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Innovation: BT unveils data kiosk

SUPERMAN could do more than change his clothes in BT's telephone kiosk of the future, which will begin appearing early in 1995, writes Nuala Moran. The kiosk will offer not only phone calls but information and financial services, a fax machine and foreign-language services.

The range of services will be tailored to suit the kiosk's location, with likely pilot sites including airports, motorway service stations, railway stations and shopping centres.

Users will choose services via picture icons on a touch screen. The service providers will be able to use graphics, photographs, animation, video and sound in making their offerings. These elements - for example, a video of the car you are hiring - will be held within the kiosk system, but information that is liable to change, such as prices, will come from the service provider's database. The fax machine will send and receive, and the printer will allow users to take away information.

Gary Smith, one of the researchers who developed the kiosk at BT Labs in Martlesham, near Ipswich, said BT had been approached by several potential service providers, but the mix of services would depend on market research by BT's Payphone division. The pilots will also show BT the maintenance requirements of the kiosk. For example, BT has no experience of putting A4 printers in public places. 'We need to make sure the paper isn't going to jam all the time,' Mr Smith said.

Vandalism is another consideration. The kiosks will not take cash but they will offer greater potential than phone boxes for gratuitous attacks. The initial sites will be in 'vandal-free' areas. Mr Smith said the prototype at BT Labs was so flimsy that one kick would make it fall to pieces. To be economically viable, vandal- proof kiosks would have to be produced in volume.

Mr Smith sees the key to the success of the pilots in persuading people they need to use the kiosks. 'The technology is not trivial, but it is available; the pilot kiosks must show there is a commercial opportunity.'

(Photograph omitted)