Video screens in the back of taxicabs might seem old hat -- Las Vegas, London and Singapore all have them -- but a Canadian company's cabs are the first enhanced with a GPS system.
Embedded in the headrest of the cab's front passenger seat, thin touch screens offer taxi riders streaming MP3 audio, events listings and, soon, wireless news delivery.
GPS provides accurate maps so customers can watch as their cab weaves through the city streets. And what advertisers provide, using GPS, is location-sensitive advertising: As the cabs cruise past participating businesses, promotions for their services pop up on the computer screen.
All of the ads are loaded in the memory of the computer, stowed in the trunk of each of the participating taxis. While the cab drives through the city, the GPS receiver tells the computer where it is, and the appropriate ad plays. The GPS reports the taxi's location to within about 16 feet.
"The response has been great," says Justin Belobaba, CEO of Toronto's toMarket, the company providing the advertising system. "For the local advertisers, they can't afford television, radio, newspaper, but for a few hundred bucks they can buy the advertising rights to their block, and every single toMarket cab that drives down their block will see their ad."
Advertisers can purchase any block in the city, and some have even gone so far as to buy up competitors' blocks as well as their own, says David Shaw, company co-founder and head of business development.
Blocks cost anywhere from CN$100 to CN$600, depending on the area.
So will taxi drivers take passengers out of their way just to get some ads up on the screen? Not necessarily, says Shaw, who notes cab drivers won't know where advertising has been sold.
Customers can tune out the ads and switch off the screens.
So far, the company only has the screens installed in 25 taxis, but by next March they intend to have 2,000 Toronto cabs cruising the streets with the systems. After that, they hope to expand across North America.
"There are certain cities that make a lot of sense for a product like this," Belobaba says. "New York is one of them. Chicago is another. Anywhere there is a very dense downtown core."
ToMarket is the creation of seven graduates of the posh Toronto boy's school Upper Canada College, and all are either recent graduates or still attending university.
Belobaba ranked in the top of his economics class at Harvard with a perfect grade point average of 4.0, while Shaw, 23, is the oldest of the seven founding members.
Joe Greene, vice president of telecommunications and Internet research for Internet research firm IDC Canada, says the ability to know where you are in a taxi is a plus, and the advertising of clubs and events could be helpful to visiting tourists and businesspeople.
But in general, Greene believes the amount of advertising creeping into everyday life is less than welcome. "I think it's a bad trend we're seeing right now. We're going to be inundated with ads everywhere: cell phones, your laptop. It's becoming a little daunting," he says.
And just wait for the first time the cab pulls up beside an Internet gas pump with its advertising. It could be enough to turn a hack driver into a Travis Bickle.
Charles Mandel, Wired News. July 17, 2002
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