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In-Vehicle and In-Flight Video Takes Off

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Self-driving cars may be a decade (or longer) away from the commercial mainstream, but the potential of a new mobile entertainment environment is too great for the automotive and computing industries to ignore. The in-flight entertainment (IFE) industry is being transformed too, with seat-back systems and BYOD for personal streaming using new satellite bands and 5G. Connectivity—and seamless connectivity at that—is the common denominator as the transport industry races to deliver on consumers' demand for interactive smartphone-style experiences wherever they go.

The importance of this potential and its money-making horizons was underlined at CES in January 2020. Keynote speakers included Ola Källenius, the global chair of Daimler and head of Mercedes-Benz, and Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian—whose appearance marks the first time an airline representative has headlined CES.

In-Vehicle Infotainment 

In-vehicle infotainment (IVI) is an emerging market that includes a combination of systems—such as head-up displays (HUDs) and transmission control units (TCUs)—that are used to deliver entertainment and information to the driver and the passengers through control elements and audio/video interfaces like touchscreen displays and voice commands. A 2017 MarketsandMarkets report estimates that IVI will reach $30.47 billion by 2022 from $15.2 billion in 2016. Research and Markets forecasts that IVI will total $58 billion by 2022. Intel suggests that autonomous driving will spur a new "passenger economy" worth $800 billion by 2035 and an eyewatering $7 tril­lion by 2050.

Intel's figures, composed with Strategy Analytics, predict that the time we all used to spend commuting will free up more than 250 million hours a year in the world's most congested cities. It splits the resulting bonanza into business (43% of the $7 trillion) and consumer (55%) categories.

In-Car Video

Rear-seat video content has been around for nearly a decade, primarily through optical disc players and video stored on phones and tablets. (Photo courtesy of ACCESS Europe)

Of the latter, Intel predicts an addressable market of $200 billion that will emerge as pilotless vehicles transform the "cabin" into an immersive entertainment platform. Scenarios 50 years hence painted by Intel include onboard beauty salons, fast-casual dining, remote vending, and mobile healthcare pods. Vehicles, it says, will become "transportation experience pods."

When fully autonomous vehicles go mainstream, it will present a new medium for creatives. "The in-vehicle experience is the most important differentiating feature for car manufacturers," says Ivan Dimkovic, senior solutions engineering manager and co-founder of Cinemo, a German IVI solutions developer. "Screen real estate will increase, and the general aim is to convert as much space as possible into some entertainment enabling device."

Seamless Connectivity

Rear-seat video content as part of IVI has been around for nearly a decade, primarily through discs and video stored on phones and tablets (BYODs). Live streaming arrived with 4G, initially through BYODs such as tablets. Recently, vehicles with built-in 4G connectivity and rear-seat entertainment units have become more prevalent—particularly in the luxury and multipurpose vehicle categories. Inside the car, media is distributed over 802.11 Wi-Fi along with capabilities such as Bluetooth.

"Most of the major technical barriers to delivering live streaming to a vehicle have now been overcome," says Neale Foster, CEO of ACCESS Europe, a software solutions provider. "The remaining issues are primarily around the functions required to produce consumer-friendly video experiences such as the [user interface], content caching, aggregation, and OEM [original equipment manufacturer]-branded IVI apps to deliver a seamless experience for front and rear seat requirements."

GENIVI, a group of automotive software solutions suppliers, has been exploring the technologies behind graphics-sharing and a distributed human-machine interface. According to executive director Steve Crumb, a number of approaches and technologies have been identified that allow the display of graphical content on any number of screens, potentially managed by different in-car systems or brought-in smart devices. These technologies, says Crumb, eliminate the "owner-slave" model of displays and allow for any system to "paint" content on any display available in the vehicle. 

"Each automaker will determine their own approach to internet-enabled media, and the features, usability, and performance of media in the vehicle will be a factor in car choice, at least for some buyer groups," Crumb explains. "Buyers want seamless access to whatever media sources they use when not in the vehicle (which can be more often for younger buyers). So, what they have on their phones, they want seamlessly available in the vehicle."

Once the sources are there, the usability of the system (how simple it is to switch sources and find and play content) will be the next most important feature. "Expect the automakers with the most advanced natural language capabilities to differentiate themselves," Crumb says. "The performance of the streaming will also be important. Does the car stay connected and recover quickly when connectivity is compromised? 5G will help, but it may not always be available everywhere."

5G Game Changer

IVI will also act as a catalyst for a wider range of connected car services, such as automatic payment for parking, charging zones, and tolls; location-dependent services like localized advertising; breakdown and recovery; and real-time traffic and route guidance. All of these services will be improved by the greater bandwidth capabilities of 5G.

"5G is game-changing," says Dimkovic. "For the first time it will allow very high bandwidth while mobile even outside of urban zones to enable 4K UHD resolutions to vehicles."

Distribution in the vehicle could be point to point or redistributed using in-car Wi-Fi hot­spots. Dimkovic's company, Cinemo, supports both. "The advantage of using Wi-Fi would be a big savings on bandwidth, but the decision is up to the OEMs," he says.

What happens when we journey beyond 5G's reach? In South Korea, that probably is possible even today. In Europe, connectivity will be patchy in the immediate future.

"We employ techniques like smart caching and prefetching algorithms, which can detect if an area has good coverage or if you are about to enter a tunnel, and will prefetch data so you can continue to enjoy entertainment with a poor network connection," says Dimkovic.

Live streaming in areas with no reception will continue to present an issue, but there are techniques to address this too. "We've built a streaming stack that tries to recover as fast as possible," says Dimkovic. "If we can prefetch 30 seconds, we can build a buffer to iron out low connectivity spots. If you end up with a zero signal, we ensure the restart will be as fast as possible without [artifacts]."

The next generation of cars might enable the download of video for offline playback while traveling. It is also thought that the nature of driving journeys of different durations—city hops to longer commutes—will necessitate a different type of media. Audi calls the newly recoverable time the 25th Hour and theorizes that media formats like film are compromised by travel—in much the way we have to end a movie on an airplane when landing. "Video services will begin to be edited on-the-fly to provide content and information tailored to an individual's journey and interests," suggests Foster.

Shift to Mass Market

IVI is now a major selling point at the premium end of the market. Tesla announced that its infotainment displays would enable YouTube and Netflix streaming support, although company boss Elon Musk suggested this would only be possible initially while the vehicle is stopped, indicating that safety regulations were the only thing standing in its path.

Multipurpose vehicles are also building in IVI as an option. In the midrange to budget market, though, most IVI is an after-market purchase or fulfilled through BYODs, but it's also where the biggest shift will occur. 

"The goal is to provide a better-than-home experience in terms of the type and variety of content," says Foster. "This will span video, audio, and game streaming. The video element will include [video on demand], tailored short-form content, and services. Users will be able to build their own IVI content bundles—or take their existing home bundles and extend it to the car in a ‘follow the subscriber' model."

The confluence of different trends—electrification, autonomous driving, and car-sharing models—means the amount of screen time that passengers spend in vehicles will increase dramatically to watch movies, play games, and do work. Its why developers like Cinemo are investing in the cloud. As soon as autonomous driving gets the regulatory greenlight, video will be switched on for the driver too. 

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