ICE age

Digital Studio hopped on a 15-plus hour non-stop flight to Sydney on an Emirates Airbus A340-500 and discovered the joy of having a personal TV screen and a choice of 500 odd channels of audio and video on demand entertainment. We take a look at the system that powers the aircraft's entertainment zone.

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By  Vijaya Cherian Published  March 2, 2004

I|~|iceage2.jpg|~|Patrick Brannelly, VP of passenger communications and visual services, Emirates Airline|~|“We are now living in the ICE age,” says Patrick Brannelly, vice president of passenger communications and visual services, Emirates Airline, referring to the three buzzwords — Information, Communications and Entertainment — that have come to play a crucial role in our lives today. The greatest of these is entertainment, especially on a long haul flight of more than seven hours as it helps to kill time and make an otherwise long journey less tedious. Entertainment is likely to become increasingly crucial as the Emirates Airbus A340-500 — the world’s longest range commercial aircraft and the first to be operated by an airline — embarks on some of the longest ever flights in history in the months to come. Most of these flights — non stop from Dubai to New York, Sydney and San Francisco, to name a few destinations — are over 15 hours. On such flights, it could be frustrating if the passenger is only allowed to view what is being played on the overhead monitor. For one, the passenger may not understand the language; he may already have watched the film or may not find the movie entertaining. The solution, therefore, is to give passengers a wide choice of on-demand video and audio entertainment so that each of them can watch what they want. This is what led Emirates to introduce television onto every seat in all classes as far back as 1992, when most planes still had only overhead monitors or offered such facilities only to first class passengers. Back then, Emirates Airlines even offered a choice of six TV channels, which, according to Brannelly, was far more than Dubai offered its residents at the time. “The choice we offered was tremendously effective compared to what was there previously, which was just an overhead monitor,” says Brannelly, who adds that many airlines today still give their passengers only a headset and an overhead monitor. But he also says that passengers, once given a choice, demand much more. “We wanted to fulfil that demand,” he says. In 1996, Emirates took one step forward to fulfilling that goal by upgrading its systems and offering 18 video channels and 22 radio channels to all of its passengers. Again, that was not enough, according to Brannelly. “On very long flights, you have to do everything in your seat … you have to sleep, eat and be entertained, so we decided to look at the system and see just how much choice we could offer the passenger.” Emirates decided that it would provide a service that was miles ahead of anything offered by any other airline. That is how Emirates came to sign an agreement with Japanese company Matsushita, one of the leading suppliers of In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) systems, to design an exclusive solution for the airline that would provide passengers with such a wide array of entertainment that it would take their breath away. “We led the design of it and Matsushita built it for us,” explains Brannelly. ||**||II|~||~||~|What emerged out of that agreement is a US $8 million sophisticated in-flight system dubbed ICE (information, communications and entertainment) — a solution that offers customers more than 100 movies, 50 TV channels on demand, more than 350 audio channels and 40 in-flight games, many of them multi-player. “This is almost three times more than any other airline offers their customers today,” says Brannelly. While the video-on-demand (VOD) includes old classics, Disney films, comedy, Arabic and other regional cinema as well as the latest releases, the audio choice includes UK No. 1 hits from every week since the Top 10 was first published, on 14th November 1952, 50-plus channels of Arabic, Japanese and World music, a giant selection of albums, 70 hours of classical concertos, operas and symphonies as well as 10 entire audio books. Moreover, there are 13 video channels dedicated to Arab customers and they feature movies, plays, fashion, music videos, comedy, children’s shows and Hollywood hits sub-titled in Arabic. The Arabic audio selection includes readings from the Holy Quran and 23 channels of Arabic Rai, Khaleeji, Classical and Arabic pop music, and CDs and “Best Of” channels from top Arabic recording artistes. Perhaps one important thing to note is that these systems are designed to give more than just subtitles for movies, although the Arabic ones are subtitled. In most cases, the VOD system offers four parallel tracks, which allows a passenger to shift between English and German, Japanese, and French. Some Japanese titles are dubbed while others are subtitled. But from this month, the new aircraft will also be carrying 15 Japanese titles “so that in terms of entertainment, our passengers won’t feel it’s any different from flying a Japanese airline,” says Brannelly. “The idea is if you are a Japanese passenger or an Indian passenger, we have tried to give you options as well.” This entire service is carried out with the help of three huge file media servers that are mirrored on the aircraft, and each of them have a capacity of 576G/bytes. “Most people would probably understand it as a very big iPod, but with both video as well as audio. But where an iPod deals with only one user, our servers on board have the potential to serve up to 1000 seats although of course, we only have 264 seats,” explains Brannelly. Each seat is fitted with a computer that runs on Linux. The application is loaded down to the seat when the power is switched on in the aircraft. The seats have about 64M/bytes RAM although they have no local storage. When a passenger selects a movie, a private data channel is opened between the seat and the media server, which is located at the head end of the air craft. Depending on whether the passenger is in first class or economy, the data reaches them at 4 mbps or 2.5 mbps respectively. “This media is distributed over QAM on a very broadband wired network. We haven’t applied any wireless technology because it is not really capable of distributing high-bit rate media to so many users concurrently,” explains Brannelly. Apart from entertainment, Emirates also claims that it is the first to offer regularly updated news on its flights. Passengers on the new aircraft will have access to the latest BBC headlines, updated via a live link to BBC World. “Emirates is the first to offer live updates of news using the communications technology we have employed. The capability has always been there, but it took us to develop the communications software to make this happen. We extract news from BBC World’s