In 2007, Mattias Gunnneras and Andrew Zolty, a programmer and web designer for the digital marketing agency Poke, started working on a small project for a bakery next door to their London office. The duo built a small box, slightly larger than a deck of cards, with a dial, which could select a handful of baked goods. Turn the dial to croissant, push the button, and the bakery’s Twitter account automatically sent out a tweet, telling followers that a newly cooked batch of croissants just came out of the oven.
Fast forward seven years, and the team has turned the side project, and a lingering interest in bringing the web to the physical world, into Breakfast, which is one of the top ten most innovative companies in local according to a list Fast Company released last week. The firm’s most recent project, a digital signage system called Points, is the culmination of the company’s two-year-long effort to integrate the Internet into the physical world, and an demonstration of a wider shift in the technology and marketing communities beyond the small screens of the mobile phone into a burgeoning Internet of Things.
Within months of its launch, the Brooklyn-based agency captured the attention of the marketing press. The team outfitted the bicycle of a friend, who planned to ride across the country, with sensors that measured outside air temperature, speed and incline among other attributes, and then built a system to tweet out comments from the bike based on the data. The project was a publicity stunt, but it worked, and a week later TBS contacted the agency to retrofit a slightly larger vehicle — a blimp featuring promoting Conan O’Brien’s late-night show— with the same equipment. Working with Foursquare, the team built a system that allowed people on the ground to check-in to the blimp as it moved across the country.
It was the first mobile venue on Foursquare.
Today, Breakfast is part marketing agency, part hardware development shop. In addition to playing the traditional agency role, the company develops and distributes its own product lines, the most popular of which is Instaprint, a wall-mounted printer that automatically prints Instagram photos when a user attaches a given hashtag.
Not available to the public but equally interesting, is B-line, a device, which resembles a rotary phone, that automatically connects the caller to one of the cell phones of one of the firm’s three partners. The team sent the phones to each of its top brand prospects. Needless to say, they heard back.
In many ways, the company’s work — and the plaudits they’ve already received — are endemic of a larger shift in the technology market. The growth of the smartphone, and the derivative software ecosystems developed for these devices, have demonstrated the value of ubiquitous connectivity to consumers, and, in part, have opened the door for developers to bring the Internet to familiar, “dumb” objects like thermostats, blimps or street signs. By 2020, Cisco projects that the number of connected devices will grow from 9 billion this year to 50 billion six years later.
“People are used to interacting with the Internet on the square screen of a laptop or smartphone, and that’s precisely what we’re breaking out of,” Mattias Gunneras, the company’s co-founder, told me in an interview. “There’s still some novelty around the idea that the Internet can take any shape — or, in some cases, doesn’t have to take any shape at all.”
In August, Breakfast released a video demonstrating Points, a prototype of an interactive street sign, which the company started to design during the previous winter. The video exploded, garnering hundreds of thousands of views as well as the attention of municipal governments and brands alike. Today, the team is quietly working to build the project into a full fledged product, refining the prototype and building out a content management system to allow potential contributors to access the back end.
In addition to displaying content — say, a promotion for a nearby business or the traffic on a given street — the signs also collect data on the world around them. Using the wi-fi tracking technology pioneered by companies like Euclid Analytics, the signs can count the number of smartphones nearby, generating rough estimates of the number of people who saw, say an ad, on a sign during a given day. What’s more, the company is working with merchants to install similar software in their stores, so that they can detect the number of people who see a sign then enter a given store.
From a high level, Gunneras positions the project as the next iteration of wayfinding, a way to bring local information, which we typically access through browsers and mobile applications, to public objects like street signs. In many ways, his vision represents a reaction against the deep personalization that’s emerged as a result of the smartphone, and a reinvestment in the shared experience and serendipity of public space.
“It all comes from going back: the idea we’ve lost something in keeping our heads down, and interacting with the world through a screen. It’s a reduced experience somehow,” said Gunneras. “It’s when all those things go away, and when you can touch, feel and taste something, that the experience is truly fantastic.”
Points remains in development as a Breakfast product, but Gunneras says the team may spin off the project into its own entity. However, as a standalone firm, Points would face an uphill battle. The local marketing and technology sector is as busy as every, with hundreds, if not thousands, of companies jockeying for local marketing and operations spending.
The market for digital out-of-home advertising (DOOH) in particular is growing, but at a slower pace than previously expected. Global revenue grew 11.4% to 7.88 million in 2012, a slight decline in rate of growth from previous years, according to PQ media, a connecticut-based research firm. Meanwhile, competition over those advertising dollars is already intense. Marketing giant WPP, for instance, invested in the industry through Spafax networks, a subsidiary that serves as an advertising network for digital out of home inventory.
What’s more, mobile marketing firms have started to invest in DOOH as a potential growth area for their business. The New York-based xAd, for instance, partnered with Posterscope, a digital signage provider, in October to bring the company’s inventory into its media buying platform. Monica Ho, the chief marketing officer at xAd, told me recently that these types of initiatives reflect a wider shift beyond mobile media for the firm.
The way we interact with the malls, main streets, and shopping districts that still account for the lion’s share of commerce in the U.S. today has changed dramatically over the past decade, due in large part to the rapid adoption of mobile devices. Tools like the Yellow Pages books or local newspapers — once staples of our local experience — are now shadows of themselves. But, when connectivity reaches beyond our own devices into the public spaces and physical objects implicit in any real-world marketplace, there are a host of new opportunities to shape, alter, and influence commerce in remarkable ways.
Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.
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