The digital transformation of public space: Jérôme Hérard – ‘Public space is a digital desert’

This article is an exclusive rendering of the interview taken by Ooh-tv to Jérôme Hérard, COO of the French media agency L’île des Médias, on issues related to the digital transformation of public space.

Starting with 2006 L’île des Médias, which celebrates its 15 th year since its set up, endorsed a special department entirely dedicated to the new interactive display technologies. The company has already equipped  185 devices with its ViaDirect solutions throughout Europe in venues such as the Georges Pompidou Hospital (Paris), Centrum Chodov (Prague) and public spaces such as underground stations of Paris’ RATP (the equivalent of TFL-Transport For London).

Jérôme why are you interested in the digital transformation of public space?

Our interest stems from a simple fact: the huge gap between the digital experience individuals can enjoy at home and at the office and the one they can enjoy outdoors. The public space is a digital desert.

Let’s talk about practical issues. What are the critical elements to consider when installing an interactive tactile device outdoors? Technology, vandalism?

The digital tactile display technologies tailored to the public space are now mature and functional. The challenge isn’t here. Managing the external environment (temperature, dust etc.) and the potential acts of vandalism on the equipment are also issues that the industry can handle. And, frankly, the acts of vandalism are not really an issue; we’ve learned from our experience that people respect the facilities that deliver quality information. When it comes to the technical side of things, the great difficulty resides in a more trivial consideration: total dependence on an electricity plant and on a reliable computer network. Installing an electrical system in a public space, for example, can be very expensive. A trench for deploying cables is sometimes more expensive than the technical devices we install. And this doesn’t automatically imply that the electricity will be of good quality.

This is a constraint we must address and actually we started investing heavily in engineering for enabling our devices to manage power outages and recover afterwards! To give you an idea, 20% of the amount spent on technological equipment is used to solve the electrical problem.

And it is the same for the network access?

Yes, the dependence on network installation in the public space is also a critical aspect.

What are my options in terms of Internet connection? There are three.

The wired one that, like the electricity issue, can lead to installing cables which would only increase a project’s cost and complexity. And then, again, pulling cables doesn’t necessarily mean a high quality network access. We must also look at what’s ‘’at the other end of the cable’’. If it’s a consumer Internet box- as we often find- likely to crash and with a recovery period of 4 weeks- well, you can imagine this isn’t a viable solution.

The second option is the wi-fi, which is clearly not working properly in public spaces so it’s best to be forgotten.

Finally, the 3G, which from our experience is the last option you should consider: mobile operators frequently change the power of their network, which affects the data flow and makes the entire installation unstable.

In plain words, our experience shows that developing a tactile public space application that depends primarily on an Internet connection is inconceivable. One has to think the application differently right from the very beginning, so that it can support asynchronous data dissemination and thus overcome a continuous dependence on a network.

In your opinion, is the asynchronous data fundamental?

Yes, the asynchronous data is the answer to the above-mentioned constraints.

It’s a common concept in the field of digital signage that endorsed it long ago as the content it handles is heavy and it usually needs to be stored prior to its distribution.

Yet this is rather a novelty for the developers of interactive touch screen applications – in public spaces or elsewhere – who spontaneously use real time Internet technologies. This is mainly happening for two reasons: the necessary technical competence is much inferior (and more common) as are the time and cost of development.

The network problem is even more obvious when it comes to mobile applications that require a 3G access most of the time, service often unavailable in busy public spaces.

Let’s conclude on the application interface. What are the requirements?

A digital device installed in a public space must be appealing to everybody. Therefore we must work on inducing an immediate experimental response, keeping the system simple and intuitive.

This implies skipping those devices requiring a too elaborated interaction as augmented reality or movement recognition ones (see KINECT)

They discriminate against a proportion of the population that is not aware of this gesture grammar. I don’t think that the purpose of these brands’ heavy investments is educating people on the media of the future; their goal is to create an experience that transmits at least one message to the user.

With compliments to Denis Gaumondie- Ooh-tv and Jérôme Hérard- COO L’île des Médias.

Feel free to join the conversation and let us know your thoughts below.

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