Map Happenings

Mapping Industry Tidbits, Activity and Musings

The Intriguing History of the Map Navigation Symbol

The question is: who out there knows the provenance of that vehicle symbol used in nearly every navigation app worldwide? As a follow up question — and perhaps even more intriguing — who knows why it was used?  What symbol am I talking about? Well this one of course:

If you look at nearly every navigation app out there today, they use this symbol. The list includes Apple Maps, Google Maps, auto OEM navigation apps, Baidu Maps, KakaoMap and Yandex Navigator. It is the global standard. 

So here’s the little story behind this ubiquitous symbol …

It all starts in 1983 at a small start up called Etak, based in Sunnyvale, California. Etak was founded by the amazingly brilliant Stan Honey who had the idea of building the first truly ground breaking auto navigation system, the Etak Navigator. Stan is a sailor, and a world class one at that. He is renown for his marine navigation skills. One of the people that Stan sailed with back then was Nolan Bushnell, famous for founding Atari.

Nolan agreed to provide Stan with the angel round to get Etak off the ground. He also provided Etak space in his incubator building in Sunnyvale. It was in this building that many of Nolan’s tech companies did their work.

Etak also happened to be the place that yours truly got his start as a young engineer. The Etak Navigator was well on the way to launch by the time I got there, but there was still a ton of work to do and many problems to solve. 

You have to remember how limited the resources were. GPS was not an option1, LCD screens and CD-ROMs were barely invented and hard drives were small capacity. All the latest technologies were cost prohibitive. On top of that CPUs were puny and memory resources were extremely limited — the Etak Navigator used an 8-bit Intel 8088 CPU which had just 29,000 transistors — take that M2

Finally, pixel displays were, well, ‘pixelly’ and not good for showing detailed maps. They also required too much memory. The only good option was a vector display (like an oscilloscope). The downside of vector displays was that you could only draw so many lines on the screen at once or the screen would start to flicker. Maps and street labels meant tons of lines, so the engineers were always looking to optimize. 

A traditional symbol for a car — 🚗 — required a lot of lines. It also didn’t clearly connote direction. Something simpler was needed. 

But the Etak engineers had an inspiration. The inspiration came from one of the other Nolan Bushnell companies housed in the same building as Etak. 

That company was Atari and one of their most popular games was … Asteroids.

The spaceship symbol used in Asteroids was a natural choice. Just four lines! Clear indication of direction! Perfect!

History was set.  The Asteroids spaceship has been enshrined in navigation systems worldwide forever more.

So there, dear readers, is your first Map Happening. 

1 GPS did not become fully operational until 1993. In the early days of GPS the receivers were large and expensive. Even if all of these barriers could have been overcome it would not have been a good choice: from the early 1990s to 2000 the accuracy of GPS signals was deliberately downgraded by the US government using a process called Selective Availability.

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