices, say, when flying from Jerusalem to Las Vegas? Will airlines need Rules of Conduct and content policing? Could media content become an airline’s differentiator? Imagine: “Virgin, the airline that allows adult entertainment.”
  2. real-time cabin visuals. With WiFi enabled airplanes today we can “Tweet from our seat”… but with camera phones there is the new possibility of -time video streaming of in flight situations. I wonder how real-time cabin visuals and video might effect (positively and negatively) in-fight customer service… or even safety?
  3. international airspace transactions. We all know our phones will soon be our payment devices, which may change how we buy that boxed stale sandwich?  But, with future airplanes flying at even higher altitudes above sovereign airspace, how might communications, transactions and roaming costs be effected? Could wireless personal devices used in international airspace be free from laws, duties or censorship?

Anyway, the increasing presence of wireless devices on airplanes will no doubt change the way passengers behave, and it will generate issues that need resolving, and create new business opportunities.  Wireless devices on airplanes (and everywhere) are not the future: rather, the present. Get used to it.

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