Transcoding In The Skies

Stellar Inflight, part of the Stellar Group of companies, is the world’s longest running in-flight entertainment company. Established in 1974, it has grown into a modern multi-national organization, with offices in Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, Los Angeles, Dubai, and Singapore. In addition, Stellar is in partnership with Sky Victory Technologies in Beijing, which provides in-flight entertainment to many major Chinese airlines.

The Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, and Beijing locations have extensive technical facilities, incorporating multiple video and audio studios, encoding and duplication labs, green screens and MPAA-certified screening rooms. I manage the company’s Digital Media department.

As today’s broad range of viewing devices drive the explosive growth of multi-screen content consumption, in-flight entertainment has similarly evolved. Not long ago, only a single movie was available for all passengers to watch at any given time. Next came on-demand viewing options built into the seats, where viewers could choose from an array of available television shows, movies, and specials. Now, portable media players and tablets – soon to be including the Apple iPad for our clients – are available to passengers on select airlines.

As the viewing options available to airline passengers have exponentially increased, so too has the amount of content that our company processes to meet these demands.

Stellar’s video facilities were almost overwhelmed with the amount of content passing through. We needed an automated solution that is optimized for high-volume work that would output consistent video and audio at exacting standards.

We made the choice to use Digital Rapids’ Transcode Manager based on the integrated, automated nature of the system, the company’s presence within large Australian media organizations, and the flexibility of the system in producing video to multiple, exacting specifications.

Transcode Manager supports a wide range of input file formats, allowing easy integration with our existing production systems, and a comprehensive array of output formats. Output parameters are deeply configurable, enabling precise tuning for the desired output devices.

We deployed Transcode Manager in each of our technical facilities in Sydney, Kuala Lumpur, and Beijing. Each location currently uses one Transcode Manager Server and two Transcode Engines (agent machines), and we’ll be expanding capacity as required. The Transcode Manager Server distributes incoming transcoding jobs to the Engines – which perform the actual transcoding – and manages and tracks the jobs as they are processed.

Every day, our Transcode Manager systems receive hours and hours of video and audio content from many sources and transcodes them to multiple formats. Each Transcode Manager deployment is integrated into our video and audio production facilities through our local networks.

Most IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) systems require MPEG Transport Stream files containing MPEG-1, MPEG- 2, or MPEG-4 video streams, depending on the system. We’ve also used Digital Rapids Transcode Manager to create files for the portable media players that play a significant role in airlines’ entertainment solutions nowadays. In particular, our Digital Rapids systems have been configured to transcode video for Stellar’s IFE-customized iPads, which will soon be rolled out for the lucky passengers of Jetstar Airways.

Transcoding video with Digital Rapids Transcode Manager is significantly quicker and requires far fewer man-hours than our previous solutions. As a result, we’ve been able to take on more and more work without having to assign technical staff to menial or repetitive positions.

We undertook a comparative test recently, where we found that a multi-format transcoding task that took 1.5 hours with existing equipment was done by Digital Rapids in 18 minutes.

In China, we have several Mandarin-speaking technical staff who can barely say ‘hello’ in English. That they are using Digital Rapids Transcode Manager – entirely in English – every day is testament to the fact that, once configured, it’s incredibly easy to use.

We’re certainly going to grow our Digital Rapids transcoding farms with more agent machines, and I expect us to double capacity in Sydney and possibly Kuala Lumpur within 18 months.

Joel Joslin is Digital Media Manager at Stellar Inflight.