Over the last few weeks, you might have heard about the ultra-futuristic information kiosks recently developed for the New York City subway system. It's sci-fi stuff, thoroughly modernising the arteries of an often creaky metropolis. We headed down to New York's financial district to check out a working prototype for ourselves.
Perfect? Not quite. But as far as the future goes, they've got unlimited appeal.
The 47-inch touchscreens will invade NYC's busiest subway hubs later this year, including Grand Central, Union Square, and Jackson Heights, Queens. While in some ways they're just glorified subway maps, the new kiosks are going to change the way you travel for good.
The forthcoming subway kiosks were designed by Control Group, a "technology and design consultancy" housed in a minimalist-chic office on the 21st floor of a skyscraper across from City Hall. And before you complain about the cash-strapped MTA blowing its cash on touchscreen toys, it's good to know that the firm is actually picking up the whole tab for the design and installation of the kiosks in exchange for creative control over them — not to mention control over whatever revenue they manage to generate.
The 30-month pilot is very much a beta, and a lot of the talk surrounding the installations falls back on jargon about optimising "user journeys" with infinitely adaptable information. That's not quite what these kiosks deliver yet. But at launch, they'll still be very impressive. Here's a quick rundown of how they work, and what they'll do.
This Ain't a Smartphone
Don't be confused; these aren't the capacitive touchscreens you'll find on your phones. Pinch-to-zoom won't work on these kiosks, because they're powered by a completely different technology.
As with the touchscreens in the subway's existing ticket-vending machines, interacting with the screen will require more of a firm poke than a soft capacitive-style touch. But while the basics are the same as your iPhone — an LCD display with a touch sensitive overlay — the difference is in the touch layer, which in this case uses 3M-built dispersive-signal technology. Rather than using an electrically conductive layer like capacitive touchscreens, the DST screen has sensors in its corners which calculate the position of the touch based on vibrations from the touch impact.
Because it's using vibrations to calculate position, the frequency of the waves makes a big difference in the performance of the screen. Poking the screen with a pen or flicking it with your fingernail works better than the flat, low-pitched jab from your fleshy fingertip.
When you reach out and touch the screen you don't get an instantaneous response like you'd might expect. There's a slight lag while the screen calculates the position of the touch and pulls up the information you're asking for. It's a lot like the lag you experience when you ask a subway app to calculate real-time train arrival information.
Granted, we were playing with a prototype, and Control Group says that by launch the quirks of interacting with the screen will be smoothed out considerably. But no matter what, this is never going to be a luxurious experience like the one you're used to from your smartphone. Nor should it be; these kiosks are industrial-strength hardware that need to be as durable as turnstiles.
And this is an important point: The screens are freaking indestructible. Control Group partner Colin O'Donnell even started telling us how a gang with bats could go after one of the kiosks, until a cooler head waved him down and said that may have been an exaggeration. Or at least, that it's preferable if people don't actively try to destroy very expensive subway hardware. But the bottom line is that you can pound it with your fist, as O'Donnel does in this GIF:
Another nice feature of the design is that the interior electronics are completely isolated from the outside world. For everybody who's worried that the touchscreens are going to just get gross with sweaty summer fingers and germ-riddled winter hands, you can breathe slightly easier. You can power wash these screens with the same high-pressure hoses used on the concrete platforms. Don't want to touch it with your hand? Use a pen or a quarter instead.
As for what they'll actually do for you? That's where it gets good.
The only goal of any subway traveller is to get from Point A to Point B as painlessly as possible. So from a starting point at one of the kiosk locations — let's say Union Square — you can tap any destination, and it'll highlight the fastest route and give you a predicted travel time. When you arrive at a station with one of the kiosks, you'll be able to access a neighbourhood map with information about local points of interest.
Yes, there is already an app for that. In fact, there are many! But frequently, these apps require an Internet connection — which isn't always available underground — and they almost never take into account service changes. This is the transit app you can expect to be 100-percent up-to-date all of the time. For now Control Group will focus on travel and time prediction information from the stations that actually have kiosks in them. It's not that other stations wouldn't be useful to subway riders — sometimes you're better off going down a few blocks to start your trip — it's just that the most likely use case is getting from where you are to somewhere else.
So how do you keep track of the information the kiosk shows you on the screen? Interestingly, Control Group's testing found that features like NFC and Wi-Fi connectivity weren't really the best way to do it. The first thing people do when they're show a map with directions to where they're going is take a photo of it with their phones. The screen's dimensions are perfect for photographing.
The MTA's current system for alerting customers of scheduled maintenance and outages is broken. There have been a few improvements over the last year or so with online services like the retro-fantastic Weekender map, but the best information in stations is still a wall of printed out notices and placards placed on platforms. Seriously, what the hell:
Not only is this a hard system to decipher, it also can't respond in real time. Imagine being able to get instantaneous notifications about on-going incidents from an easy-to-read screen. Or better yet, what if that screen immediately offered you alternate transit options. Beats the hell out of a half-assed, crackling service announcement belted out over a speaker.
On the surface, this initial rollout might feel a lot like technology for technology's sake. Sure, what we've got isn't incredible, but it works. Why are we going to install of these kiosks when the MTA just raised fares?
The answer is that the goal of this system to abate those skyrocketing fares. For all the high-minded idealism about getting people really efficiently around the city, what we've really got here is a more sophisticated advertising platform.
Currently, CBS has a monopoly over subway advertising, but its contract expires soon. Control Group is convinced — or at least convinced the MTA — that the advertising could be worth as much as five times more than the $US100 million the MTA already earns if it's targeted better. That's a big, highly variable maybe, but it would ideally help to keep your fare increases down.
The MTA and Control Group want to bring the sophistication of web advertising to your neighbourhood subway stop. In the short-term, that's easier said than done. Yes, electronic advertisements are easier to change than paper ones. Using existing technology, the kiosks and similar displays could immediately dispense with the lagging turnover that keeps movie posters up in some stations for months after they're no longer in theatres.
But down the line, Control Group wants to give you the kind of contextual advertising you're used to from companies like Facebook or Google in real life. The ads won't be tailored to you, per se, but even generalized, location-based ads are more effective than blanket posters. Under this system, for instance, you won't see ads about Brooklyn when you're in the Bronx. Or perhaps you'll be served different ads depending on whether the Yankees win or lose.
This contextual advertising, as we've learned from the web, is way more valuable than the advertising we see every day. And in an effort make the ads even more lucrative, Control Group might implement some crazy (and privacy addling) video-tracking technology. The company has proprietary tech that can track demographic information about people as well as information about their mood. Bad news: creepy. Good news: maybe lower fares?
But for the beta rollout over the next six months, Control Group will be focused on nailing down the basic functionality of the screens. With the beta launch just months away, the company hasn't yet perfected the touch technology so that it's seamless enough for everyday people who are used to the slickness of iPhones. And they still haven't settled on the details of the kiosk guts, let alone sponsors for the program. But even if we're not quite there, you can look at the screen and see a future so close you can almost touch it.
Video, photography, GIFs and awesomeness: Michael Hession