Bus shelters to talk back

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Window-sized touch screens make shops and streets interactive.

Restaurant tables that read out recipies could be next Credit: http://www.i-vibrations.com

Talking, touch-screen bus shelters are scheduled to arrive on Paris and Brussels streets next year. Made of ordinary glass, they will show or speak information at a tap or a word - without using microphones or loudspeakers vulnerable to vandals.

Timetables, maps, weather forecasts, emergency services and audible advertisements could all be at pedestrians' fingertips, says inventor Jean-Pierre Nikolovski of Intelligent Vibrations in Paris. "It's a novelty and a tool," he says.

Nikolovski hopes that his giant touch-screens will also transform window-shopping into an interactive experience, akin to the futuristic mall that Tom Cruise visits in the movie Minority Report. Video stores in Paris are already using the windows - customers tap the glass in front of a DVD to trigger the trailer on a nearby TV.

"It is pretty amazing," says Chris Matthews of technology-development company CV1 Products in Coventry, UK, who is starting to sell the screens.

Expanding other types of touch-screen can be expensive or fragile using current display technologies, Matthews explains. Information points, for example, often have screens coated with a thin layer that stores electrical charge, which is altered by a fingertip touch.

Instead, Nikolovski transforms standard glass into an interactive window via its vibrations. Tapping the screen creates a circle of vibrations, like the ripples in a pool. These travel through the glass to sensitive detectors at each corner that calculate where the screen was tapped. "We can handle giant surfaces," says Nikolovski.

Linked to customized software, a tap can summon videos on a TV behind the window or activate Internet hotlinks projected onto the glass.

Speaking into the glass creates sound vibrations that detectors can also locate and record, claims Nikolovski, allowing passers by to log a message or opinion. Recently he has added a talkback feature - electrical vibrations can be transferred to the glass so it behaves like a giant loudspeaker.

“Tapping is different from touching Mike Sigona , Elo TouchSystems”

Whether these gimmicks will outdo the many other competing technologies remains to be seen, says Mike Sigona of touch-screen company Elo TouchSystems in Ottobrunn, Germany. People like super-sensitive, fast response to a touch, he points out. "Tapping is different from touching."

But Nikolovski is already in negotiations about the bus stops with French and Belgian manufacturers. "You could listen to the radio while leaning against bus-shelter glass," he says.

Table-top jukeboxes and coffee tables with in-built video conferencing are also on Nikolvski's to-do list. But his dream application is a multifunctional restaurant table, offering music and recipes to accompany your snack. "While you have French meal, a travel agency could organize your trip to France," he says.

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Pearson, H. Bus shelters to talk back. Nature (2002) doi:10.1038/news020909-15

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