Lufthansa Systems Blog

History of IFE Systems: From communal screens to personal screens

The migration from 16mm film to 8mm film to videotape encompassed significant changes, but the first change worthy of the term “paradigm shift” in IFE is almost certainly the shift from the communal screen (overhead screen) to the personal screen. Let´s take a closer look at the history of IFE in part 2 of our blog series.

In part 1 of our blog series we had a look at the beginning of IFE.

“In the early eighties,” according to White, “a creative businessman (Arn Steventon) with an engineering background, a pilot’s license, and partial ownership in a Los Angeles-based firm that specialized in aviation components was returning from the Boeing 757 rollout in Seattle.

“As he sat in his home-bound commercial flight, and the movie played,” said White, “his mind wandered, and he thought about the new, miniature liquid crystal diode (LCD) TV screen that was just being introduced into the consumer electronics market. He had recently been exposed to it at the annual Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and he pondered the possibilities of putting that small screen into the aircraft seatback that he faced.

“At the time,” said White, “it was a very small screen—just 2.7 inches in diagonal measurement—but Steventon was doggedly determined and pursued his concept. He eventually parlayed his idea into a small company that was later bought by much larger and richer firms. His company, Airvision, was purchased by Warner [Bros], then half sold to Philips [N.V.], then all sold to Philips [N.V.], then all sold to BE [Aerospace]. His idea on that flight from Seattle generated the next major revolution in in-flight entertainment—the personal video screen.”


Testing the miniature television for passengers

By 1988, Northwest Airlines had decided to test the “miniature television mounted in front of passengers,” reported The New York Times on October 10 of that yearAirvision at that time had become a joint venture of Warner Bros and Philips N.V., located in Valencia, California. “Philips provides the small sets and Warner the films,” said The Times, and “Airvision manufactures the system.” The article observed that “for the airlines, the key drawback is the cost” which Airvision president Sheldon W. Presser estimated at “about [US] $2,000 a seat to buy and install.”

Northwest installed 116 of the seatback screens in the business and economy cabins of a Boeing 747 on the Detroit-to-Tokyo route. British Airways and Qantas both announced their intention to trial the system before the end of 1988.

The article said that “Warner Brothers and Philips have together invested [US] $10 million in the venture, betting that many airlines will find it worthwhile.” Surveys by Warner and Northwest indicated that 70 percent of passengers preferred the personal screens to overhead units.

The concept of “personal screens” covered a range of offerings. The Northwest offering was essentially “personal television” with embedded screens and six linear channels to select from offering movies, news, documentaries, music videos and cartoons. Headsets were provided for a charge between US$4 and US$6 per passenger.


Personal screen – linear content

Often dubbed “personal video,” Sony Trans Com offered battery-powered Sony Walkman™ players that featured a small LCD screen and played hi-Band 8mm tapes. These were “used by some airlines while they bided time and delayed the decisions of installing the promised, soon-to-be-perfected, expensive hard-wired systems,” observed White.

But “personal television” content was linear—the content played on a fixed schedule and was watched simultaneously by everyone. Even though the handheld “personal video” devices were supposed to be temporary, they offered an advantage in that the content was played at the user’s discretion—“on-demand.” In the late 1980s, the IFE industry began to focus on the concept of not only “personal television” but “interactive television” in which “on-demand” was an essential attribute.

By 1993, Philips had taken over Warner Bros’ interest in Airvision, and in September of that year, BE Aerospace had agreed to purchase Airvision from Philips for US $12 million. BE intended to focus on building an Audio-Video-on-Demand (AVOD) system that would enable every passenger to have a personal seatback screen with a wide range of content that could be accessed on-demand. To accomplish this, the system would be digital—not analog.


Next week I will continue this blog series with the following topic: 
History of IFE Systems: From analog to digital – a start with difficulties

Be curious!


Image: Lufthansa Airbus A340 Economy Class (Copyright: Fritz Dressler / Lufthansa)

Tags: inflight entertainmenthistoryLufthansa Systems Blog
Michael Childers
04. Oct 2018

About the author

Involved in inflight entertainment for 40 years, Michael Childers ran the first and largest independent IFE content distribution company for 12 years, then launched LightStream Communications Group as president and CEO which he ran for five years before becoming an independent consultant. From 2006 through 2009 he was Managing Director, Content & Media Strategy, for The IMS Company (now Zodiac) and returned to independent consultancy in 2009. His consulting clients have included Panasonic Avionics, Thales, SmartJog, and many others. In 2013 he was awarded the APEX Outstanding Contribution Award for leadership in digital technology. He has been on the APEX Board of Directors and APEX Technology Committee chair since 2013, and has been with Lufthansa Systems since 2011.
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