XML news database and re-purpose it, then send it to our aircraft over the Inmarsat satellites using a private data channel,” explains Brannelly. ||**||III|~||~||~|Perhaps one of the biggest issues that concerned the airline while designing the system was the user interface. Although passengers have been given touch screen remote controls to select anything they want and play, stop, forward, rewind and watch movies at their pace, it was important to design a system that was easily navigable. On a normal aircraft with limited content, this is as easy as switching on the TV and typing in the channel you want. But in ICE, there is such a huge array of content for the passenger including movies, children’s films, and instructions on how to make a phone call, how to send an SMS or an email and information about Dubai, frequent flyer programmes and so on, that navigation could become difficult for less tech-savvy passengers. “We have to assume that passengers will have a widely varying level of tech-savvyness. Some may never have used a PC or MP3 player before, whilst others may be advanced and know and expect every latest feature. With the limited computing power available, this is compounded,” explains Brannelly. Another issue was the equipment. While hardware requirements are similar to ground conditions, the equipment must also be able to withstand extreme temperatures and shock during landing, take off and turbulence. “You can’t just take mainstream equipment and put it on the aircraft… there is a whole raft of considerations although the concepts are the same and this is what makes the system hugely expensive and complex,” explains Brannelly. Previously, hard disks on aircraft also relied on military technology and so passengers had to switch off their machines during take off and landing. But this does not hold true anymore. “If a passenger is watching a film, he can carry on watching it now. That’s the speciality of this system,” explains Brannelly. Unlike other airlines, Emirates has also been the first to increase the size of the display screen for first and business class passengers. The former now enjoy 19” personal video screens and the latter are given 15” screens. They also enjoy a higher quality of video at 4 mbps while economy class passengers have 9” screens and get video at 2.5 mbps. “We use a special bit rate to give better picture quality. I believe other airlines will move towards what we are doing. Most of them currently use 1.5 mbps even for their business class passengers while the lowest we use is 2.2 mbps,” explains Brannelly. . Just to put the whole concept in perspective, Brannelly explains that E-vision, Dubai’s monopoly cable TV service, runs at 3 mbps. For sceptics, who complain that 2.2 mbps might not be good enough, Brannelly states one fact. “Your LAN in the office will not be able to handle 260 people watching video from a central file server at the same time but our aircraft can do that and we have tested that and it works. That’s the beauty of this system.” All media for the aircraft is specifically encoded for it. MP3 files, for instance, can’t be played onboard although Brannelly says he hopes they [the airline] will be able to do that as well in the future. In-flight entertainment is also not as simple as taking a video from the local DVD store and playing it on the aircraft, warns Brannelly. Just as there are distribution rights for showing movies in theatres and homes, there are also rights for in-flight entertainment. “This is a fairly mature distribution channel and most airlines in the world procure entertainment from them [the rights holders],” he says. However, the method of licensing for movies or other TV content is not always the same and depends on the discretion of the rights holder — typically the major studios in Hollywood. While in some cases, the airline may be expected to pay per use, sometimes they play a flat rate or agree to a mix of the two. ||**||IV|~||~||~|Still, procuring rights for some films is not always easy, admits Brannelly. For instance, many of the old classics come under the grey area because most distributors don’t know who owns the rights to them. “We have, for instance, looked at a catalogue and contacted a particular distributor for a movie but when they go back, they don’t know if they definitely own the rights to that movie. This is because many of the studios in Hollywood started off as small independents and later merged and catalogues moved around. While you might acquire 2500 films from one studio, later, you might be partly sold to somebody else and you might not know which movies you own. That gives rise to a grey area so we don’t know whether those films can be aired or not and we prefer not to take the risk. Sometimes, it’s also because airborne rights have not been created for those films,” he adds. Emirates initially had trouble procuring Hindi movies because rights to Indian films are often sold even before the pictures are made. This, however, was rectified with the coming of the World Airline Entertainment Association, which has facilitated better contact between airlines, distributors and IP systems. This, in turn, has improved the distribution channels and as a result, procuring rights to regional movies is no longer as arduous as it used to be. Despite all of this sophistication, Emirates has also been careful to put in place reasonable troubleshooting measures. The airline has spent a lot of time and money to add redundancy into the system, says Brannelly. “At the head end, we have three media servers although we only need two. They have graceful degradation, which means although they’d lose their VOD if one of them goes, it will only affect about 30 passengers and they’d have to survive on 110 channels. If the second one goes, business class will still continue to retain VOD while the rest of the aircraft will still have 110 channels,” he adds. Applications on each seat are also designed to reset themselves in the event of a failure. If they can’t, senior crew members are trained to be able to reset the application. “Even in the worst event, we’ll still be offering more channels than other airlines although we do not wish to be compared with them. We try to put ourselves in the mind of the passenger and offer them the level of service that we can,” he explains, adding that the airline has made ICE the new standard. However, he clarifies that the airline will not retrofit ICE onto its older aircraft. “The core of ICE is the video and audio on-demand product,” says Brannelly. “To retrofit that to earlier aircraft is a huge task which involves changing video screens and seat boxes, possibly seats and seat wiring as well as handsets and almost certainly, the forward galley. Emirates currently has over 100 aircraft on order and the future aircraft will have ICE (or better) but many existing aircraft will not remain in the fleet long enough to justify the upgrade.” ||**||

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