When Claude Foisy walked up to the big ad screen and it changed, I have to admit I thought that was pretty cool.
It didn’t transform into a helicopter or anything, it just displayed a menu.
This is the new Abribus, introduced by Quebecor and the STM on Tuesday morning at a rather fancy press conference.
Last June, Quebecor came to a 20-year deal with the Société de transport de Montréal to manage its hundreds of bus shelters. Now we got introduced to the prototype.
Except there wasn’t a prototype bus shelter per se. Just a prototype of the interactive screen. The design of the rest of the shelter — the glass, the roof, the bench — couldn’t be seen up close, leaving us to rely on some artists’ conceptions:
From what I can tell, that shelter design looks a lot like the shelter the STM showed off in 2010 at René-Lévesque Blvd. and Jeanne-Mance St. In fact, this image is based off that shelter at the same location.
So other than the screen, nothing seems to have changed, at least yet. So we’ll focus on the screen.
Quebecor says it has “gesture recognition”. And it does, though somewhat basic, and not really what you’d see in science fiction films.
Basically what you do is stand about six feet away from the screen and hold your arm out in front of you. A sensor above the screen, pointed down at about a 45-degree angle, picks up where your arm is and moves a cursor on the screen as you move that arm. There’s no clicking action. You select items simply by leaving the cursor on a button for a couple of seconds.
Without anyone present, the screen cycles through static advertisements. When it detects someone nearby, it shows a menu on the side and bus arrival information at the top. You can cycle through the ads, interact with the ads (an example was a video by Mitsou about specialty channel Moi & Cie), or click on the side buttons for more features like a map of the STM network, news and weather information. In general, it’s stuff that’s designed to be quickly consumed (since you won’t be in the shelter for long).
I asked about the camera, whether it recorded what it sees and could be used as a kind of surveillance footage. One of the people on hand said that it doesn’t do that at all, it’s more of a sensor than a camera.
The STM plans to install 40 of these shelters at various points in the network this fall, along with 160 non-interactive ones. It will replace all 1,870 shelters in the network by 2023.
Another neat feature isn’t technological but logistical. There will be a hotline setup (with the easy-to-remember number 514-ABRIBUS) for people to report unclean shelters and have them fixed in under 48 hours.
What’s not included
There are good questions about whether this is all necessary. Most people nowadays have smartphones, and that number is climbing. True, there are many people who don’t right now, but will that number still be significant in 2023? Will interactive ads capture people’s attention long enough to make all this expense worth it, or will the novelty wear off quickly?
It’s been pointed out that what shelters could use most in Montreal is heat, not high technology. Unfortunately, that won’t happen. STM chairperson Michel Labrecque told me that every time they study this issue, it doesn’t work. It’s too expensive, and it wastes energy. And if shelters are going to be powered by solar panels, that doesn’t generate nearly enough energy. (He did point out that shelters installed as part of the Pie-IX rapid bus system would be heated).
There’s also the concern of vandalism. The design looked pretty solid to me and I suspect it won’t be easy to crash through the glass and break the screen. But covering up the sensor with spraypaint, for example, would make the interactivity useless. We’ll see when there’s an actual shelter built whether it can withstand intentional damage. For that matter, there’s unintentional damage too. How will this system work in the middle of winter? Will it be usable if a shelter is packed during a rainstorm?
A bunch of questions we’ll have to wait to answer.
But for now, at least, this looks pretty cool.
And, because Quebecor is covering the cost, we don’t have to pay for it.