It's All Happening At The Zoo

by , Jul 25, 2006, 2:15 PM
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As a child in the '60s, I found going to the Bronx Zoo a special treat--because the animals talked there. Many of the locations and featured animal attractions had these voice boxes. If I remember correctly, you purchased a key that activated narration in these units and told you about the animal, habitat, etc. This all seems so primitive now, but at the time it felt exotic, ultra-modern, and made perfect sense to a five-year-old member of the first generation truly raised on electronic media. Last week, some 40 years later, I felt a touch of that same magic coming from my next-gen phones. Objects, not animals, seemed ready to find their voice.

Among the many holy grails of mobile (how many sacred relic can we pursue, anyway?), somewhere at the top of the list of technical quests is marrying local directories with location-based services (LBS). A GPS-enabled phone that knows where you are and pours laser-geo-targeted local listings into your phone as needed is the wet dream of every search engine, yellow page provider, and network content chief. Fold onto that technology pay-per-call ad sales (where local merchants and franchises pay dearly to connect directly to that mobile phone search result) and you have a sweet model that could easily rival online search revenues.

And it may be closer than we think. I spent some hands-on time with two existing geo-location directional services last week (VZ Navigator and Garmin Mobile), each of which included local directories. While both products were aimed at providing vocal directions and mapping, I ended up using the directories more.

In VZ Navigator, I was about five clicks away from finding Cajun restaurants in my immediate vicinity. Rather than having me type in my zip code to some short code I had to remember, and then engaging in a three- or four-message exchange with a mobile search engine, the application simply started up, already knowing where I was, providing a directory of food styles ready for me to peruse.

I don't know if VZ Navigator is tied to the Verizon brand's excellent SuperPages listings, but the comprehensiveness was impressive. The system returned the ten closest listings, and it seemed at least as good as the results I pull from Google and Yahoo Local on the Web. The beauty of course, is that this was fully portable and required very little input other than declaring my yen for spicy food. As in many digitized local directories, the results were skewed heavily in the direction of national franchises. Apparently SaladWorks is the only option for vegetarians in the DelMarVa tri-state area.

Regardless, the results were all nicely mapped, tied to precise directions (no input required) and offered direct call links. Should SaladWorks or that Cajun shack nearby pay through the nose if I place the call? Absolutely. I am a customer they otherwise would not have had. I am theirs now, solely because I happen to be in this area and am using this technology. The odds that they would get me in their door any other way are nil. If they make a negligible margin on my meal after the PP-Call fee, that is still found money for them.

The downside for the directory business is that an exclusively PP-Call model only monetizes that listing if I make a call. In many categories I only needed to know the vendor was there and get directions. Surely, some hybrid model will evolve where advertisers pay one rate when you click for directions and another for a call. The PP-Call model probably works better for services than it does for retail.

All of the technology and content that makes LBS directories work have actually been in place for a while; we are simply waiting for the apps and consumer sensibilities to catch up. Most phones released in the market now have some kind of geo-locating system built in, but network operators are being cautious about turning them on by default.

How creepy will it seem to consumers that their location can be tracked by someone, somewhere? Think online privacy was an issue? This technology plants a big fat interactive cookie on our backs at all times. I think it is cool as hell that the VZ Navigator and Garmin Mobile system direct me from the passenger seat in a voice sexier and somehow less robotic than my ex-wife's (and let's not go there).

But what happens when the tech dweebs in the behavioral targeting labs get hold of the physical trail I left behind? After a week of using these systems to get me everywhere, I had the slightly paranoid sense that some eye in the sky (databases somewhere in the bowels of Sprint and Verizon) knew everywhere I had been and were only a subpoena away from being unlocked.

But I also got the sense that very useful content was following me, or even coming at me from places and things. That sensibility is the game-changer in blending LBS with relevant information. This system puts content into the ether, ready to pour from any location. Content will be tied to objects in the real world.

You could stand in Rockefeller Center and simply ask, "what is this place? Its history? Its resources?" And a properly-equipped phone would simply spew answers, directions, time schedules, special offers, maybe a walking tour narrated by Matt Lauer.

A U.S. company, GeoVector, is already powering the Mapion system in Japan, which delivers content according to where you point your phone. By combining GPS with an in-phone compass, the technology literally lets you aim a device at more than 700,000 objects and locations and receive relevant listings and tourist information.

This is a glimpse of the real end game of mobile technology and how it transforms our previous understanding of media altogether. It is the Bronx Zoo model writ large. This is not about simply mobilizing information, about making portable the media we already have. This is about activating objects and locations, letting media flow from every place and thing.

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