Maps are dead, long live maps!

I’ve been struck by three new (new to me, anyway) maps which are all in dead tree format. They’re all different takes on making your average paper map more usable in some way and I’ll go through each now:


Panamap is 3 maps in one – neighbourhoods, streets and transit. As you rotate the map vertically, every 5 degrees or so a different map comes in to view. The advantage of this is that you don’t have to squeeze 3.2 billion types of data on to one map – this gives your cartographers some room for each map and some playful transitions between each map. I think Schuyler coined the term ‘red dot fever’ for all the crappy Google maps which sport nothing but banal cartography and a thousand red pins, one for every convenience store.

Panamap sidesteps that same problem in meatspace. By providing more than one map on the same piece of paper each individual map is less crowded. It gives room, for example, on the transit map to show entrances for subway stops without cluttering the street or neighbourhood map. Of course you could put these three on one (as the others below do) but then you could also carry around a camera, MP3 player, phone and laptop instead of an iPhone.

The tradeoff choices and cartography make this a marvellous product and the folks behind it, Urban Mapping in San Francisco have put effort in to the design that shines. To me, anyway.

The tech behind it is kind of interesting. A sheet of clear plastic is affixed to the paper which makes it much stiffer – somewhere between card and a compact disc. The plastic has ridges running in rows all the way down. Each ridge is probably something like a half a millimetre in height and depth so as you scratch your nail on the surface you can make high pitched noises with it.

Behind the plastic each ridge has three rows of image on the piece of paper. The light (say from the sun) refracts off the ridge, then the paper and reflects back, then refracts through another part of the ridge again, then hits your eye. As you change the angle, each ridge curvature sends the light to the right map slice so you see a completed whole. For more see the wikipedia article, and for bonus points fix it up because it’s not great.

Anyway, this stuff is all patented and as a side-effect of the plastic printing process the maps are much harder to get wet. Panamaps are available for Manhattan and Chicago and hopefully more one day soon. Where will they go from here? There is clearly scope for print on demand, more cities and more retail outlets. I can’t recommend enough getting hold of one of these and playing with it – I will get to use mine in anger in NYC in a few weeks and I’m looking forward to it.

Scrunchy maps

‘Scrunchy’ is not the official term I’m guessing, but I like it. Rand McNally (wikipedia:Rand_mcnally) is a 3,000 year old map publisher which makes these city maps printed on fabric material similar to a lens cloth. The animation I made above shows the scrunchy power of these maps, which are double-sided.

Why scrunchy? Ok well first they are officialy ‘fabMaps(TM)‘. Well, scrunchy maps aren’t going to get torn or soggy when it rains which makes them kinda useful in places like London which doesn’t have space for you to open your map and when you do, it might rain. The tradeoff for this map is printing resolution. You don’t get 1,200 DPI on fabric as far as I can tell. The text is bigger (and thicker), as are most features.

It’s a beautiful thing to hold, and scrunch, and throw around. As a bonus feature you can clean your laptop screen and glasses. Thermal features have been tested by using this map to pull things out of the oven with and it passes with flying colours.

The edge of the fabric/map is double or triple stitched or something so you can’t tear the edge easily, or at all if my tests are any good. The map is relatively cheap and Rand have gone to great lengths to put as many points of interest they can on there, down to every damn ATM.

The future? If you have maps on fabric then nappy maps and shirt maps are clearly on the horizon. No longer will you raise your arm to look at your watch, your cuff will be a printed map.

Origami ker-chow maps

Again not the official term. To the best of my knowledge these maps are trademarked and patented up to your eyeballs by vanDam of New York. vanDam have perhaps the most annoying flash intro website on the planet and it requires about 30 clicks to actually see a map.. so let me save you some effort.

As you see above as you open the map the super patented folds (folded by virgin squirrels in Tibet according to ancient practice) work magically to expand the map to something like 4 times it’s base area. It’s a marvel to sit around folding and unfolding the thing and there must be patents on the machine that somehow did it.

Tradeoff here is of course size. These maps conveniently pack a larger map in to a smaller space and you don’t need a PhD in paper mechanics to fold the thing back again. This specific map by popoutmaps in Bristol, England is super high resolution. On the back of each map (one on the left and right) is an index.

I’m making some logical leaps here, in that I know vanDam have patents on this. Either popoutmaps are licensing that patent or they’re infringing it, or something, but there is no mention of vanDam on the map itself so I may be entirely wrong.

The map is convenient, cheap and fun to play with and there must be more uses for this, and print on demand again comes to mind. You can make these a bit smaller like a business card and have them expand out to a set of info on your business, kind of like those mini-CD business cards which were also functioning CDs. These maps are widely available too, I found mine in Barnes and Noble.


In the course of writing about these three maps I happened to spill some Trumer Pils on them. The scrunchy map was found to be very absorbent and stopped most of the spillage, leaving a little moisture to the panamap which faithfully protected the origami map due to its plastic printing process. I kid you not.

Each map has made interesting uses of the patent system to differentiate and build something a little bit out there and fun. Each is great to play with and the next time you travel try to find one, because they’re useful too!

2 thoughts on “Maps are dead, long live maps!

  1. cmcclain

    I have a very small collection of popoutmaps for some of the major cities we regularly visit including Boston, NY, and DC. They are great as they fit in your pocket and the kids love when I pull it out and show them where we are. As a GIS guy who has made some maps over the years I am amazed at home much useful info they squeeze on them and the fold out design is pretty cool too.

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