The morning sessions on day two of APEX TECH focused on accessibility in the airline passenger experience, from closed captioning to in-flight entertainment systems (IFES) for those who are visually impaired. The afternoon sessions addressed the various standards and specifications that are being developed to facilitate the airline content delivery ecosystem, which has been transformed with the arrival of countless new digital retailers (i.e. Amazon, Netflix, moviesunlimited.com). APEX 0415, which is designed to access the standardized media technologies, profiles and workflows that govern motion picture and television content delivery, was voted upon and unanimously approved by the APEX members in attendance.
In the first session of day two of APEX TECH, Michael Childers, APEX Technology Committee chair, gave an update on the progress made in providing closed captioning (CC) and described video (DV) in IFE content. Last fall, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) ACCESS Advisory Committee reached an agreement between industry and advocacy groups regarding accessible content, and APEX was instrumental in the process.
Once the rulemaking process is completed, it’s expected that airlines will be required to provide CC or DV accessibility for any licensed content that had previously been broadcast or exhibited with CC or DV. The content covered is of US origin only, initially in English language. Airlines will not have to upgrade IFE hardware installations, nor upgrade software, to implement CC and DV accessibility. Any IFE system currently capable of providing CC or DV, and new and retrofit IFE systems will be covered under the rule, but systems with communal display screens are excluded.
There will be reporting requirements regarding the amount of captioned programming available onboard, but airlines will only have to file for the first seven years of the rule. “Captioning is getting there,” said Vinh Nguyen, Office of Aviation Enforcement & Proceedings, DOT. “If we go from 50% of captioned content to 100%, then we won’t need this data anymore.”
All US airlines are included, along with non-US carriers with flight segments to the United States. There is much uncertainty over the timing of the DOT rulemaking, but Childers believes that this is an opportunity we may not have again. “I think this agreement, overall, is very positive for our industry, so I would like us to move ahead voluntarily and implement it,” he said.
Accessible IFES Interface for the Blind
How can a person with significantly reduced vision navigate today’s typically flat, touch-screen IFE interfaces? Even with the advent if streaming IFE to personal devices, which a vision-impaired person is likely to be very familiar with, an unknown user portal is something that presently requires sight. That’s why the US DOT has tasked APEX and its ACCESS Working Group with making recommendations for solutions to make IFE interfaces more accessible to the blind.
The ACCESS WG has resolved to submit consensus recommendations to the DOT by November 15, 2017 and have been progressing to this goal through research, consultations with disability advocate groups and industry players, disability conference visits and weekly teleconferences since February. The recommendations will be applicable to new IFE systems on newly delivered aircraft and new IFE systems retrofit to older aircraft.
To form a baseline target of essential accessible functions, the WG has turned to the FCC, however the vast differences in architecture and formatting between broadcast programming and IFE content, mean the FCC’s criteria can serve as starting point only.
According APEX Technical Director Bryan Rusenko, the annual Assistive Technology Conference organized by the California State University Northridge is a valuable educational experience for anyone in our industry seeking a deeper understanding of challenges and solutions.
Our industry is already making progress independently of the DOT and ACCESS WG. Mark Dunstan, CTO of CoKinetic presented the story of how his company developed a more accessible seatback IFE interface with Virgin Australia. This particular software project has been covered extensively in the general media and applauded by industry experts and advocacy bodies alike. The airline looks to roll out the solution through more of its fleet this year.
One billion people, or approximately 15% of the world’s population, have some form of a disability. Advocacy groups that have been successful in making the physical world accessible are now turning their focus to the digital world, explained David Draffin, senior Solutions director, HCL America. At APEX TECH, Draffin outlined the process for accessibility testing of digital interfaces and products. “A lot of the discussion has been about the regulatory side, but there are real people and this affects their lives,” he said. There are grading systems to measure digital content accessibility, and a mere Grade “C” is the minimum level to be compliant. “But while being compliant is great, you can still have a product that is awkward and difficult for someone to use,” said Draffin. He explained that testing with persons of disability, who are professional testers, can enhance a product. “One of the [benefits] of having a product that’s accessible for the disabled, is that in general, it’s going to make a product that’s more usable for everybody,” said Draffin.
