Inflight entertainment manufacturers are preparing a slate of technologies designed to make the cabin of an airliner a destination unto itself.

From holographic video to headphone-less audio to social interactions among aircraft cabins and the ground, the main players in the market, Thales and Panasonic Avionics, are investigating futuristic embedded seatback offerings that will keep onboard in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems relevant in an environment where personal electronics and inflight bandwidth are burgeoning.

The projects in many cases are long-term, depending on technology that may not be ready for 10 years, if ever.

The seat evolution will likely start at the front of widebody aircraft, in premium seating, but some will transition to the coach cabin and narrowbody fleet as the technologies mature and cost and weight are reduced.

While the number of internet protocol-equipped aircraft (IP) is expected to grow from 10% of the global fleet today to 50% by 2021, according to IMS Research, IFE makers argue that connectivity speed limits and other factors will keep the bulk of entertainment on board. That's particularly true for widebody aircraft, where inflight connectivity (IFC) is beginning to supplement, but no usurp, IFE.

“To me, embedded IFE will never go away,” says Brett Bleacher, director of R&D and innovations at Thales's Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity (IFEC) division in Southern California. “Everyone is not bringing their personal electronic devices (PEDS) on board. We're giving them multiple options, including wireless.” For those who do bring an iPad on board, Bleacher notes that a display screen in first class is 23-26 in. wide, whereas an iPad is 10 in.

Panasonic, which has approximately 70% of the IFE market share, sees the combination of IFE and IFC as the spark that could ignite a new kind of holism in the cabin. A prototype system called Skymarks could allow passengers to share en-route experiences and tips with other passengers on the same aircraft, or in other connected aircraft anywhere. Steve Sizelove, product research manager for Panasonic Avionics, says passengers flying over the Grand Canyon in Arizona could post pictures to the site and interact on the topic.

“Skymarks may help [the passenger] figure out where they want to go for their next vacation,” says Sizelove.

He says Panasonic has agreements with “several partners” on the idea, which would link with existing social media sites and a new site specific to Panasonic. “We're looking at trying to figure out how bring this forward as a corporation,” he says. For another IFC project, the team of seven engineers at Panasonic's IFE facilities is contemplating a system that will allow passengers to synchronize watching a movie or video with people on the ground, complete with a low-bandwidth voice or text link. As with Thales, the Panasonic IFE group works in cooperation with related technology groups in other segments of those two large companies.

At Thales, Bleacher and his team of five engineers and three interns are in a laboratory experimenting with concepts that will keep up with, or perhaps leapfrog, the consumer market in the areas of command- and-control and immersion technologies.

“One of the biggest things coming from [the consumer market] is gesture control, similar to the Xbox Kinect, but with finger and hand control,” says Bleacher. “We have it operating in a business-class demonstration seat, and have a couple of bids from customers.”

Bleacher says premium seating is an ideal starting place for the technology as passengers, unlike in the economy cabin, are too far from the screen to make touch-screen control possible. “With gesture, your hand and vision of image is always in the same plane; you don't have to look down at the controller,” he says.

Along with gesture, Thales is developing an eye-tracking capability that will allow the passengers to visually select an item to be controlled, followed by voice control to make the selection. The company is also testing a “magic wand” accelerometer-based pointer for pointing and clicking items on the screen.

Thales's voice-recognition technology, which came from the company's automotive sector, will use a “microphone beam-forming” process directed in the vicinity of the passenger's mouth, and noise-cancellation and noise-reduction algorithms to strip out ambient cabin noise. “It's in the preliminary stages, but we think we can do it,” says Bleacher.

Sizelove says Panasonic is trying to figure out “how to engage a person naturally in the aircraft cabin” in terms of command and control. Early indications are that a combination of wireless controllers, gesture and eye-tracking may be the best fit, particularly in the confined space of an aircraft cabin, where passengers can “take the time to learn and interact,” says Sizelove.

