Sign Age

Mobile On The Road

Untitled-6You may have noticed that many highway service areas, bus depots, train stations and airports are under renovation. Digital signage is usually a significant part of the technology transformations that accompany these changes.

Public works projects such as these typically roll out over several years, with the RFP/RFQ process and timeline varying by state and the hierarchy of stakeholders. Who you partner with is often as significant as the skills you bring to the table. Experience with new media solutions for self-service kiosks and mobile interactivity is growing in importance, and can be a door opener to this expanding market.

Four years ago, I detailed several factors to consider for the delivery of content from kiosks and signage displays to mobile phones (March 2010). Since then, innovative manufacturers and integrators have leaped into the future with interactive solutions that let travelers access real-time information while on the go. Some solutions leave the door open for the development of new apps or solutions for evolving needs, but there are hundreds of recently installed touchscreen systems that cannot support mobile interactivity. Sustainable signage system design, for public areas and elsewhere, should certainly take the need for present or future mobile interactivity into account.

Although there is a plethora of content management platforms currently available, relatively few support mobile interactivity. But, thanks to HTML-5, it’s no longer necessary to be dependent on a platform with built-in mobile/wireless functions. Connectivity and network security can also offer challenges to two-way signage solutions. These communication issues vary, based on server/display locations, WAN access and other factors, and should be addressed very early in the project planning process.

Yet another issue, common to all types of signage deployments but critical to interactive deployments, is access to relevant content. Increasingly, signage network operators and CMS providers have partnered with content providers to deliver a wide range of real-time information. Selectable real-time traffic-cam feeds is one example of traveler-relevant info that is easy to blend with DS systems. This can be done in a number of ways, from HTML programming to partnerships with aggregators such as Trafficland.com.

Driving on I-95 recently, I stopped at the Delaware Welcome Center Travel Plaza and benefitted from live traffic camera feeds from Delaware highways at a kiosk that also served up info from Landmark City Guides. The app allows users to tap icons on the interactive map to view live feeds from cameras showing current traffic conditions. The mobile aspect of the application includes the ability to send information about listed destinations from the kiosk to a mobile device via email or SMS, with step-by-step directions and other useful data. There’s also a link that will open the destination in the mobile device’s map application for more flexibility in navigation. And, if you’re into selfies, you can take pictures at the kiosk, insert them into a scenic template and email them to yourself or your friends.

“Connectivity was only a challenge as far as negotiating various firewalls and other network quirks at each location to make sure that the kiosks could send our information requests to the servers on demand, as required,” said Mark Ionescu, President of Ionescu Technologies, the company that developed Landmark City Guides, who worked on the Delaware plaza kiosk in collaboration with plaza operator HMSHost.

“We designed the mobile information delivery system to be HTML-based, so all we’re sending to users are simple web links that can be viewed on their mobile browser. From that web page generated by our server, they can view a map image and step-by-step directions, and/or open the mapping data in the app of their choice, dependent on the device. The map and link are all created server-side to deliver that page to the user on demand, so we’re not relying on their mobile devices to do much except view the page. This solution eliminated a lot of complexity and potential difficulty in compatibility,” he explained.

According to Ionescu, the greatest challenge of the system so far is keeping the content fresh. “With most of our tourist-facing devices, it’s a challenge to keep the information up-to-date and find new ways to make the system useful and engaging to travelers,” Ionescu said.

RFPs for public works projects can be complex and a challenge to respond to, so getting in on a project often requires establishing relationships with organizations capable of taking a leading role on the entire deal. On the Delaware project, HMSHost won the bid; its proposal included an interactive information kiosk, the company brought in Ionescu because it had worked with him on similar projects in the past. Ionescu is a dealer for Meridian kiosks but did not submit a bid directly to Delaware. In another instance, on an extension of the Connecticut travel plaza project where Ionescu now manages a 10-kiosk network, Ionescu responded directly to the RFP.

In working with government bids, the most challenging aspect is often an expanding timeline. “Most of the government projects we have worked on end up stretching across much longer timespans than initially anticipated, in come cases taking several years rather than the few months initially projected. That can cause a lot of complications with hardware production, warranties, development planning and cost projections,” Ionescu noted.

The transportation and tourism industries provide numerous opportunities. A flexible approach to bidding and deployment, coupled with leading-edge interactive capabilities, looks to be a productive path to lasting success.

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