“It wouldn’t be APEX TECH if we didn’t spend the morning talking about captioning, so let’s do a deep dive now,” said Andy Beer, VP Technology at the Spafax Hub. “I’m going to open up the hood, and see how this functionality works in the real world.” Beer showed examples of graphical captions and text-based captions, and reviewed the pros and cons of both approaches. Although many IFE systems use graphic captions, APEX has adopted the timed text-based captioning standard that provides for greater display flexibility. He also described IMSC – the Internet Media Subtitles and Captions protocol – which is the instruction set for the display of text captions. Beyond finding fonts that work for the text display of captions, some of the challenges include positioning of punctuation in bi-directional captions, such as English with Hebrew or Arabic quotes, explained Beer.
DECE Common Format / Common Media Applications Format (CMAF) / Web Application Video Ecosystem (WAVE)
The IFE industry is a unique digital media distribution market, different from the consumer video distribution networks – or ecosystems – that take content from film studio to end consumer. Now though, the airline content delivery ecosystem is beginning to share more commonality with its consumer counterpart. As such, the APEX community is paying close attention to key developments in this world.
Hollywood’s digital content supply chains – on the consumer side – have been transformed with the arrival of countless new digital retailers (i.e. Amazon, Netflix, moviesunlimited.com), delivery technologies, viewing methods, markets and end consumers. Due to the rapidity of these changes, a lack of common standards, specifications and workflows now complicates the distribution ecosystem and ultimately impacts the end-user experience – on the ground and, increasingly, in the air.
Independent consultant Albert Koval joined APEX TECH to talk about the DECE Common Format (CF), a content ecosystem that was adopted for use by Blu-Ray and SCSA as a consumer file format. Subsequently, the Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) was approached by Apple and Microsoft and other companies to develop the Common Media Application Format (CMAF). Drawing from and building upon previous standards (like the DECE CF), CMAF is designed to be a single, more efficient format for content providers, streaming services, player implementations, browsers and many other applications. CMAF will work on “all screens, all operating systems, and all networks,” said Koval. CMAF is expected to soon be approved by MPEG, and APEX is working to ensure that IFE content providers will benefit from the standard.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) has further built on these standards with the development of WAVE, the Web Application Video Ecosystem. Designed to support playback of content for use in one or more ecosystems – such as IFE – WAVE reduces the number of permutations of audio-media profiles that must be considered. Work is in progress at CTA on the proposed WAVE. The content specification is largely complete, profiles are being developed and there is a significant effort focused on testing and compliance, according to Koval.
Also in the session, Michael Stattmann, managing director, castLabs, walked the audience through a set of highly-detailed slides describing a cloud-based digital supply chain for IFE content.
Encoding & Encryption Technologies Update – APEX 0415 Review and Vote
In the final session of APEX TECH, Bryan Rusenko, technical director, APEX, reviewed the new landmark APEX 0415 Media and Device IFE Ecosystem Specification. Far-reaching and encompassing the needs of in-flight entertainment systems, APEX 0415 is designed to access the standardized media technologies, profiles, and workflows that govern motion picture and television content delivery in the broader content delivery ecosystem. The new specification was voted upon by the APEX members in attendance, and was unanimously approved.
Pierre Schuberth, chairman of the APEX Encoding and Encryption Technologies Working Group, sincerely thanked all the volunteers who contributed to APEX 0415. “I am delighted to be a part of bringing IFE into a new world of delivering content that supports current and future systems,” added Rusenko. Michael Childers, APEX Technology Committee chair & APEX board member, closed the conference and said, “The development, drafting and approval of the APEX 0415 specification would not have been done nearly so successfully without the exceptional efforts of Bryan Rusenko.”