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APEX Insight: Modern in-flight entertainment and connectivity systems (IFEC) allow an enterprising airline to expand its in-flight entertainment selection beyond the typical blockbusters. Passengers now have more options than just watching movies. Of this year’s trends, virtual reality and BYOD have taken IFE by storm and showed the highest potential of moving forward into 2016.

Ambient Entertainment

For a little stimulation, switch off the seatback display and look up. When you mix Icelandic creativity with cutting-edge cabin-lighting technology, some amazing things become possible. For example, bringing the Northern Lights inside the cabin. Icelandair did just that, treating passengers to a top-of-the-world light show before they even touched down at Keflavík.

Virtual Reality

2015 was the year that virtual reality became part of the passenger experience. Qantas got there first, giving first-class passengers a VR walkthrough of the amenities awaiting them on the other side of the Pacific, along with some of Australia’s otherworldly wilderness. Virgin Atlantic has jumped in as well, albeit only using VR as a sales tool for now.

Watch for VR to really take off as content offerings mature: immersive “super shows” will blur the lines between filmed entertainment and video games, and you’ll be the star.

Uninterrupted Binge Watching

Airlines have been handing off the IFEC heavy lifting to passengers’ own devices for a few years now, to differing degrees. However, 2015 saw a deeper engagement with passengers’ media-consuming habits, with mobile devices as the conduit. If you’re halfway through a marathon session of Transparent or Jessica Jones, your flight could become an opportunity instead of an obstacle. Airlines have partnered with content providers like Amazon and Netflix to let subscribers use in-flight Wi-Fi to stream these services for free. Meanwhile, airport-based initiatives are getting in on the BYOD act by offering download kiosks so you can load up on content before boarding.

Companies like Immfly take advantage of smartphone ubiquity, empowering airlines to extend the passenger experience beyond the mere gate-to-gate.

Getting Out of the Way

Airlines strive for IFE dominance through superior curation and user interfaces, and we’re all the better for it. In making way for our own devices, airlines are flirting with an entire new strategy, one that could have been unworkable even a few years ago. More and more, passengers are voicing their preference for more control of the travel experience. Rather than hand us a silver tray, on which is a delectable selection of cinematic charcuterie, airlines are simply providing a comfy picnic table and trusting us to pack our own eye-candy. The power of cloud computing means that airlines can get away with simply providing the Wi-Fi environment in which we can watch our own shows and listen to our own tunes. This requires robust connectivity. Fortunately…

In-Flight Wi-Fi is Only Getting Better

Aside from the aforementioned content partnerships, in-flight Wi-Fi is generally used as an additional revenue opportunity. The launch of Inmarsat’s Global Xpress heralds a new era: an era of fast and reliable Wi-Fi at cruising altitude. Like a James Bond villain whose dastardly plan is to let you surf Facebook, Inmarsat’s geosynchronous trifecta of satellites give you 50 MB/s download speeds. Dang.

The wIFE of the Party

This one you won’t notice right away, but, oh, it’s happening. Wi-Fi isn’t just for bringing your sea-level work and play on board with you. Wirelessly-delivered IFE systems (WIFE) are becoming more common. This means no more cables running under the floors and up into the seats: the servers controlling your plane’s IFEC systems just transmits everything over the ether. Easy to install, easy to upgrade, plays well with existing systems and less weight for the plane to carry: what’s not to love?

Know Thyself

Wearables. Wearables were so hot this year, as your humble contributor found out at CES 2015. Beyond the proliferation of smart watches, smart belts, and smart glasses, the trick was finding out how to make such devices useful. IATA launched SkyZen, which lets you monitor your biometrics and match them against your travel data. This might not, strictly speaking, be entertainment, but there’s something perversely gratifying about seeing just how little sleep you’ve managed to grab before blearily stepping off the plane.

Retro Gaming

Virgin Atlantic helped pioneer in-flight gaming, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Virgin America is bringing us some blasts from the past. Retro gaming anyone? Virgin America’s Red Beta IFEC system brings us such quarter-devouring classics as Asteroids and Pac Man. Red’s configurability means that future innovations (or throwbacks) are easier to implement than ever before.

DIY IFE

User-generated content was the hallmark of Web 2.0 (remember those days?). But it took a long time for collections of YouTube videos to make it up to cruising altitude. Primary reasons for this include the unpredictable nature of the content: opening YouTube up to every passenger makes it impossible for the airline to include, say, content warnings. Also, the proliferation of copyright-infringing material could jeopardize an airline’s relationship with its regular movie and TV-programming providers. As such, curated YouTube channels are the vanguard here: Emirates and British Airways have been pioneering the inclusion of in-flight YouTube content.

Star Wars

Okay, fine, let’s watch some movies… but not just any movies. The hype ahead of Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens has been absolutely seismic. Airlines totally got into it, kitting out their jets in the geekiest ways possible.

Next month, Emirates customers will be able to watch the first six Star Wars movies via the airline’s Ice in-flight entertainment system. Air France delivered Star Wars first, though: passengers were treated to special screenings two days before the movie opened to the general public.

Bring on 2016

2015 was the year when passenger choice took on a whole new meaning for IFE strategy and implementation. What disruptions will the new year bring? We can’t wait to find out.

Jordan juggles deadlines across various time zones as he writes about travel, culture, entertainment, and technology.