Commentary

Bucking Traffic

One of the many habits that richer mobile data services have introduced to me and my family is real-time traffic checking. Now that Google Maps on the iPhone has a traffic density layer, I have a new ritual before driving along nearby I-95. I plot my destination and look for the green, yellow and red patches Google uses as rough visual cues about traffic. Of course, the new sport in my family is proving me and my gadgetry wrong. My daughter and fiancée tell me to check the map. If the green bars tell me the Interstate is smooth sailing, they seem disappointed if it turns out to be true. The almighty iPhone and its collection of content providers, must be, could be, should be wrong, most of the time -- by their lights.

"Lucky," they say in unison as we float towards Philly.

It was only a matter of time and bandwidth before traffic cams made their way onto phones to take that layer of digital mapping abstraction out of the equation. A company called 3rd Dimension (3dmobileyes.com) is partnering with NBC local TV affiliates, as well as select other local stations and state Departments of Transportation to bring those fuzzy, halting cam images to phones. Downloadable applications are available for Java, Blackberry and Windows Mobile. Recently, localized iterations appeared on the iPhone App Store for Bay Area, New York and several other major cities.

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The interface on the iPhone app is rudimentary. You can navigate into scores of cams in your area and flag favorites for easier recall later. The favorites feature is critical. Since the data is flowing from DOTs in various locales, there can be hundreds of feeds that are poorly labeled, so it is important to tag the right ones.

The interesting part of the model is that it serves several masters, local media partners, advertisers both local and national, and the public. According to 3rdDimension President Eric Joseph, the company starts by securing the cooperation of the area transportation authority that runs the cams, because the system needs to sit in their server closet. "If we get the DOT, then there is some TV station that probably wants it," he says. In the recent deal with NBC, their affiliates will get exclusive rights to the service in areas where the company secures traffic cams. He partners with the TV station, which pretty much skins the product with their brand and offers viewers live camera feeds as an added service. The stations then can sell ads either as interstitials that pop up during the camera load phase or as crawls at the bottom of the live feed. Joseph gets the DOTs to come on board by swapping ad space to them and providing a channel for emergency information, Amber Alerts, etc. During last year's hurricane in Texas, the service had 60,000 traffic cam hits from people trying to navigate out of Houston.

McDonald's, Sprint, an insurance company and a local Detroit tire franchise have all been early advertisers to the system. The iPhone implementation politely asks if I want to be redirected to the landing page. In the New York area applications, for instance, the redirect sends me to the NBCNews.com mobile site but keeps me inside the traffic app. While the NBC affiliate is running the redirect as a house ad, I actually think that the 3rd Dimension app would work best if this kind of integration between the dedicated traffic app and the TV brand were baked into the app anyway. I can foresee a clash between a partner's mobile Web site and this branded app. Who wants to have a book mark and an app for the same local TV brand? Bringing the two together works for the consumer and the content partner, especially as 3rd Dimension looks to expand its content offering to weather and locally relevant materials.

Whether traffic cams are the ideal interface for traffic is still an open question to me. A pure map has the advantage of giving an overview of your path. Ideally, we would love to see the cam views integrated with a map view on mobile. The mapping makes it easy to chart directions and see the whole path. Drop pins for the cams could click into specific views. Better still, let me highlight four or five cams on a route and compile them into a multi-pane view of my drive path. Tie this into GPS and have my phone ping me long before I am heading into trouble. The end game for mobile applications should be to marry information retrieval with processing and tracking power. In other words, help content grow a brain. Then imagine if a geo-targeted ad network could plug into such situational awareness. The mind reels.

Then let's see my family try to gloat. Just before hitting the tie-up before my local mall, the Lucky Jeans store could shoot me an enticing coupon and give me a reason to bail at their exit. I don't think my posse would be making fun of the phone then.

2 comments about "Bucking Traffic".
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  1. Brian Moore from Varolii Communications, January 22, 2009 at 7:39 p.m.

    VZ Navigator is providing traffic indicators along a mapped route; it also offers the option to calculate an alternate route to evade traffic. So far its never told me the alternate is going to save me enough time to make it worth re-routing, but I keep hoping.

  2. Tom Kadala from ResearchPAYS, Inc., January 23, 2009 at 1:54 p.m.

    Great burst of ideas! I feel like the early days of DOS when innovation pulled record crowds into Comdex... Ok, so I'm showing my age. No matter. The energy needed to break the barriers of viable mobile applications will require pioneers with a nagging vision. It did then. It won't be any different now.

    Text message specials when traffic builds around an exit area... I love it! Maybe it's not the answer but it looks and feels like it's going somewhere.

    Thanks for the inspiration.... back to the grind.
    Tom

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