Approximately a year ago, the MTA announced an expansion of their On The Go kiosks. As part of a creative advertising arrangement in which the MTA would shell out no dollars and draw in money after a certain threshold, two licensees — CBS Outdoor and Control Group Inc. — will foot the bill for installation and earn back the costs off of the ads they can sell. In exchange, the MTA gets touch-screen kiosks installed throughout the subway system and a cut of they money once the two companies recoup their initial investments.
Recently, the first batch of screens have popped up in Grand Central, and Gizmodo profiled the work behind building a computer sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the subway. As with many things MTA, this is a story about false starts and delayed promises. Mario Aguilar writes:
The initial plan for the kiosks was to populate the city’s busiest stations, to help make the dynamic and often confusing system a little easier to work with. By the end of 2013, however, Control Group had only managed to install a single testing unit at Bowling Green station, near the company’s headquarters across from City Hall. After a 30-day trial period, it was apparent that everything from the hardware to the user interface had to be improved before the units would be ready to meet the needs of millions of commuters. “We wanted a better experience,” says Control Group partner Colin O’Donnell, “and we were willing to wait for it.”
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a minor course adjustment when it comes a massive agency like MTA. “It’s a behemoth,” says O’Donnell. Moving millions of passengers every day necessitates a certain amount of bureaucracy, and when every last person in that bureaucracy needs to sign off on a decision, approving something as simple as a hardware change can take, well, six months.
O’Donnell says that the initial run’s core problem was the touchscreen it had chosen. The prototype we tried last year used a surface outfitted with 3M’s dispersive signal technology (DST), which calculates the position of a touch on a screen by sensing the vibrations the touch creates. It’s rugged and cost-effective, but also a bit clumsy…User testing proved that people found the firm pokes unintuitive, but more importantly it turned out that subway stations are full of vibration-causing ambient noise and rumbling trains—no kidding!—which confused the touchscreen’s contact microphones and drastically undermined performance. As one staffer put it, the tech worked well in Control Group’s lab on the 21st floor of a skyscraper, but simply didn’t cut it underground with the trains rumbling by.
It’s worth reading Aguilar’s entire piece as it provides a rare glimpse into why technology takes forever to spread throughout the MTA’s vast system. We often scoff at the notion that the world underneath the city is a challenging one and question why simple tasks such as escalator repair can take so long. But as Control Group’s experiences show, it isn’t easy building something that can stand up to 24-hour use, and the dirt, dust, debris and vibrations of the transit network under our feet.
As the video shows, these things aren’t perfect. I haven’t used them yet, but the navigation looks clunky and the touch aspect sensitive. Furthermore, MTA’s own Trip Planner, the underlying software for the navigation system, for instance, isn’t perfect. The system routes people standing on the IRT platform at Grand Central to the 7 and Q for a ride out to Coney Island when the intuitive trip would involve an express ride to Atlantic Ave. and a transfer. Still, it’s a start, and hopefully, with the promises of revenue based on user engagement, these will only get better with time.