Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

A piece I wrote for Reuters on travel startups:

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Some start-ups are taking on one of air travel’s last undisrupted bastions – the economy-class cabin. While first and business class travelers have long enjoyed comfort upgrades, there’s been less attention to innovation at the rear of the plane.

“We want to make travel memorable and comfortable for all of us, not just the top 1 percent,” Alireza Yaghoubi, founder of Singapore-based AirGo, told a recent start-up conference to pitch his superlight economy-class seat.

He’s not alone. Half a dozen firms are pitching something similar, wanting to make seats more comfortable, improve cabin lighting, make it easier to use and charge mobile devices on flights, and even upgrade the humble food trolley.

They are trying to penetrate an industry eyeing significant growth on the back of strong jetliner demand, illustrated by this week’s $6.4 billion deal for Rockwell Collins to take over B/E Aerospace, an interiors manufacturer.

Persuading the airline industry to upgrade, however, is a tough ask. In a fiercely competitive market and with single-digit margins, carriers have gone as far as they can with economy-class innovation, says Anthony Harcup of Acumen, a UK design house that works with planemakers and airlines.

“Right now, we’ve designed ourselves into a corner with the current economy format,” he says. “It’s about as tight and tiny as you’re going to get it. So something has to give, and it’s difficult to see what that is.”

Acumen, which designed the world’s first flat bed for British Airways 20 years ago, has had only two of its in-cabin concepts lie unused: both involved re-thinking the form and layout of economy-class seats.

But that’s not stopping a new generation of outsiders working with new materials and technologies to make economy class, if not luxurious, at least more bearable.

FLAX SEED TROLLEY

AirGo’s Yaghoubi, for example, vowed to do something about airline seats when he flew back to his native Iran on its national airline and noticed the seats hadn’t been replaced since the plane was bought 40 years ago. “Actually, they were quite a lot more comfortable” than today’s seats, he said.

The latest prototype of his seats, he says, offers a wider back rest by having smaller elbow rests that fold down rather than up, and has better head support. Extra leg room is created by moving the literature pocket and improving the seat posture to have people sit more upright.

But these firms realize they can’t just pitch their seats on comfort alone.

UK-based Rebel.Aero, for example, promises to speed up boarding and integrate a child seat by letting the seat slide upwards, like an inverted cinema seat. This frees up space for passengers to move in and out and stretch their legs. Founder Gareth Burks says he’s halfway through getting certification and has delivered sample seats to some aircraft manufacturers.

AirGo is counting on airlines liking that its seats are made of carbon fiber composites, where fibers are braided like hair, creating a hollow structure that halves their weight.

Others are experimenting with other materials. France-based Expliseat has announced Air Tahiti as the first customer for its titanium seats, freeing up the equivalent weight of up to four passengers.

And UK-based FlightWeight has redesigned the food trolley, ditching the usual aluminum casing for mostly flax seed waste, volcanic rock, sugar and water – making it almost a third lighter.

OBSTACLES, GRUMBLES

Changing consumer habits also offer airlines a chance to shed weight.

Most passengers would prefer to use their own mobile device, says Fred Cleveland, former vice president at American Airlines and now an adviser to PricewaterhouseCoopers. This allows some airlines to ditch some expensive and heavy wiring and hardware, and convert seats into charging stations.

Cobalt Aerospace, another UK-based design firm, offers ways to customize seats, including wireless charging in tray tables and arm rests.

This could be bad news for suppliers of in-flight entertainment systems such as Thales and Panasonic. Singapore Airlines’ budget subsidiary Scoot has already abandoned traditional seat-back consoles in favor of pre-loaded iPads.

But there are obstacles for start-ups.

A lot has already been spent by companies such as Germany’s Recaro and France’s Zodiac Aerospace on making seats as light as possible by using advanced materials. Many leading airlines are already installing them.

But production bottlenecks in the interiors industry highlight the challenges it faces in keeping up with demand, and may make airlines wary of gambling on untested suppliers.

Persuading airlines to spend more isn’t easy, says Martin Darbyshire of UK-based Tangerine, which customized the head rests in Cathay Pacific’s A350 economy seats. Cathay was willing to make the changes, he said, because it makes money from economy. “But for most other airlines the costs are prohibitive.”

