Touch screens, video-on-demand, GPS, Portable Entertainment, taxi’s with TV, highway rest stops with WiFi hotspots …. Entertainment technology is reaching into our travels and changing fast. No where are these changes more apparent than airlines. New planes have new technology and are trying to keep up.
Last week Virgin America, the newly launched U.S. low fare airline chose a handful of prominent Internet personalities and blogger’s as cartoon faces to front their new ad campaign. They included people like Kevin Rose (Digg) and the team at popular blog Boing Boing. I wasn’t among the chosen few – Metue is a good ways from the scale of audience to draw that kind of attention - but I have flown VA twice this month and the time seems right to take inventory and do a review; a closer look at the entertainment technology aboard the newest company to take flight.
Long gone are the days of fixed televisions spaced along the aisles to display a pre-selected in-flight movie (unless of course you’re flying an older plane). Today’s newer aircraft are increasingly outfitted with networked entertainment. So far, no airline has gone more forward (or customer centric) in defining the user experience than Virgin America. As a part of Richard Branson’s empire, that makes sense. Sir Richard has a reputation for being flamboyant; a cutting edge entrepreneur who likes to push the edge in his businesses and his adventures. Half owned by Virgin (U.S. regulations prohibit majority ownership of domestic airlines), it’s fair to say Virgin America’s toting at least half of Branson’s signature style.
Expanding on rival Jet Blue’s in flight systems, VA offers “Red” a fully interactive system controlled by a combination of seatback touch screen and armrest mounted remote controls. The system is still characterized as being in Beta (with features still under development) though it’s live and running on their fleet. It’s not perfect but here’s a run through of some of the highlights and the flaws:
• Touch Screen Monitor with built in media player
Red is controlled largely by the touch screen monitor housed in the seatback in front of you. The screen is about 9” in diagonal and provides a crisp viewing experience. The user interface, including the media player, looks and operates similar to most PC/MAC based software. It’s easy to use and, for the most part, intuitive. The backend was largely built by Panasonic and CoKinetic. The Interface was built by Wunderman.
The system showcases the video entertainment, or music. It also, with the touch of fixed button allows you to cycle between a Google powered in flight map, the home page and the media player environment. On a thumb’s up, thumb’s down basis, it’s looking good. I particularly like the ability to order a drink when I want it from the system.
• Armrest controls
A few buttons on the armrest to switch channels and change the volume are commonplace. VA takes it a step further. The Virgin armrest pivots up to release a corded remote control. One side of the device provides the standard and expected functionality: channel, volume, basic navigation. The magic happens when the controller is turned over. On the back, it has a full QWERTY keyboard and an old school style Nintendo game controller.
• Dish Network live satellite TV
The primary free video entertainment (mainstream movies are all pay-per-view) on the flight is satellite television through Dish Network. As of today, there are about 22 channels. They include 4 ESPNs, Food Network, Fox and FX, USA, Disney, Current TV, Discovery Channel, a dose of news programming and a few other channels. The offering is moderately balanced but many cable standbys like TBS and TNT, and much major network content is noticeably absent. (Disney, Fox, Paramount and Warner Brothers were Virgin’s early partners. NBC Universal signed on in July).
Fly on a Sunday during football season and you may be disappointed. You may also be disappointed, for now, with the consistency of the TV offering. In my two flights, many of the channels were temporarily unavailable (or completely unavailable) for much of the flight. There seemed to be issue with the Satellite reception.
Score: negative. Depth of programming isn’t great but reliability is a big fault. Seeing the same Simpson’s episode recycle for hours on end was not good for me or the other passengers.
• Movies and Premium TV
The inflight movie is an old standby. On Virgin America, it’s place of merit changes. Here all mainstream films are sold pay per view via the credit card reader in the monitor. On my flights there was a good selection – 25 titles (along with a handful of free shorts and festival circuit level films). The movies play fine and having them available on-demand is great. The trouble here is they’re priced at $8 per flick. That’s rather pricey compared against the kind of pay-per-view prices I’d pay at home or to rent a movie ($4 or less). 8 bucks for a rental? Steep… especially on a 9 inch screen. I don’t mind paying but I like to think I’m getting fair value for my money. Even if contracts require the high price, it’s no good for the customer.
Score: Negative, with potential. Change the pricing or at least make one title available free (priced into the ticket).
As for premium TV, that too suffers a bit from pricing confusion. Virgin offered 20 TV shows priced at $1.99 a piece. Some of these programs were select episodes of Showtime programming like Dexter. Others are regularly (and usually freely available) network standbys like 24, or Family Guy. Paying for them is not a problem but bring in more specialty content. Sign on HBO. Get to work licensing. And tell me, why is a 30 minute show the same price as an hour long cable program? $1.99 is not outrageous. It’s comparable to iTunes pricing but again, the value equation? Give me more. For now, the limited offering is so far just average.
Music is part of where Virgin shines. That figures given Richard Branson’s early successes in the music industry. Here, instead of just the usual elevator selection of genre organized hits on looping inflight radio, Virgin America offers a deep library of MP3’s that you can select from the seat. About 200 artists were represented from U2 (21 songs) to Elvis to Amy Winehouse to Etta James. There was something for everybody – along with a handful of free music videos for those inclined. Some of the artists are single album selections, other career retrospectives. It’s an impressive offering. It could even be great opportunity for record labels to promote new talents. Score: Positive
• In Seat Video Games
Video games with a real controller in your seat? That wasn’t expected, but it’s there. Through about 15 games, kids, adults or otherwise can cycle through a range of gaming entertainment, all free of charge. Most of the titles are throwbacks – Atari asteroids clone, a Tetris like offering. There’s even first person shooter game Doom. They’re all dated, but they are still fun. The system was little buggy, occasionally freezing, but for kids, or passing time, it wasn’t bad. Be nice if the games were more modern but not a bad start. Score: positive.
• In Flight Messaging system
The back of the remote control is home not just to the gaming controller but to a full mini keyboard. Parents or groups not sitting together can use it to sent text messages between seats. For now, this is a novelty. The real payoff will be at the next stage of development when Red adds email and SMS messaging abilities. At that point, the system could provide a realistic alternative to keeping in touch during the flight (albeit with potential security concerns if people use it for webmail). Score: neutral with prospects.
Email is coming soon, likewise there’s space allocated for some form of e-reader digital book offering and the prospect of in seat shopping through Red. Novelties or winner? Too early to tell. Overall though, for in-flight entertainment (IFE) Red is an impressive starting point; a real showcase of technologies converging