When they were designed in 2007, Astral Media’s InfoToGo pillars were supposed to be an integral part of our urban experience. Then the iPhone happened. Now the pillars have been discontinued.
In 2007, the City decided that it would be an excellent idea to populate Toronto’s streets with informative touch-screen computers. These would display interactive maps of popular entertainment destinations, they’d serve up information about city services, and they’d be completely free to use. Five were installed in prominent locations downtown, and they went online for the first time last summer. But city council, at its meeting this week, declared the screens a failure, and voted to discontinue them. This was, as you might suspect, partly Steve Jobs’ fault.
The screens were housed in so-called InfoToGo pillars—big, top-heavy poster columns that stick out of sidewalks in those five previously mentioned locations. Each one has two surfaces that display advertising posters, and a third surface that displays a printed street map of the city. Odd though they may appear, the pillars are an important part of the City’s 20-year contract with Astral Media Outdoor.
Astral is paying for all our new street furniture, from bus shelters, to those garbage cans with the shitty pedals that are always breaking. (They also pay to fix the pedals.) What Astral is getting in exchange for all those streetside amenities is the right to sell advertising on some of them, including the InfoToGo pillars, of which there are ultimately supposed to be 120.
And so: the City wants the pillars on streets because it thinks they’ll be helpful to you and me. Astral wants the pillars on streets because they’re literally a license to print money—money which, incidentally, they’ll have to give a cut of to the City. And yet, almost four years into the contract, we only have five. So what happened?
Jeremy Kramer is the principal of Kramer Design Associates, the company that designed all the new street furniture to the City’s specifications. The bulk of the design work on the InfoToGo pillars, he said, occurred in 2007.
“Not long after that 2007 design was developed,” Kramer said, “a huge change was happening with handheld devices. All of a sudden the kind of interactive content that everyone thought would be wonderful to have in the information pillars was readily available on people’s PDAs.”
The huge change he’s referring to was fomented in large part by the release of the first generation of iPhones, in June 2007. By the time the pillars started to hit Toronto’s sidewalks, in 2010, their screens were already far outclassed, and the City and Astral both knew that the gap between the two technologies was only going to get wider over time.
Complicating matters even further was the fact that the screens were hard to maintain. According to Kyp Perikleous, manager of Toronto’s coordinated street furniture program, the liquid crystal displays weren’t coping well with winter weather. And to add insult to injury, they weren’t even being used. The City and Astral conducted a survey, last summer, to find out why, and learned that it was partly an issue of squeamishness. “People don’t like touching things,” said Perikleous. “With vehicle traffic and just the general weather, you always get a film of dust.”
All this led to a reevaluation of the pillars, and eventually the City and Astral asked Kramer to submit a new design, which was finally approved by city council on Thursday. The new pillars will have no touch screens, but their printed maps will be better than those on the old pillars, and their advertising surfaces will be larger. The 120 pillars in the old design had already been manufactured, and it will be up to Astral to get rid of them.
Kramer doesn’t seem particularly put out. Changing requirements are commonplace with municipal contracts. “It’s the nature of elements that live on the street,” he said.