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Throwing Signage on the Bus

Faced with budget shortfalls, Chicago has quit plowing side streets to save money. But the snow and cold were made a bit more tolerable for some of the city's public transit passengers, thanks to Kraft Foods, which provided heat at some bus shelters as part of an ad campaign for Stove Top Stuffing.

New Territory

Litelogic's system enables what is sometimes called "geo-specific" buys. "We can sell advertisers just a certain piece of geography," says Titan's Giacalone.

A Norwegian tour company uses Omnivex software and wireless connections for signage inside its buses.

A Norwegian tour company uses Omnivex software and wireless connections for signage inside its buses.

Credit: Courtesy Omnivex

But how small a piece? Civilian GPS technology can pinpoint a location down to an area about the size of a tennis court, so in theory, it's possible to refresh ads multiple times each block–say, for Starbucks at one end and Dunkin' Donuts at the other.

In reality, that geographic granularity is unwieldy, which is why Titan currently sells ads on a neighborhood level rather than by the street or even parts of streets. "It gets overly complicated to try to sell it at that point and manage the inventory if you've got it fragmented down to little bits of blocks," Giacalone explains.

But even the neighborhood level provides new targeting options that some advertisers seek.

In major cities, for example, some neighborhoods often have high concentrations of a certain ethnicity. So if an advertiser wants to target that demographic, then bus signage provides a compelling option, one that might get more attention than billboards simply because it's new and unusual.

Even so, it's possible that future campaigns could be more granular.

"We are approaching the specific characteristics of GPS in New York and Chicago on a 'see what works' basis," says Litelogic's Sirmon. "In other words, we're starting with geographically simple campaigns and will work with Titan to see what degree of location-specificity we can achieve. We have some extremely precise reporting tools that track the exact time and location of GPS-aware content playback."

Wireless connectivity also creates the option of refreshing content frequently. For example, after 4 p.m. Eastern, when the major U.S. stock exchanges end trading, a brokerage's ad could be refreshed with the day's closing market levels.

Mobile signage also is a way to get around some cities' bans and moratoriums on new billboards. In Los Angeles, new billboards are banned through early summer while the city rewrites ordinances to address citizen concerns about visual clutter from too many billboards.

Inside Job

Other vendors are focusing on wireless digital signage inside buses. For example, the Fjord1 tour company uses signage aboard its 400-plus buses in Norway.

Like the Titan deployment, the Fjord1 system uses a PC-based server that downloads content via cellular or Wi-Fi, depending on factors such as file size and timeliness.

"The live data portion updates more often and requires low bandwidth," says Jeff Collard, president of Toronto-based Omnivex, whose software handles tasks such as downloading. "The larger content files will typically load when the bus is at the terminal, but updates on the road can be pushed out if necessary."

The system uses a GPS receiver to serve schedules and other information–such as restroom availability–tailored for each point-of-interest stop on a tour, as well as local and national news. The whole set-up costs around 5,500 to 6,500 Euro per bus, or about $7,000 to $8,250.

"The screens are normally installed by the bus vendor, [such as] Scania and Volvo," says Geir Ove Finstad, managing director of Hatteland Vision, the integrator on the Fjord1 project. "But we will also install in older buses."

Hatteland Vision is putting together a version for smaller vehicles, such as taxis. That system would add driver ID tags with embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that has the signage display the driver's photo. "The customer can verify if the right person is driving the cab," Finstad says.

Regardless of the vehicle, the system also could be used for location-based advertising. "It may be combined with other pieces of data, such as time and weather, to select the most appropriate ad," Collard says. "If it is a hot sunny day, the McDonald's ad might feature ice cream at certain times and a cold drink with a full meal at other times. When the buses drive through the mountains, the screen may start advertising the chalet bar and nightlife when the bus is 30 minutes from the ski hill."

Tim Kridel is a freelance writer and analyst who covers AV, telecom, and information technology. He's based in Columbia, Mo.

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