When flying to Canada, I took photos of Air Canada’s In-flight entertainment (IFE) system and arranged the photos in a screen-flow chart which can be seen below. If you click on the image, you will get a high-resolution version with all text legible.
The system you see here is available on the airline’s most recently re-equipped planes and seems to have been designed by the Montreal company Spafax. It consists of a personal touch-sensitive screen which is located in the backrest of the seat in front of every passenger. The program is to be controlled by touching the widgets on-screen. This results in a mouse-pointer being positioned at the location of the press and the apparent internal execution of a mouse-click event, a procedure which seems to be poorly implemented or too demanding for the system, as at least one second passes after every touch event and before any reaction by the system is visible on screen. In fact, this delay was generally so significant that even the flight attendants pointed it out very clearly when they announced the system. To my understanding, a central element of touch-screen systems is the metaphor of direct and therefore instant manipulation – a design criteria which is clearly not met here.
Furthermore, according to the main screen, a selection of News, Movies, TV, Audio, Games, and “Kidstuff” is available, however I found that the sections News and Games would just lead to an empty screen with a message indicating that these functionalities were not yet available. Why these two main menu buttons were not grayed out instead of leading users into a dead end is not clear. I also found the screen design to be generally quite unclear (e.g. what is the difference between “Hide player” and “Screen off” in the Audio section?) or overly complex (e.g. how often do you change the screen brightness when watching a movie that it justifies placing these buttons in the playback controls?). The design thus does not seem suitable for the target audience of airplane passengers with vastly different computer skills.
When looking at the details, even more shortcomings become apparent:
- Most videos and movies are cropped to the now historic 4:3 screen ratios. However, the physical screen which passengers see is in wide-screen ratio and thus effectively filled with black bars left and right of the picture. A large portion of the screen is therefore left unused. Even worse, the “Fullscreen” button in the playback controls causes the video to be scaled only horizontally to full width, resulting in a distorted image with egg-shaped faces.
- If a video program is only available in one language, the language selection is still shown, requiring an additional command and its associated wait time to get to the actual program.
- The audio volume was too low for the noisy airplane environment and not meeting the users’ expectations. I observed several passengers pressing buttons in the volume menu in an effort to increase the already maxed out volume.
I can only guess what Air Canada’s goals were when they ordered this system but if they attempted to provide their customers with a system that is easily understood and used, I must say that they barely succeeded. While the system does deliver access to a range of audio and video content, overall the design and execution leave a lot to be desired.
Thanks for the informative links to the IEEE articles below, especially the interview. I never considered IFE from this perspective but after thinking about it, I must say that I can only concur to the statements that “The IFE has work harder than just keeping you entertained.” and that “IFE is as important as food”. Had I read these articles before writing this post, my review would likely have been even more negative.