Yesterday, the MTA (the transit organization that covers New York City and its immediately surrounding area) unveiled the very first On the Go Travel Station, a 47-inch touchscreen installed in certain subway stations that provides to-the-minute updates on inevitable delays, as well as a subway map and a trip planner. I went down to the Bowling Green station to try out this first installation.
Made by Cisco, the Travel Station is essentially a 47-inch TV turned on its side and given a touchscreen makeover. The top two-thirds or so are taken up with all the various navigation options--subway notifications, trip planner, subway map, that kind of thing--while the bottom plays continuous ads. Cisco is paying for the first round of these stations (they'll be installed in a few stations in Manhattan, as well as the Atlantic-Pacific stop in Brooklyn and Jackson Heights in Queens) but they expect the ads to generate enough revenue to build more.
I went down to Bowling Green, a station right near the southern tip of Manhattan, on a day when people actually did need to know what was happening with the subway lines in the city. A flood in the Upper East Side had crippled several lines, including the 4/5, which stops at Bowling Green. As usual with the MTA, communication was confused, a combination of MTA security folks directing people to more reliable trains and garbled announcements that may or may not have been in English to begin with. In other words: the perfect time for a clear, high-tech information system.
The On the Go Travel Station is located upstairs, next to the Metrocard terminals. Standing next to it were three uniformed NYPD officers--not MTA security, but the real deal. Oddly, though, the Travel Station was completely unused when I went up to test it. There's no clear sign that this display is actually an interactive touchscreen, so sometimes people would read the scrolling alerts, but nobody seemed to realize they could touch it. Even worse, I heard two Canadian tourists ask the police officers for help--they were helpful (though oddly amazed that Canadian postal codes have letters in them) but didn't even suggest trying out the Travel Station.
Once I started playing with it, though, a small crowd (read: three people) gathered around to watch. "That's some crazy shit," said one middle-aged man. After I left, more people started to tentatively approach it and even touch it. But how did it work?
I was actually pretty impressed with the Travel Station. It's very cleanly and clearly organized, with big buttons for Service Status, Elevators, MTA Maps, Key Destinations (the Canadians could have used this to go to Times Square), a Trip Planner, and Planned Work listed all along the bottom of the usable portion of the screen. The screen itself is pretty sharp, though the touchscreen is not incredibly sensitive. It's not a capacitive screen, like the iPad or a smartphone--that type of screen, which relies on the electricity given off by a human finger, is extremely expensive at that size.
I believe Cisco went with a camera setup, in which cameras in the sides of the device bounce infrared light off anything that comes in contact with the screen (this is how Microsoft's Surface works). You can see in the video that I sometimes had to tap two or three times to get it to work, and that panning (as with the subway map) is a bit laggy. But overall it works pretty well, and as there's no cellphone service down in the MTA tunnels, it's a pretty good way to figure out what's going on in the subway system and how to get around.
MTA says the next few Travel Stations will be rolling out "in the coming weeks."
Now the real question, is there going to be a box of latex gloves next to this unit? Because the the words, public touch screen and subway station are not inviting ones.
@pdxwebdev you beat me to the punch, as soon as I read the title I was like, "Public, NYC, Touchscreen????" I was going to post something right away but I wanted to make sure I wouldn't sound stupid so I actually did read the story first..
I can see this being very very cool, provided there is more than one, they are regularly cleaned, and there is a maximum time one person can use it.
I wonder how enduring the touch screen is to touch from fingers, pens, car keys, gerbers, knives and so on. I wonder how easy and expensive it is to replace?
mp brings up a good point,
I was worried about sanitation issues, I never stopped to consider longevity issues. I would imagine that touch screens last a while provided they are not damaged by something, but with all those people using it and each one wearing off some of the screen, how long will it last? I would assume most people wouldn't be using pens, keys and the like when there are cops standing next to it, but are those cops going to be there indefinitely?
Sounds like a wonderful idea, and it can be done correctly, we'll just have to see if it is.
You can add one more thing to the mix. Lets say it really works great you can go up to and plan away. How quickly is that going to turn into a line of people waiting to use it?
@tcolguin I totally agree that is why I suggested having a maximum time that one person is allowed to use the device, which may be bad in some cases such as a tech illiterate user, but if they have someone guarding it, they should be trained how to use it efficiently so they can offer help.
Would it not be cheaper just to put cell phone signal amplifiers in the tunnels or free wifi and a free universal app you could download on your phone or other device?
The above product is in the development stages. I look forward to its further development. For some people it will add convience to their travels.
The story on day two will be that the police went away for a donut break and hoodlums threw bricks through the screen and carved their initials all over it, rendering it useless.
This is kind of a bigger and improved version of the ticket automat and trip planner that we have had in German train stations for years. The ticket automats have about a 12"x12" touch screen and give you information about the various connections and different departure times to your destination. After you have selected the train you would like, you can pay for the ticked by cash or credit/debit card. The ticket is printed, presented to you in a compartment on the machine (along with any change you may have coming to you if you used cash to pay) and you are on your way.
The screens are quite robust and under normal use do not seem to degrade.
As far as sanitary issues go...they get wiped down regulary by the train station workers and I have never seen one that I would consider to be unmaintained. Also, "Publically Touched" surfaces, I do not see much difference between a touch screen, a computer keyboard in a university computer room, a doorknob or door handle.
We live in an ecosystem...there are bacteria all around us. I would rather have an immune system that can deal with what is there than try to go around a sterilize everything.
If you've been on NYC subway system you've probably have seen the acid etching in the windows on the trains. That is what worries me the most about this, not so much that its going to be a public surface that will be touched (I think) less then a railing. Or the occasional scratch from a ring or keys. But you would think they would have a (hopefully) cheap replacement screen cover.
NYC train ticket kioks have been touch screen for years. It about two feet square, and I don't recall seeing any hardware degredation from over or inapporpriate use. For the number of times I've used those kiosks, I don't recall ever getting sick after touching one.