Thursday, July 16, 2009

Gold in Those Hills, I mean, Kiosks

My favorite aspect of this business is the amazing range of uses that are available for kiosks. A few months back I wrote about the tremendous growth in money transfer kiosks for immigrants who want to quickly send money back to relatives in their country of origin. And ATMS are, of course, the Big Daddy of kiosks, now ubiquitous and indispensable to contemporary life worldwide. And, of course, let's not forget betting kiosks, some of which (for example the iSports stand shown below) have memorably been called "ATMs on steroids."
Now, with the financial world still on shaky ground, some people perceive a market for kiosks for gold exchange. The New York Times recently highlighted a new line of vending kiosks marketed by TG-Gold-Super-Markt which will allow people to purchase one to ten gram pieces of gold. The first of these new "gold dispensing machines" appeared in Frankfurt this month. The company plans to install more in airports and railroad stations across Germany (its home base), eventually branching out to Switzerland and Austria, according to a Financial Times report. The current model, with the name "Gold to Go" is nothing more than a big gold box, but it does have video surveillance and up-to-date pricing. These may never become as commonplace as your standard ATM (although wouldn't it be interesting if your standard ATM could do a bit more?), but perhaps the design will improve as people become used to purchasing security in little nuggets rather than in crisp bills. The Gold Rush has never been more contemporary -- or dull looking -- as it is today.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Lessons to Learn: Kiosk Touch Screens vs the Digital In-Home Market

Sales of new technology are up and down in this Brave New Economy. That's significant on the retail consumer goods end, but it's also important on the side of corporate investment in forward-thinking technology to advance sales and customer service. The adoption of new gadgets is an important cross-over concern: if people adapt and adopt on one side (for example, by buying new products for their personal use), they are more likely to adopt and adapt on the other side (by being willing to use new interfaces in retail settings). And, of course, vice versa.

Here's one example to think about in relation to the interactive kiosk industry: touch screens.

Over the last decade, consumers have become more and more comfortable with touch screen technology in the retail marketplace, particularly as ordering kiosks become ubiquitous in the food and hospitality industry and tourism depends on informational kiosks. Consumer spending on electronics has been clearly focused on devices with innovative benefits. Apple's iPhone has certainly changed the nature of everyday touch screen use (I watched my kids play the cat toss app and learned a whole new approach to gaming) and opened up a host of possibilities for developers. At the same time, it's important to note that people have been slower to adopt the touch screen on other home electronics.

Why? Here's one thought: Different languages require different keyboards -- we all know that -- but do touch screens and kiosks require different interfaces? Many in the business tout touch screens because they bypass literacy issues -- that is, people who are simply unable to read information on billboards and menus are liberated by the visual elements of touch screens (pictures of the menu offerings rather than lots of description;). Someone traveling to Mexico who cannot speak the language can rely on icons and images when interacting with a currency exchange kiosk; A person with limited literacy can still order off the menu at a fast food restaurant because the pictures illustrate the meal choices.

But it turns out that touch screens are, indeed, for the most part, tied to written knowledge and culture-specific hand gestures. HP, which has been in the forefront of bringing touch screen technology into the PC/ home computer market, has been studying the various local, regional, and national differences in the way people use their hands. According to an interview in PC Magazine, Phil McKinney, the vice president and chief technical officer of Hewlett Packard,

"What our researchers are working on, is literally creating a dictionary of touch and gestures from around the world," McKinney said. "When someone happens to be in-country, I'm throwing a video camera at them, saying run the test, videotape her, bring the videotape back. Do things like, say, put a monitor up, put a picture up [on it], say to them, if you wanted to make that picture bigger, how would you do that?" Apple's iPhone and iPod touch have popularized the two-finger "pinch" command, McKinney noted. "But in some parts of the world they don't know what the pinch command is, and the user will try to grab the image from the side...They'll do fingers."

Unfortunately, the touch dictionary will remain part of HP's research and development rather than a nice anthropologically-based tool for the larger population. This research strikes me as a bit disingenuous -- and, frankly, ignorant of the reams of knowledge already gathered by those in the retail kiosk touch screen world. But even in the in-home market, consider how the Wii has had magnificent worldwide success and there's no universality to the gestures required. And back to our crossover example: Kiosk touch screen technology gets developed and deployed successfully in myriad settings without too much complaining about gestures and cultural illiteracy. In fact, because kiosk touch screens are used more broadly by a wider population -- and in a variety of contexts (from SeaWorld to CVS, from India to Kansas) -- they have to be more finely tuned to user needs. And innovative: think of the recent thin foil screens that can be attached to any glassy surface (Barking Snail's version shown here).

The lesson that home-use touch screen technology can learn from touch screen development in the kiosk industry: making it innovative means creating software that "makes touch useful rather than a mere curiosity." As the New York Times points out, no one benefits if the applications are not interesting.

images: Laxton Kiosks; Barking Snail, Perceptive Pixels.