Maybe the biggest hurdle is certification.

There are strict rules about what can and can’t be done, and any tweaks require approval. When one airframe maker reduced the weight of the tracks where seats slot in, it found itself having to restore all the saved weight to ensure the design met certification requirements, said Darbyshire. “It becomes a vicious circle.”

Part of the problem is that while passengers grumble about economy-class travel, they are sensitive to price and don’t differentiate much on features, says Acumen’s Harcup.

Unlike booking a hotel, he says, where cost is just one of many metrics a customer looks at – internet access, parking, a pool – when it comes to the airline seat “the passenger is confronted with one metric and that’s cost. So it’s no wonder we’re in the situation we’re in.”

Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff, with additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

Xiaomi Goes Virtually Edgeless By Using Ultrasound

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Regular readers will know I’ve been looking out for this to happen for a while: the use of sound, or rather ultrasound, as a form of interface. Here’s a Reuters piece I did on it a year ago:  From pixels to pixies: the future of touch is sound | Reuters:

Ultrasound – inaudible sound waves normally associated with cancer treatments and monitoring the unborn – may change the way we interact with our mobile devices.

But the proof will be in the pudding, I reckoned:

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to commercialising mid-air interfaces is making a pitch that appeals not just to consumers’ fantasies but to the customer’s bottom line.

Norwegian start-up Elliptic Labs, for example, says the world’s biggest smartphone and appliance manufacturers are interested in its mid-air gesture interface because it requires no special chip and removes the need for a phone’s optical sensor.

Elliptic CEO Laila Danielsen says her ultrasound technology uses existing microphones and speakers, allowing users to take a selfie, say, by waving at the screen.

Gesture interfaces, she concedes, are nothing new. Samsung Electronics had infra-red gesture sensors in its phones, but says “people didn’t use it”.

Danielsen says her technology is better because it’s cheaper and broadens the field in which users can control their devices.

That day has happened. Xiaomi’s new MIX phone, Elliptic Labs says, is the first smartphone to use their Ultrasound Proximity Software:

INNER BEAUTY replaces the phone’s hardware proximity sensor with ultrasound software and allows the speaker to be completely invisible, extending the functional area of the screen all the way to the top edge of the phone.

Until now, all smartphones required an optical infrared hardware proximity sensor to turn off the screen and disable the touch functionality when users held the device up to their ear.

Without the proximity sensor, a user’s ear or cheek could accidentally trigger actions during a call, such as hanging up the call or dialing numbers while the call is ongoing.

However, INNER BEAUTY — built on Elliptic Labs’ BEAUTY ultrasound proximity software — uses patented algorithms not only to remove the proximity sensor, but also to hide the speaker behind the phone’s glass screen.

Besides eliminating the unsightly holes on a phone’s screen, Elliptic Labs’ technology eliminates common issues with hardware proximity sensors, such as their unreliability in certain weather conditions or in response to various skin colors as well as dark hair.

This is a good first step. The point here of course, for the company, is that they can push the display right to the top, which definitely looks nice (the front-facing camera, if you’re wondering, is now at the bottom.) But the use of ultrasound has lots of interesting implications — not least for how we interact with our phones. If gestures work, rather than just say they work, it will make interacting with other devices as interesting, maybe more interesting, than voice.

The Ugliness of Short Term Hacks on the Road to Wireless

Here’s a Kickstarter project to solve the problem of no audio jack which illustrates just how thorny it is: iLDOCK – charge and listen to iPhone 7 at the same time by ildockgear — Kickstarter

ILDOCK lets you use your wired headphone while charging your iPhone 7. You can also add storage via SD, TF and USB ports with Plus. 

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The problem, as some have highlighted in the comments, is that Apple rarely grants MFi status to accessories where the lightning cable doesn’t plug directly into an Apple device. In this case, one does but the external one doesn’t. Most manufacturers get around this by making the external one a microusb. I don’t mind that, in fact it helps me, but some folk aren’t crazy about it. 

There are other issues too, of course: if you have lightning headphones and want to charge, this isn’t going to help you. 

I know I’ve written before that the future is wireless, but this project, worthy though it is, merely illustrates how ugly the interim is going to look like. 

(Via Kickstarter)