Tech Brings Airline Passengers More Movie Options

Flying promises to get more entertaining, or at least tolerable. Panasonic Avionics announced its new eXpress Portable Media Player is being offered to airlines, with Mexicana Airlines the first airline to implement the system and another half dozen airlines expected to begin offering it this year.

The Windows-enabled portable devices use Microsoft’s Digital Rights Management  software to obtain first-run movies from major studios in standard formats like MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 and transcode it into the Windows Media Video format. The content can then be securely transferred to multiple devices simultaneously. The DRM protection is implemented by a company called SyncCast.

“What’s unique about this is we think we’re the only ones that have found a way to do a high resolution, high playback bitrate with a Windows media DRM file,” Ezra Davidson, a business development executive with SyncCast, told “Movie studios like this because it’s a better delivery of their product.”

JetBlue has made much of the personalized DirecTV movies it offers passengers via screens built into the airline seatbacks. It’s a huge expense for other airlines to retrofit their seats with movie screens, so the relatively low cost portable devices are a potentially appealing alternative. Davidson said he expects airlines to offer the devices for about a $5 rental and free to first class passengers.

“There’s an unfilled need for something like this, especially with all the people that travel and don’t necessarily take a notebook computer or movie player,” said Tim Bajarin, analyst with Creative Strategies. “And, of course, families with kids. It’s hard to tell if this is a huge market but there’s definitely a need, and if they price it low enough, I think it makes sense.”

The player is powered by AMD’s  Alchemy Au1200 embedded processor for portable devices. The Au1200 downloads video at full-frame-rate speeds and is designed to deliver DVD-quality viewing. The chip includes a fully integrated media acceleration engine and supports various digital video formats, including MPEG, DivX, and WMV9.

Panasonic claims to hold 80 percent of the in-flight entertainment market and said it plans to sell the system to new and existing customers. “We think you’re also going to start seeing these devices in airport lounges and other airport-related locations,” said Davidson.

In April, Panasonic Avionics, a subsidiary of Panasonic North America (PNA), announced it had launched a global communication service designed to provide broadband data communications services to aircraft. Panasonic also said it plans to offer a new Wireless Access Point (WAP) to provide broadband data connectivity to passengers over a high-speed secure wireless distribution network.

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