CES Offers Glimpse of Future Cabin Tech

 - September 25, 2006, 10:54 AM

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last month lived up to its reputation as a playground for tech lovers, with more than 2,500 companies showing off an array of items that beep, ring, flash, download, upload and heaven knows what else.

A healthy contingent from the aviation industry mingled among the 150,000 people in attendance at this year’s show, as avionics makers, installation centers and business aircraft manufacturers sent representatives to search for the new technologies and products that could one day find their way into the cabin.

With so much to see, finding wholly aviation-appropriate technology was no easy feat. Yet among the abundant iPod add-ons, video-gaming consoles, digital cameras and a seemingly endless assortment of mostly superfluous tech gear, a number of notable technologies stood out.

It’s no secret that satellite radio has caught on in a big way, with XM and Sirius battling it out for the lead among U.S. consumers. The technology is near the top of the wish lists of business jet buyers, and as a result satellite radio receivers are becoming commonplace in the passenger compartments of many business airplanes. Now, a satellite radio provider called WorldSpace of Silver Spring, Md., is poised to bring digital music, talk and news to business jet operators in Europe, the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific and Africa.

WorldSpace has launched satellites for each of its geographic regions and is concentrating on building its subscriber base among car buyers and in homes. With about 100,000 subscribers so far, the service is relatively small, but considering it has the potential to reach billions of people in 130 countries, company executives said WorldSpace is poised for growth.

So far the aviation market has not been a focus for the nascent company, but that could be about to change. Arti Mehta, WorldSpace marketing manager, said the satellite radio provider would be interested in developing receiver equipment for aircraft if it can get connected with the right partners. Besides an obvious potential audience among airline passengers, WorldSpace could also prove popular with business jet buyers, just as XM and Sirius have in the U.S. WorldSpace currently offers about 40 channels of music, news and talk, including pop music channels, news from CNN International and Bloomberg and even an Islamic channel created for the Middle Eastern market.

Flat-panel televisions, particularly high- definition models, dominated CES this year, with manufacturers showing off their best and (literally) brightest products. While the usual big LCD and plasma screens were well represented, new offerings based on technologies such as organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) and surface-conduction electron-emitter displays (SED) seemed to cast some doubt about whether LCD and plasma screen tvs will continue their dominance over this segment of the industry for much longer.

While manufacturers have started mass-producing some smaller OLED screens– mainly for cellphones and digital cameras– it was the new SED technology that caused the biggest stir at CES.

The technology is being pioneered jointly by Toshiba and Canon, which have formed a joint venture called SED Inc. to produce the first SED television, possibly as early as this year. The big advantage of SED technology is that it combines what’s best about LCD and CRT displays. Like LCD tvs, SED televisions are thin and can be produced in wide format. But like conventional CRTs, SEDs make use of the collision of electrons with a phosphor-coated screen to emit light.

Electron emitters, which correspond to an electron gun in a CRT, are distributed in an amount equal to the number of pixels on the display. Since SEDs apply the same light-emission theory as CRTs, they provide far richer colors, a sharper overall picture and faster video response than LCDs and plasma, which can appear fuzzy when images are moving across the screen. A private demonstration of a 42-inch SED television at the Canon exhibit seemed to support the company’s claims that the technology provides a better picture.

The downside to SED technology, at least initially, is that production will ramp up fairly slowly and prices will be very high. But like most new technologies, once SED televisions start selling in larger numbers, prices will fall. Once that happens, look for business jet makers to begin offering SED television monitors on their cabin options lists.

Also destined for the passenger compartment are high-definition (HD) televisions and corresponding high-definition DVD players to go with them. Two competing technologies have emerged to compete in the HD DVD market, with Toshiba pushing traditional HD DVD and Sony and its partners promoting the so-called Blu-ray Disc format.

Both formats use blue laser light to increase the capacity of a DVD to allow it to hold HD movie content. Blu-Ray has the edge in capacity–up to 50 gigabytes per layer, compared to HD DVD’s 15 gigabytes–but HD DVD supporters say Blu-Ray is more expensive and difficult to manufacture.

Just like the VHS versus Betamax war of the 1980s, it could take some time to sort out the next generation of high-definition DVD technologies. In the meantime, some manufacturers say they will produce HD DVD/Blu-Ray combo players.

Other notable technologies shown at CES included Sharp’s two-way LCD flat-panel screen, in which a single display can show two completely different images, one of which can be viewed from slightly to the left of center and the other slightly to the right. The big advantage in the consumer electronic world, Sharp believes, is that it will allow a driver to view navigation information on the display while it simultaneously provides entertainment content to the passenger on the right. But such a display could have applications in aircraft, as well, where space limitations might make such a monitor an appropriate alternative to installing multiple cabin displays.

Finally, Panasonic showed off a technology that probably won’t make it into a business jet cabin, unless it’s a VIP Airbus A380 or Boeing 747: the company’s 103-inch-diagonal (that’s more than 8.5 feet) plasma TV made its debut as the industry’s biggest, supplanting the previous size champ produced by other manufacturers, measuring a mere 102 inches. Samsung, meanwhile, introduced the industry’s biggest LCD television, measuring 82 inches diagonally.

When he wasn’t touting the new XBox 360 gaming console or the new Windows Vista PC operating system, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates focused his attention on on-demand video, saying video subscription services will do for HD entertainment content what the corner video store did for VCR sales. Of note, a number of manufacturers are now offering digital video recorders with massive storage capacity that would allow business jet operators to download content from TV and the Internet to play back later in flight.

Microsoft has reached an agreement with DirecTV to allow content to be downloaded directly to special Media Center Edition PCs, and DirecTV announced it is launching a line of portable media players that will be capable of grabbing tv content for later viewing.