Future Planes to Feature Interactive, Windowless Cabin Walls

Engineers propose air travel amid high-tech, wall-to-wall screens

PSFK has previously reported on windowless private jets, ideas for transparent plane cabins, sensory isolation devices for fliers, and other areas of innovation and personalized “info-tainment” in the future of air travel. However, a recent proposal by a UK development group may further change the shape of commercial flights to come (and even make them more bendy).

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The Centre for Process Innovation (CPI), a British organization that works with companies to develop new products, expects that airplane cabin windows may be replaced by full-length screens within a decade. In addition to seeing the plane’s camera-mounted outside views, passengers would be able to use the screens to examine particular sights, cruise the internet, or simply turn them off.

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The proposed innovation is as motivated by economy as the desire to better entertain passengers, if not more so. With rising fuel prices continuously causing industry-wide trims and re-budgeting, airlines have been seeking assistance and money-saving ideas from a wide array of engineers and think-tanks. The CPI, which specializes in printable electronics, reported that every 1% reduction in an aircraft’s weight accounts for a fuel savings of 0.75%, putting weight reduction in the forefront of industry minds.

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“We had been speaking to people in aerospace and we understood that there was this need to take weight out of aircraft,” says Dr. Jon Helliwell of the CPI to The Guardian. In order to safely install windows, he explained, aeronautics engineers need to strengthen a plane’s fuselage (or frame), adding significant weight to the vehicle. The fuselage could be much lighter, then, in planes with lightweight screens installed rather than windows, he added.

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The proposed screens would be made using organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs), currently used in cell phones and TVs but housed under glass because of their sensitivity to moisture. For lightweight installation in airplanes, Helliwell explained, flexible OLED screens would be needed, similar to the 18-inch model recently demonstrated by LG and Nokia’s foldable version (below). As Helliwell tells the Guardian,

What would be great would be to make devices based on OLEDs that are flexible. We can make transistors that are flexible but if we can make OLEDs that are flexible, that gives us a lot of potential in the market because we can print OLEDs onto packaging, [and] we can create flexible displays.

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The technology is very much still in the making, and engineers are working to anticipate its potential downsides as well as its uses. As The Big Think‘s Robert Montenegro points out, “one’s inner cynic dreads what such an innovation would do for the barf bag industry.” In addition to screens possibly inducing air-sickness, he continued, “there’s also going to come a time when a plane’s video walls malfunction or go completely blank. What then?”

The CPI estimates that the proposal will need about 10 years of R&D; before it’s consumer ready; so, any nervous, airsick, or simply excited passengers will likely see many of the foldable screens’ kinks worked out well before they get to view the actual displays.

Tomasz Wyszo, Center for Process Innovation, Nikkei Technology

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