Ive seen the future of mobile advertising. Its in the back of taxi cabs cruising the streets in Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and, if fortune smiles upon Corey Gottlieb, soon to be New York.
Gottlieb is CEO of a company called Interactive Taxi. It operates from an office currently stacked with EvDO (Evolution Data Optimized) cards, circuit boards and chassis, in the Flatiron District of New York. He was preparing to respond to an RFP (request for proposal) from the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission when I dropped in.
The city has mandated that the Big Apples 16,000 taxis be equipped with interactive, GPS (Global Positioning System)-based units. Deployment is expected sometime late this year, after the New York Taxi and Limousine Service reviews proposals.
The idea is to equip each cab with display units, designed to provide city and tourist information, taxi fares, rules, a GPS-based location system, and a credit card billing and reconciliation system that allows passengers to charge their fares.
Interactive Taxi did just that in a pilot project with the city in 2001. New York was poised to deploy units throughout the city when the World Trade Center attack occurred. The plan went on hold.
In the interim, Interactive Taxi took its technology to other cities. Today, 250 Interactive Taxis are cruising the streets of Boston. Chicago has 350 of them, and San Francisco plans to soon expand its fleet to more than 200.
Oh, did I mention advertising?
Thats not only what drives this business model, its the reason for its being.
Gottlieb was handling advertising sales at Viacom five years ago when four friends, who came up with the idea for Interactive Taxi, approached the company with it in search of funding. Viacom did not bite, but Gottlieb did.
He liked the idea so much that he joined the company and eventually moved to its helm. Interactive Taxi attracted venture capital funding, and the business was born.
It all stemmed from the frustration of one of the friends who, it seems, had been stuck in a taxi in New Yorks legendary gridlock. Thinking there should be something better to do with the time than sit there, he and his buddies came up with the idea of providing interactive backseat entertainment (no, not the kind in HBOs “Taxicab Confessions”).
-On”> The concept itself is not exactly new. Interactive displays with advertising have been deployed in other cities.
Where Interactive Taxi pushes the envelope is in the technology used to power the system. These are not self-contained units that operate off of DVDs mounted in the cab. They are true computers, powered by Windows XP Embedded, that receive and send information via an always-on connection over Verizon Wireless EvDO 3G (third-generation) network.
The information appears on display units mounted behind the drivers seat in the cab. It is updated regularly on servers in Interactive Taxis offices in the various cities and is downloaded to the units in the cabs. This allows the company to efficiently update information and advertising from a central location without having to change out disks or reprogram individual cab units.
The system uses synchronization software from PeerDirect to enable the always-on connection. Having the functionality of an ever-present signal is becoming increasingly important in mobile applications, said Britt Johnston, chief technology officer at PeerDirect.
“From the end users perspective, its increasingly important that the system is always on,” Johnston said. He added that the software allows Interactive to “present passengers with information, let them make a decision and then capture this fact even if its disconnected from the system.”
By synchronizing information in the cab with information on Interactive Taxis servers as the cabs move in and out of signal range, the software enables the always-on connection. That is important in big cities, where signals are often blocked by tall buildings.
Jim Piccione, vice president of operations at Interactive Taxi, took me for a spin. It wasnt your typical New York taxi ride. Instead of amusing myself by counting the number of dog walkers on the streets or male pedestrians wearing yellow ties, I was entertained by an interactive display mounted in the center back of the front seat.
There in front of me were the rules of the cab, including more information about fares than I ever thought possible, a video commercial about the 2005 Lincoln Aviator, and a variety of buttons on the touch screen allowing me to call up text news, sports and financial information, as well as local listings of restaurant and night-life options.
“How many times have you been in a cab and not known the address of the restaurant where youre supposed to meet someone?” Gottlieb asked. “You dont have to pull out your cell phone, call 411, and then call the restaurant and get the address so you can pass it along to the cab driver. Its all right here.”
I touched the touch screen, and everything I wanted to know about restaurants in the Financial District appeared before me.
Even better, the unit is tied into a GPS-based tracking system. I could follow the route we were taking. The GPS system is something the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission insisted upon. It will allow the commission to centrally monitor the whereabouts of the cabs, maintain a tracking log, and easily locate lost items when a rider reports she left something behind.