The history of Moving Maps: From Grainy Bulkhead Displays to HD Interactives

Panasonic Avionics< Panasonic Avionics
06/06/24 7 MIN READ

The first in-flight moving map was a far cry from the interactive seatback screen maps that captivate us today.

Instead of a crystal-clear 4K OLED screen, passengers in the 1980s and early 1990s had to crane their necks and squint their eyes to catch a glimpse of the overhead video monitor’s approximation of their journey.

Even so, the first moving map—created by Airshow in the 1980s—was a sight to behold. At a time when maps only existed on paper and almost no one had a home computer, mobile phone, or GPS, an in-flight map displaying live positioning and destination information was genuinely a marvel of innovation and an incredible accomplishment for the airline industry.

“It was video distributed to the screens. It was a very simple map; you only needed 210 map tiles to cover the entire world in four basic map resolutions. It was very advanced technology for its time,” recalls Andrew Mohr, Vice President of Digital Solutions at Panasonic Avionics.

Mohr began working at Airshow as a project manager in 1991, where he soon became immersed in the world of moving maps. “Maps,” he says, “were actually the first computerized cabin device used for passenger entertainment.”

Many iterations have come and gone in the decades since the first moving map, and still the feature is one of the best-performing pieces of in-flight entertainment content, often ranking just behind the latest blockbuster release in passenger engagement.

Indeed, what has come to pass since that fateful first release has totally revolutionized aircraft cabins and the overall passenger experience. Here’s how.

Airshow 100 and 200: the pioneers

Up until the late 1980s, Airshow catered almost exclusively to private jet owners, a market for which it created its first-ever moving map, the Airshow 100.

“In 1982, the moving map was a low-resolution, very basic picture of the world with a plane overlaid on the map,” Derrick Parker at Rockwell Collins told In-Flight Magazine in 2020. The map also showed basic inputs from the flight management system, including time to destination, altitude, and ground speed.
The first moving map in a commercial aircraft, dubbed the Airshow 100, came out in the late 1980s and was the first instance of computer graphics on a plane, says Mohr: “It was simple 2D computer graphics. We’re talking old school, like Atari-type stuff.”

The process of making such a map, however, required creative ingenuity. The computer engineers spent a small fortune on paper maps—hundreds of them, from all different sources—and interns spent countless hours digitizing them using a light pen and a massive SPARCstation tablet made by Sun Microsystems.
The resulting digital map was a grainy, low-resolution 2D map with a tiny airplane moving along its flight path. The flight attendants had a remote to control the map’s video display, alternating between zoomed out views of the entire journey and closer-up details the closer the plane got to its destination.

But by the end of the decade, Airshow knew it had something special with its moving map and with it, the company jumped into commercial aviation.

“Airshow was just a huge hit and every airline wanted it,” says Mohr.

The first seatback IFE screens were installed by Airvision on a Boeing 747 in 1988. The plane, owned by Northwest Airlines, had 2.7-inch screens embedded into 116 seats during a five-month trial.

2D interactive: the next generation

The advent and gradual industry-wide implementation of seatback screens over the next decade opened the door for Airshow to bring the moving map closer to the passenger. And the parallel explosion of video gaming graphics in that era made it possible to up the ante on graphics quality.

In 2004, Rockwell Collins—which had acquired Airshow two years prior—unveiled its Airshow 4200 and 4200i, a dynamic duo of moving maps. “We came out with both at the same time, and they really blew away the market,” says Mohr.

The Airshow 4200 was a 3D distributed-video product, and the Airshow 4200i was a seatback 2D interactive map that allowed passengers to directly control the map. “The Airshow 4200i in-seat interactive moving map incorporates many of the same options available with the Airshow 4200, but instead of ‘pushing’ video to all cabin monitors, 4200i lets each individual passenger ‘pull’ maps, news, and other content to their seat,” wrote Rockwell Collins in 2004.

Mohr recalls flying on one of the first aircraft, an Emirates 777-300, to carry the Airshow 4200. “It was amazing at the time,” he says. Passengers loved the 3D moving map for its novelty, and also because its meditative quality helped them feel calm.

Airlines were all aboard. In those early low-res LCD displays, they saw untold opportunities for branding and advertising. “People started figuring out that the maps’ computer systems could do all kinds of things,” Mohr says.

Seatback 3D interactive: evolution

In 2009, Rockwell Collins showed off a prototype for what would later be known as Airshow Interactive 3D, a three-dimensional interactive moving map. “This is really the ideal solution that our customers have been waiting for, now made possible with the latest generation IFE system hardware,” said Mohr in a press release when he was Director of Cabin Systems Marketing at Rockwell Collins.

The new map product began to ship a few years later—but the market had begun slowly changing. Until the 2010s, Airshow/Rockwell Collins had a lock on the moving map industry, owning what Mohr estimates to be 90–95% of the market.

In 2013, Betria Interactive released its FlightPath2D and FlightPath3D solutions on Panasonic IFE. “FlightPath3D’s moving map allows passengers to explore multiple perspectives of the aircraft’s flight path and over 25,000 locations across the world in multiple languages,” the company said in a press release. Betria continues to be a Panasonic supplier today.

And now, Panasonic Avionics is pushing the boundaries of modern moving maps with its own interactive 3D map.

Panasonic Avionics’ ArcTM: a revolution

Mohr joined Panasonic Avionics in 2012, bringing with him immense experience and institutional memory for moving maps. However, working first as Senior Director of Business Development and Corporate Strategy, Mohr took on decidedly non-map responsibilities. But they had a way of finding him once more.
“It’s something I keep coming back to. I can’t escape it,” he jokes.

At AIX in 2019, Panasonic Avionics showed the world its new Arc in-flight map platform, a stunning 3D map application originally designed for Panasonic’s NEXT and X Series IFEC systems.

From the beginning, Arc was envisioned as a cutting-edge 3D interactive map, an integrated advertising platform, a display for destination services, a trivia and gaming platform, and a way for affiliate program partners to capitalize on a captive in-flight audience.

After being promoted to Head of Innovation and R&D, Mohr was once again immersed in the world of moving maps. He has led the charge on Arc since Panasonic Avionics’ 2015 acquisition of Swedish digital consultancy Tactel, the team that would go on to design and build Arc. “Many of our Tactel team are from some of the best design institutes in Scandinavia and Europe,” says Mohr. “They’re very creative visual and interactive designers, and we knew bringing that level of skill could transform the impact of the in-flight map.”

He credits the Tactel team with designing and building a high-performing, creative, and beautiful map that, after the top Hollywood blockbusters, is the next most-viewed aspect of Panasonic Avionics’ in-flight entertainment system. And the innovation doesn’t end there; the team regularly updates Arc with new features such as a flight simulator game and global weather information.

Not everyone understands the point and allure of moving maps, but Mohr and Panasonic Avionics do.
“A lot of people say, ‘Gosh, aren’t you spending a lot of time thinking about such a trivial product?’ And it’s like, no—because this is the environment that we live by,” says Mohr. “We serve the in-flight experience, and if you really take that seriously, you understand how important the map is to that. That’s why it continues to be a pillar of our digital solutions portfolio.”

Arc plays a starring role in Panasonic’s MAYA, leveraging its 45″ curved screen with amazing vistas, gorgeous landscape screensavers, and contextual full-screen journey milestones helping passengers truly immerse themselves into the flight. Learn more about Arc by Panasonic Avionics.

Love maps like we do? Stay tuned for more on Arc in our Arc blog miniseries; coming up next, how Arc is made!

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