Personalised in-flight entertainment (IFE) technology has to date largely been in the realm of widebody aircraft, with the systems' size, weight, cost and capabilities not justifying their use on narrowbodies.

However, this looks set to change. A number of companies - APS, General Dynamics Airborne Electronic Systems (GD), IFE Services and IMS - have identified a gap in the market and want to fill it with new portable IFE systems.

Airlines have used hand-held devices before, with the Sony Video Walkman proving a reliable alternative to the early interactive systems and their teething problems in the early 1990s.

Many of the new portable devices are based on consumer equipment but have been adapted for the more rigorous demands of the in-flight market and its security requirements.

Tacoma, Washington-based APS launched its DigEplayer at last year's World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) show, since when it has secured orders from Alaska Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines and Jetsgo.

The portable video-on-demand system has a 20Gb hard drive, weighs 1.3kg (3lb) including battery and is similar in size to a portable consumer DVD player. The battery provides nine to 10 hours of life, supporting 20-30 films, short video programming, cartoons and music. The system incorporates content protection and the battery cannot be recharged without the proprietary charger.

The simplicity and size of the DigEplayer appeal to airlines, says APS, with the cost comparable to a consumer DVD player.

Launch customer Alaska introduced the system into service last October on trans-continental routes. About 40 DigEplayers are carried on each flight, with up to 16 units provided free of charge in first class and the rest in economy class, at a cost of $10 each. The appeal of the DigEplayer to Alaska Airlines was its low weight, simplicity, flexibility and the fact it is a market-based system rather than an aircraft-based one.

Hawaiian Airlines has 96 DigEplayers on its Boeing 767s, free to first-class passengers and $10 for economy class passengers. Hawaiian ordered the DigEplayer after a successful trial of the product, which proved more popular than overhead films.

Canadian low-cost carrier Jetsgo offers the units on its MD-83 and Fokker 100 flights of three hours or longer at $10 each.

More orders are expected at this month's WAEA show in Seattle.

GD's entry into the low-cost, low-weight IFE system market came from customer requests for the manufacturer to incorporate a DVD or hard disc player into its EmPower.Net integrated in-seat power and wireless LAN system, says Brenda O'Leary, manager of sales and marketing.

GD is developing the YES - Your Entertainment Station - family to meet airlines' different IFE needs. YES includes a ruggedised tablet PC with a 25cm (10in) display, a high-resolution graphics video card and high-capacity hard drive. The system, weighing 0.75kg (1.7lb), can store and play about 30 films or 100h of stereo audio and supports video games and web browsing.

GD is developing five YES options, with YES Solo as its portable solution. Weighing 1.4kg, it is a hand-held entertainment station with pre-loaded films, audio and Windows-based games. It operates from a battery or the EmPower in-seat power supply and is offered with an 21cm or 25cm display. YES Solo will be available in early 2005.

UK-based content provider IFE Services has teamed up with French portable audio/video product manufacturer Archos to market and sell its AV340 (40GB) or AV380 (80GB) off-the-shelf devices to the aeronautical and maritime markets.

The systems are adapted for airline use with a longer-life battery or for use with an in-seat power supply. The system comprises a 40GB or 80GB hard drive and a 9.6cm LCD display. The system measures 11.1cm x 8.1cm x 2.8cm and weighs 0.35kg with the battery, which provides six hours of video playback or 10 hours of audio.

IFE Services provides content including movies, sitcoms, advertising and music videos, says the company's Amir Hirani.

The limited battery life is a deterrent to potential thieves because the system can be recharged only by using an encrypted rack charger supplied by IFE Services.

UK holiday airline First Choice Airways is launch customer, putting Archos into service in May in its premium cabin to supplement the embedded IFE system. First Choice may also rent out the systems in economy class.

Latest to the portable IFE market is California-based IMS with its PEA - Portable Entertainment Appliance, which offers 20 to 30 films, 40 CDs, eight interactive games, popular TV programmes, digital newspapers and magazines, e-books and shopping.

Two versions are available - one weighing 1.4kg with a 21cm touchscreen, with keypad capability, and a standard version weighing 1.8kg with a 26cm screen and a mousepad. Battery life is nine to 12 hours.

Chief executive Alan Pellegrini says because PEA is based on commercial off-the-shelf equipment, it can be constantly updated to benefit from developments in technology.

IMS is an IFE software and content management specialist, so it approached PEA from a content rather than hardware point of view in order to secure early-release content.

The result is a system that incorporates stringent security measures, including high-level encryption, sophisticated key management, multiple digital rights management wrappers, physical security on the device and logistical security. Internal access to the PEA is via a proprietary interface, the content will "self-destruct" if the device is carried off the aircraft and the battery can be recharged only in a special pod.

A trial of PEA is planned with an unnamed North American airline by the end of September, says Pellegrini, and a number of other airlines are discussing phased roll-outs.

Airlines have reacted well to PEA, says Pellegrini. "They see that portable solutions offer flexible IFE solutions for aircraft not previously considered for IFE."

Pellegrini says some airlines are considering PEA for their long-haul fleets, which has surprised IMS, although he does not expect portable devices to replace embedded IFE on widebodies. Portable solutions give airlines options, he adds, because many airlines do not have an in-seat solution in economy class and a portable device is a good service recovery option when in-seat IFE does not work.

Source: Flight International