Where the eyes will be looking when tracked is open to creativity. Sizelove says a projector could shoot an image on a variety of surfaces, including a tray table and seat arm, where a passenger would interact with the image via eye or facial-tracking and gestures. In an earlier demonstration, passengers could look up at a ceiling vent and control its flow by gesturing with a circular hand motion to open or close the vent.

Main components for such a system would be an infrared sensor for eye- tracking and a web camera to catch the reflection and correlate where the eyes are focused. A flaw with eye-tracking is that it does not work for people wearing glasses, says Sizelove, an issue that might be solvable with facial feature-tracking, he says.

In a demonstration last year, Panasonic projected light down from a tray latch onto the tray when deployed, and included a “very simple” interface to order food or change the music playing on the IFE. Gesture control was accomplished by tracking the passenger's fingers using a high-definition camera in the seatback. The project was part of a broader program underway for the past three years to investigate whether there is a “new paradigm” that makes sense for the economy cabin, says Sizelove.

“It's still a study we're going through now,” says Sizelove. “The idea is how can we make the economy-class cabin more romantic and engaging that it is today?”

Possible solutions may not involve IFE in the traditional sense. One of the trade studies included a passenger bringing an iPad on board, and “interacting with the cabin” rather than a seatback display. Included was the idea of the iPad connecting to a projection system displaying on the stowed tray for ordering food, getting new photos and showing them on the iPad. Sizelove says the company is probably 9-15 months away from deciding whether that particular idea is worth pursuing for production. “Right now, laser projectors are still fairly expensive compared to an LCD screen,” he says.

Another technology on tap at Thales for the premium seat is directional sound, which would allow the passenger to hear complete quiet, music or IFE audio without wearing headphones, and without bothering the passenger in the next seat. Bleacher says the technology is not yet mature, as there is about 10 dB of “leakage” audio that other people can “slightly hear.” More work also is needed on noise-absorbing materials to keep sound waves from reflecting into the cabin.

“We're focus on beam-forming to just the two ears [of the passenger],” says Bleacher, noting that speakers will likely be placed near the seat-back display or in the headrest closest to the passenger's ears. “We're going to implement the design in a seat next year, collaborating with the seat manufacturer.”

Perhaps the most enticing work at Thales involves flight-attendant avatars.

Bleacher says engineers are investigating a holographic display system for premium seating that would project a 3-D image out 6-8 in. in front of a 20-in. IFE screen. “I want to project a little avatar into the first class seat—a miniature version of the flight attendant that is animated,” he says. “People don't get offended as much talking to an avatar.” Bleacher says the company will demonstrate the avatar, complete with emotions, in September 2013. A longer-term project, about 10 years out, will be a virtual 3-D flight attendan who could give the safety briefing in the cabin.

“The avatar created by projected holography is based on one focal plane,” says Bleacher. “With the projected flight attendant though, we would have to have everyone see it, and it's hard to see free-air projection.” Typically, he says, projection requires a “mist wall,” or other display surface, with proper lighting for everyone to see the image.

Sizelove says Panasonic is also working on 3-D visuals, including user interaction with the images, but there are broad issues to overcome. While some niche projects are underway to use special glasses to create a 3-D view, as in movie theaters and the company's new Altus monitor for a first-class cabin customer in 2014, Sizelove says the technology will be hindered from large- scale rollout until the glasses are gone. “Until non-glasses 3d kicks in, I don't see it as realistic for the aircraft,” he says. “From the avionics point of view, we see it as something to watch. Until we can get rid of those glasses, it's a niche and not a mainstream.”

Add to that, he says, there is a need for studies to determine how 3-D views might affect passengers' well-being, a nod to the gaming industry's experience with non-glasses 3-D screens potentially causing motion sickness. “We're not ready to do anything until we do studies to see how it affects people when in motion,” he says.

Sizelove says it is too soon to know if holograms are the answer either. “One of my pet dreams is to have a holographic flight attendant coming up out of the food tray,” says Sizelove. “But the complexity behind all of them is immense, and it is not miniaturized to the point where we can put in the aircraft. It's technically feasible, but not ready for mainstream.”