The moving map has consistently been one of the most popular inflight entertainment (IFE) applications, even at its most basic, as a tool to tell passengers where they are and how much flight time remains. 

But as technology evolves to enable the latest satellite-based, 3D imagery to be integrated into this IFE stalwart, along with a wealth of data on any given destination, developers are preparing a new generation of moving maps that immerse the passenger in a world of contextual, location-based content known as “geo-tainment.”

Moving map provider FlightPath3D is a firm believer in the geo-tainment concept. The California-based company counts more than 30 airlines as customers for its existing products, which include a 3D interactive map with in-built satellite imagery and tailored point-of-interest information. 

Behind the scenes, however, it has been busy developing what FlightPath3D President Duncan Jackson describes as “the fourth generation” of moving maps. 

The company used the recent APEX Expo in Long Beach, California, to launch FlightPath360, a 360-deg. “panoramic experience” that will enable passengers to take a virtual aerial tour of their destination. Footage preshot by drones and overlaid with relevant content by FlightPath3D software developers will be available to access on-demand through the IFE system, providing passengers with an opportunity to make detailed and informed decisions on what to see and do when they get to their destination.

Jackson tells Aviation Week that demand from airlines for more information on this concept has been so “overwhelming” that he expects it to launch in 2018.

“You’ll see FlightPath360 on aircraft next year. If I was being conservative I would say by the summer, but probably sooner,” says Jackson, adding that since debuting the concept in September, “feedback has been great and two airlines have said they’re ready to go.”

Earlier this year the company launched its Travel Planner product as well, which enables passengers to type in a destination while in the air and receive up-to-the-minute information on what time they can expect to arrive at their chosen hotel or street address. 

Distances, times and transport costs can be stored in an onboard database, enabling passengers to create personalized travel plans, and even prebook an Uber ride or a train ticket, without the use of inflight connectivity. This can be done by storing the booking request on the aircraft and sending it through a cellular network upon landing, Jackson explains. Not only does this improve the passenger experience, he argues, but it also provides a range of ancillary revenue opportunities for airlines.  

For existing FlightPath3D customers, both of these new applications can simply be “plugged in” to their existing moving map products, says Jackson.

“The moving map is the most used application in inflight entertainment. We have 78% in-seat usage for our maps. It is the main tool an airline [can offer] to have a conversation with someone,” says Jackson. “It is no longer just a case of, ‘when do we land and where are we now.’ A flight would not be complete without exploring key attractions and points of interest in the destination.”

Another company working on a 360-deg.  inflight viewing experience for passengers is PXCom, although it is following a different model than FlightPath3D’s. The France-based digital onboard communications provider has partnered with IrisAero to embed a camera under the belly or on top of an aircraft, providing a live, external video stream in 4K resolution that can be accessed via the IFE system. 

PXVision, as the product is known, will provide more than just a bird’s eye view of the world outside the cabin, according to PXCom Chief Executive Cyril Jean.

“Thanks to our solution, when an aircraft flies over a natural landmark we plot points of interest and passengers can click and get some information. If the aircraft is over a city, they can open interactive destination guides. It’s all about adding interactivity,” says Jean.

Points-of-interest commentary can be sponsored by external advertisers and airlines can overlay their own advertising messages, for example by highlighting duty-free products that can be purchased in flight. Both options open a new door for airlines to take advantage of their captive audience and boost ancillary revenues.

“It’s just about offering a different kind of IFE. You can add thousands of hours of films, but it’s still just films. Airlines are looking for a new way to differentiate the inflight experience and increase ancillary revenues,” says Jean.

The 360-deg. camera being developed for PXVision is undergoing certification testing, and Jean expects it to be certified “in the very short term.”

Further into the future he sees the possibility of streaming the external camera footage through Virtual Reality headsets, “to create a fully immersive experience” for passengers.

“Virtual Reality headset technology is rapidly evolving, although for the moment headsets are disconnected from the rest of the IFE system. They would need to connect to the IFE server,” Jean acknowledges.