Design of physical fittings such as seating and overhead storage bins may be reaching the limit of efficiency, but the quest to provide passengers with more room in the cabin is far from over - with the opening up of virtual space.
By integrating eye tracking, gesture control and voice command control technologies into an in-flight entertainment (IFE) interface, Panasonic believes it can use electronics to enlarge passengers' onboard environment.
Some of this improvement comes in actual physical space, by eliminating the need for control hardware. But much of the benefit is in perceived space, created by allowing passengers to explore virtual environments, both real and artificial.
Particularly promising is eye tracking, which allows users to navigate digital landscapes simply by looking at different parts of the screen, as their eyes are tracked by camera. The IFE system provider's demonstration model at the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo 2012 in Hamburg allowed users to roam around a variety of settings such as their arrival airport and city, views from around the aircraft or a virtual meadow.
Panasonic envisions an IFE system that could include both eye tracking and voice control, and even integrate seat vibration. The company reckons eye tracking has advantages over hand-gesture control techniques, where an infrared camera mounted on the IFE screen, much like the webcam on a typical laptop screen, monitors a user's hand movements. To have nearby passengers making hand or arm gestures might increase people's feeling of confinement, particularly in close-packed economy seating.
"As airlines try to cram more passengers on board, how do you create that feeling of space?" asks Brian Bardwell, communications manager at Panasonic Avionics.
The eye-tracking system, he says, moves IFE "way beyond entertainment, this is a business platform". Panasonic's systems would, for example, enable passengers to virtually browse the commercial premises at their arrival destinations before they have landed.
The system requires 30-40cm (12-16in) of distance between the user's face and the screen to operate and can be installed in screens as small as 23cm.
Panasonic has yet to set a launch date for an eye-tracking IFE product but Bardwell says: "We're really shocked by how positively the airlines have reacted to it and we'll be releasing it as soon as possible.
"The technology's available now so this should easily be available [on board aircraft] within two years."
A similarly accelerated timetable could put a hand-gesture control system in the air in about 18 months. Thales, which is showing a prototype enhancement of its Avant IFE system, says a gesture version is three years away, but could be ready much sooner with a customer commitment. An eye-tracking version is also in the works.
Brett Bleacher, director of hardware advanced technology at Thales Avionics, told Flight International that getting rid of traditional controls is a good thing for several reasons. First, current-generation advanced systems rely on touchscreens that are expensive to make and certificate and suffer lots of wear and tear, or on other handsets that are also prone to wear. Gesture control also keeps the entire system in the seatback, simplifying installation.
And, notes Bleacher, manual controls also pose a risk of disease transfer.