Control Group, a Dev Shop for the Real World, Rethinks Subway Navigation

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st.001Try to grab a bite at a restaurant in Terminal D of New York’s LaGuardia airport, and you may notice something: the staff will not take your order. Instead, they will point you to one of a hundred mounted tablets, equipped with custom software to allow travelers to browse the web, check on flight status, and order food and drinks to seats across the terminal.

Two years ago, OTC management, which runs the food service at Laguardia, commissioned Control Group, a New York-based development shop, to build the new ordering system in attempt to expand the number of seats its restaurants could serve. The iPads allow concession companies to penetrate into gate seating areas and sell after people have passed by restaurants and stores.

The agency, which launched in the early part of the 2000’s as an IT consultancy for architecture firms, is one of a handful of development and marketing companies to carve out a niche in bringing the web to the physical world. Thanks to advances in cloud computing advances and an explosion in affordable connected devices, these companies are helping retailers, restaurants and a range of other organizations with a stake in a physical place to use connectivity to rethink the way we engage with the world around us.

From Airports to Subways
In 2013, Control Group set sights on another institution with which New Yorkers have a contentious relationship: the subway system. As part of a year-long pilot commissioned by the MTA, a team set out to rethink the way that the 1.6 billion people who travel on New York’s subway system every year navigate the city.

The result: a 47-inch interactive sign, capable of giving users real-time directions while constantly cycling through a range of content, from information on next arrivals to schedule service updates and advertisements. The signs also include a cameras that — although not in use today — could allow the MTA to track users as they move around the station, measuring everything from foot traffic to the sentiment of a person interacting with the sign.

The MTA unveiled the project to public last month, installing 18 signs in Grand Central Station. By the end of the year, when the pilot official concludes, the agency plans to roll out 62 more units in 15 stations across Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.

Beyond helping travelers, the signs also present a meaningful commercial opportunity for the MTA. The agency generated over $113 million in advertising revenue in 2013, and the signs present a new channel, capable of advanced targeting capabilities with little-to-no incremental costs. The displays already include sponsored messaging, but Gutierrez also believes that the systems could enable deeper, more transactional experiences as well.

“From a local standpoint, the opportunity is tremendous,” says Damian Gutierrez, associate partner at the firm. “ One thing we’re really interested in is transactional signage — enabling these screens so that you can, for instance, add something to your cart and send it to your phone to make a purchase. Ultimately, this is a computer, and we can enable whatever web experience you are used to with the understanding that it’s a public, shared display.”

In many ways, the public nature of signs — interactive or not — pitches the project against a gravitational pull in the technology toward personalization. Unlike smartphones, and the software designed for these devices, these computers are shared devices, built to serve a broad swath of users who interact with the device in an ephemeral, passing moment.

“There’s an interesting gray area in the kind of personalization you can do with a public sign,” Gutierrez told me in the company’s offices Thursday morning. “On the one hand, there’s the information about trains at that station which apply to everyone. On the other, there’s information about all of the possible routes and connections each traveler could make. Somewhere in between, there’s a happy medium.”

For a logistics organization like the MTA, “big data” isn’t a new concept. What the interactive display presents however, is a unique opportunity to not only better understand the behavior of travelers, but influence that behavior in real-time in a way that was never before possible.

That’s just why digital interfaces are critical to the growth of the local web as a whole. Today, brick-and-mortar business can access unprecedented amounts of information about their consumers in real-time. But the value of that data is tied to the ability for a business to act on that information — and without changeable interfaces, there’s a natural bottleneck.

Mobile devices offer a starting point, but the value in local technology is not to create a local version of the desktop Internet. It’s the ability to facilitate in person, real-world experiences, in which technology (and the Internet) is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

“The challenge we face today is bridging our devices with the public infrastructure,” says Gutierrez, referring to technologies like Bluetooth LE that help to transmit information between nearby devices. “The next step is going to be creating a world in which our phones stay in our pocket, and the world changes around us.”

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.