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Linux-powered in-flight entertainment

August 1st, 2008 · No Comments · Linux, Travel

My Aer Lingus flight from Chicago to Dublin was on an Airbus a330. I somehow got stuck with the up-against-the-dividing-wall-next-to-the-bathroom seat, but on the plus side, the row was so lame, that I had it all to myself and I could put up the armrests and sleep laid out across the entire center row. I also stacked up those tiny airline pillows to make a real pillow (for the curious: you need 3 of them).

Every seatback came equipped with a small touchscreen entertainment console that included a wide variety of mediocre on-demand media (Meet the Spartans, Be Kind Rewind, Ugly Betty) and games. These systems usually run an embedded version of Red Hat Linux, combined with a custom frontend. The consoles were a prime example of a great idea spoiled by lousy implementation. Many of the games had on-plane networked capability, but the connectivity features were limited to high-score lists and competing against other players in quiz games. There was a Prohibition-era Chicago-themed casino game which seemed like a ideal opportunity for networked competitive card games, but sadly, it had no network capability. The games were all either sloppily-coded games by DTI Software, or clumsy ports of Atari arcade classics (Centipede in particular suffered from slowdown and awkward d-pad controls–the original version featured a trackball). The browsing interface was clunky, too, especially when using the handheld control rather than the touch-screen. Strangely, there were about 2 minutes of ads tacked onto the front of all the video content, but the fast-forward functionality wasn’t disabled, so you could just skip through them.

It’s really too bad the offerings were so weak, because seat-back entertainment is a fantastic place for embedded Linux systems running on low-end hardware. Linux is ideal for applications where a low-end client is pulling content from a more powerful server.  Now, if they could only find a way to populate it with decent content. With video game companies like Nintendo dipping into their back catalog for downloadable content, I wonder how difficult it would be to license, for example, SNES titles for in-flight entertainment. Networked SNES Mario Kart competing against other passengers would be truly awesome. Alternatively, there are tons of really fun, casual flash games out there that could be adapted for airplane play. Tower defense would be another great way to pass the time on a plane.

I suspect the problem is that the software is provided as a package deal by the same company that sells the hardware, as part of a “complete in-flight entertainment solution,” which probably leaves that company phoning it on the games, rather than paying to license better content.

In the long run, this is probably irrelevant because the future of in-flight entertainment is obviously internet access. Some international carriers like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines had already deployed Boeing’s in-flight wifi internet access system, but unfortunately US carriers were unwilling to shell out the money need to equip their planes, and without the US market Boeing could never make its system profitable. Eventually the costs will likely drop to the point where carriers start widely deploying onboard internet connections, and when that happens, you’ll never have to be bored on a plane again.


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