Ahhh, Swissformation

Frequent travelers will no doubt be familiar with the generic batch of inflight infographics passengers have been offered for the last eight or ten years now. You encounter the same deck on just about every airline, and by now you know their rhythm pretty well: the blue-green map with its three crude levels of zoom, alternating with the two or three factoid panels of airspeed, outside temperature, time at destination and so forth.

I had just been musing on my last trip that this particular cascade has probably started to look a bit dowdy, if not outright retro, to a generation accustomed to Google Maps and in-car GPS, when Swiss pulled a change-up on me this time around. Their new mapping presentation is much closer to the current state of the art, if not even just a touch ahead of the game, and it’s noticeably more engaging as a result.

I know, I know: it’s probably only “more engaging” if you’re the kind of mapgeek for whom this kind of thing is digital catnip. But dig: a smooth zoom from 1:5000 out to global, satellite imagery at the larger scales, finely-grained terrain modelling, flightpath indicator (for completed and projected vectors), pseudo-3D with nice shadowing, current location denoted by simulation-accurate model of the actual aircraft type, and background stars plotted by what I have every reason to believe are accurate ephemerides. The only thing that surprised me was that they hadn’t chosen to skin the aircraft icon with the appropriate livery – that seems like a gimme to me, given the availability of the resource files. This all cycled with another seeming gimme I’d only seen on ANA before, and that a good five years ago: the pilot’s-view camera.

Taken together, it was almost mesmerizing. Even though I think and write about this stuff all the time, there’s still something uncanny about the representations that emerge from the nexus of precise global positioning, highly granular terrain models and smooth realtime CGI. It definitely enhanced the cabin experience, which was otherwise sadly undermined by one of the most poorly designed business-class seats I’ve ever experienced. (Anyone over about five-eight is going to find themselves uncomfortably blockaded at full extension, and you can’t decouple back tilt from footrest elevation. It’s actually more comfortable to sit fairly close to upright.)

Oh, and a bizarre addition, too, there among the major maritime features and hazards to navigation plotted: the location and date of famous shipwrecks. All the greatest hits, really: Whydah, 1717. Titanic, 1912. Andrea Doria, 1956. Thresher, 1963. I can’t imagine why someone thought this was necessarily an appropriate note to strike in a presentation of inflight data, but perversely enough, I’m glad they did: it adds a certain sense of historical grounding to what might otherwise slip all too easily into the infinite now of slickly visualized data. Top marks all ’round.

Now do something about those seats.

4 responses to “Ahhh, Swissformation”

  1. Michal Migurski says :

    Photos, damn your eye.

  2. speedbird says :

    I am useless. Sigh.

  3. Steph says :

    …and of the asymmetrical clothing.

  4. Vidiot says :

    The shipwreck feature is seriously cool. (Have you flown Virgin America yet? I hear good things about their GMaps implemenation, but haven’t seen it firsthand.)

    And the pilots’ eye camera is a great idea — have seen it on Air Tahiti Nui and Air France — but it seems to be my misfortune to mainly fly at night on planes that have these. (Landing at PPT was inky blackness with the smeary streaks of the runway lights.) And Air France seems to turn them on and off randomly, and I didn’t get to see takeoff or landing.

    The A380’s tail camera is also a nifty perspective.

    I still love United’s Channel 9, and wish all airlines did that sort of thing, and gave you a view of the cockpit besides. (though I’m sure the ALPA would put up an unholy squawk about that.)

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