The first working prototype of the digital wayfinding and out-of-home advertising kiosk program has been made available for Santa Monica residents to inspect, examine and evaluate and we went along to prod, play and put it to the test ourselves.

Officially known as the Digital Wayfinding and Out-of-Home Advertising Kiosk Program, the initiative was first introduced in early 2020, shortly before the pandemic, but the proposal was temporarily shelved until November 2022, when Council selected a company to install, operate and maintain the network of kiosks. A company called BIG Outdoor beat the competition and was awarded the exclusive franchise in December 2022. However, one of the companies spurned by the selection process, IKE Smart City, threatened legal action, accusing BIG of exaggerating their qualifications and copying other company’s intellectual property as it related to the kiosks.

However, in a classic kumbaya ending to this epic tale, both IKE and Big settled their differences in February 2023 and announced a partnership to meet the terms of the contract that will roll out up to 50 digital wayfinding signs and raise in the region of $5 million per year for the city.

An open house was set up at the Bergamot Station Arts Center and three dates were made available in the first week of June. The public was invited to explore the digital features, interact with the user interface, offer design criticisms and even suggestions on a giant map as to where the best locations would be to place them throughout the city.

Keen to get our paws on this gigantic, new gadget, we jumped at the opportunity to visit as soon as possible and during our visit, a number of Santa Monica residents trickled in, including Councilmember Christine Parra. Almost tragically the first topic of discussion was how well this monolith-sized message board would stand up to the inevitable vandalism that any nice, shiny new toy placed on the streets of Santa Monica will be vulnerable to.

“First and foremost was making sure we had protocols in place if something does happen,” says Bill Tagliaferri, President of BIG Outdoor. “We’re hiring full time maintenance workers and their job is solely to check these kiosks and clean them. And this is in tandem with the city’s maintenance program. So they’re going to be in charge of fixing whatever issues that are sorted within 48 hours.”

In all honesty, we believe the design is simple, elegant and effective – we even like the shade of blue that’s been chosen

BIG has a number of digital displays in place in cities around the country and while none of them are quite like the wayfinder kiosk, some do share some very basic functionality in their features.

Steve Edgington, Lead Engineer at BIG Outdoor, says that they’re not only designed to withstand strict seismic standards, but, “from ​​a vandalism standpoint, the structure can take quite a hit.”

“There are components that can be replaced and if the glass were to break, or get shattered for whatever reason, it’s laminated glass, so you’ll just see a crack and then it will be replaced within 48 hours. One of our biggest aims on the design side is to ensure if there was any damage, then it absolutely will not pose any safety risk,” Edgington says.

For the most part, the user experience was faultless. The Daily Press identified one teeny-tiny glitch, but Kiley Kmiec, Business Developer for BIG Outdoor, was lightening quick to take note. While one or two examples of iconography could be tweaked, the navigation was simple, effective and logically laid out. A wealth of useful information is available, from the nearest bars and restaurants – including ratings and reviews – to maps of the immediate area, public transportation guides, lists of local events taking place, in short, just about everything both residents and tourists alike will find extremely useful.

The user experience has been carefully crafted and well thought out…and with a few tweaks here and there, it should work well
CREDIT: IKE Smart City

“This is so exciting,” Parra said, adding, “These kiosks represent new, modern and really interesting ways in which we’ll be able to share important and fun information with the whole community,” before taking a thoroughly amusing selfie.

The prototype was approximately 8ft tall, with a 55-inch display and stood in a Kubrick-esque manner in the center of the room. Despite the exterior casing not being exactly like the proposed final design – this first round of testing was more about the user interface than anything else – an emergency panic button had been incorporated as the current plan is to include something similar on the mass production model.

It currently sits about 3ft up on one edge in an attempt to make it easily accessible to someone in a wheelchair for example and to be ADA compliant. However, it also currently has no safeguards in place and any bored adolescent will almost certainly take pleasure in pretending this is a giant pinball machine once they’ve discovered that magical, mysterious silver button.

Both IKE and BIG have been working closely with Santa Monica emergency services representatives to create design solutions and SMPD Chief Ramon Batista himself took time to look over the prototype in person last week.

For visitors to Santa Monica these wayfinding kiosks could provide useful information on public transportation networks

“It’ll be interesting to see what we can come up with. We just have to find the best engineering solution, we have some experience with blue phones and, depending on where they are, some have taken a beating but others have been used quite a bit,” Batista says, adding, “Off the top of my head I’m not sure yet how we’re going to make it essentially child proof.”

The current proposal for the kiosk design also incorporates its own Wi-Fi hotspot, with a range of about 30ft or so, plus a built-in camera that enables you to take selfies. These two features have also raised questions, the first being whether or not a free Wi-Fi network will simply result in “camps” of people huddled around the kiosks using the internet all day and the issue of privacy if cameras are incorporated.

“So long as we can clearly show with no doubt that cameras are being used responsibly we can make sure that the public feels safe in how we’re utilizing the technology,” Batista says. “It’s my hope that the cameras stay as I think it would be a win for the public’s safety and public safety [law enforcement] and for having fun.”

Tagliaferri said that everyone involved was working closely with the city of Santa Monica to decide as a collective what the best policy will be. “There have been some discussions where the Wi-Fi connection ends after 30 minutes, so you’re kicked off for the day, or something along those lines,” adding, “When it comes to us making those final adjustments, we’ll be able to put in every one of those restrictions, if they’re needed.”

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.