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Thales Digital Sky Could Transform the Economy In-Flight Experience

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This week, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig is checking out the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg. We’ll have more coverage in the days to come, but for now you’re going to want to check out this insane seat-back TV — in economy!

Yesterday, at the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg, Germany, a representative from French company Thales showed the crowd a rendering of what just had to be vaporware — an economy seat that was essentially made up of a gigantic touchscreen display. Sounds pretty silly, right? Well, it turns out that Thales has much more than a render — the company is showing off working prototypes of the seat in a secret room at the Aircraft Interiors Expo. And it’s fantastic.

Thales Digital Sky

After (more than) a bit of begging, Thales reps let me snap a few shots of the prototypes of what it’s calling “Digital Sky.” The back of each seat is made up of a single 21.3-inch HD touchscreen display.

Given that the display is wider than nearly any economy-class seat, it’s arranged in a portrait configuration. Of course, movies and TV shows are horizontal (with the exception of some not-so-great videos shot with a smartphone), so if you’re watching content on the seat back, it’ll only take up a portion of the screen.

Thales Digital Sky

The display can be used for much more than watching movies, though. You can browse the in-flight magazine (or thousands of other publications), watch a gigantic moving map, play games and experience your destination before you even arrive.

Thales Digital Sky

Best of all, Digital Sky doesn’t take up any more space than a conventional economy seat, so airlines can install it without compromising legroom. And there’s even room for a flip-out tray table, although not much.

Thales Digital Sky

The screens have a decent viewing angle, and they looked very good when sitting directly behind. Thales is using an off-the-shelf 21.3-inch LCD for this round of prototypes, which could help keep costs within check if an airline decides to adopt this tech in the future.

Speaking of which, aircraft manufacturers do seem to be taking Digital Sky seriously, judging from the response it was getting during my demo — Thales is a very reputable in-flight entertainment system manufacturer, with devices installed on a variety of aircraft, from United to Qatar.

Thales Digital Sky

While Thales doesn’t have any partners to announce at this point, it’s clear that the company has invested quite a bit in this concept, given how polished it looked at the show. The challenge, of course, is that airlines are moving to a “bring-your-own-device” model, offering streaming content on new planes rather than a conventional seat-back display. Digital Sky offers a far more immersive experience than you’ll ever be able to get on a tablet, though, so perhaps we’ll actually see it fly in the not-too-distant future.

Would you choose an airline just because it offered Digital Sky?

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