June 10, 2010

Ion Kiosk Franchise

Informational kiosk gets digital updates
By Noah Hoffenberg, Special to the Eagle
Updated: 06/06/2010 07:56:20 AM EDT

Sunday June 6, 2010

WILLIAMSTOWN — What the heck is that?

Exactly, says Donald Sanders of his ION kiosk, a roughly 1,600-pound cream-colored organically shaped mass of art and information that’s currently parked in front of the Bennington (Vt.) Museum.

“Not everyone is going to like the shape, but that’s not the point,” said Sanders, 60, an architect, historian and archaeologist. “The point is that it’s a dramatic enough shape in the landscape that it stands out and pulls people in. It piques their curiosity, and they want to see what it is. Once people get used to seeing these, they’ll recognize them as the place to go for art and digital content.”

The goal of these structures — a shared brainchild with ION Kiosk LLC co-founder Michael Horwitz, of Pownal, Vt. — is to reinvent the vibrant, hyper-local bulletin boards that were once found on American tavern doors in the 18th century or on 19th-century street corners in France.

These sites, said Sanders, were the go-to place to find out what was the happening event in a community.

Further, these ION kiosks would ideally replace the oft-forgotten and overlooked tourist information booths, which Sanders said lack a real-time connection between merchant and customer. Additionally, the kiosks act as attractive mini-arts venues, similar to the Window Works project in Bennington, or the Storefront Artists Project in Pittsfield.

A contributing sculptor with Window Works, Horwitz, 57, thought
the concept of local artists displaying their work in vacant storefront windows was a good one, but he also felt it had limitations.

“I liked the casually encountered nature of the display, but as the stores were rented, the opportunities dried up, and thoughts of a portable window gallery took shape,” he said.

In 2008, Horwitz had been discussing the concept with his longtime friend Sanders, who “added the prospect of coupling the display space with touch-screen access to all sorts of local information. And thus, two years ago, the ION Kiosk was born,” said Horwitz.

As a matter of fact, the eye-catching shape of the kiosk may look familiar to those who have traveled the southwestern Vermont hills.

“The origins of the ION go back more than 30 years to a tiny, unconventional house that a friend and I built,” said Horwitz, a 27-year Pownal resident. “It was constructed of ferro-cement, organically shaped, and my wife and I live in it happily to this day.”

The techniques used to build Horwitz’s home eventually led to the creation of the ION kiosk, Horwitz said, with the concrete replaced by reinforced polyurethane foam. The resulting weight loss allows the structure to be moved more easily from place to place.

It took over a year to work out the kinks, the business partners and friends said. The first full-size model, the very one on display in Bennington through August, was begun at Horwitz’s property and finished at the former Delftree Mill in North Adams, where it was completed a year ago. To date, the pair have invested close to $60,000 of their own money to finance the endeavor.

“We rolled it out there right in front of the mill,” said Sanders. “And that was basically a test to see what people thought of this strange thing. Immediately, it did exactly what it was supposed to do. Anybody driving by would smash on the brakes, and they would pull in. People would stroll by, and they’d look at the artwork and play with the touchscreen.”

Sanders said the structure is almost entirely manufactured by hand with off-the-shelf materials that can be bought at stores like Home Depot.

It has a series of hooks on it and is built upon a metal skid, so it can be strapped down, transported on a trailer and slid into its desired location.

The kiosk is equipped with a touchscreen, and has a self-contained Ethernet-style hook-up that links directly to a server in Sanders’ home office. From there, he can monitor or update the kiosks immediately, something that should be attractive to prospective merchants who might want to advertise with ION.

The 23-year Williamstown resident said that the computer system was major part of the expense.

It is the information on this touchscreen that can be customized to suit any use, whether it be business or arts information, a historic virtual reality tour (Sanders’ area of expertise), news or other real-time content.

“Information never goes out of date, because you can update on the minute. You can get information from particular vendors that they’re having a sale or that they’re menu has changed,” said Sanders.

Sanders said that the kiosk can print items like menus or coupons on demand. And when the printer spits out the item, if it isn’t grabbed within 10 seconds, it gets sucked back inside and is disposed of, unlike a traditional information booth, which can become unkempt with disorganized piles of paper.

The power consumption for the devices is bare bones. Six low-power LEDs light the kiosk at 1 watt each, a fraction of the average light bulb, but they’re so bright that one can’t look directly into them. The whole unit uses about 150 watts total.

Right now, it’s plugged in, but Sanders and Horwitz plan to go solar with flexible panels installed on the kiosk’s roof at some point in the future.

To maintain an appropriate temperature, there’s a self-contained convection system within the kiosk that circulates out the heat in the summer and uses the heat generated by the computer system in the winter.

Further down the road, Sanders plans to have the kiosks download content directly to hand-held electronic devices, such as iPhones or Androids, taking paper completely out of the mix. It’s a system run through WiFi now, but ION will move to satellite technology in the future, Sanders said.

The duo also has a smaller indoor unit and a mid-sized unit on the drawing board.

The stint at the Bennington Museum — from August 2009 to August 2010 — has been a test run, said Sanders. As far as he’s concerned, it’s been a smash success.

“There was not a single problem with anything. There were no leaks, there was no condensation, no bulbs blew,” said Sanders, who filled the exhibit with sculptures, fabrics, paintings, wood works, all of which emerged in A-1 shape. “The idea is that the kiosks are available 24/7. They don’t need to be manned, they don’t have any expense like that. You go up to them and see that there’s going to be reliable content on the touchscreen and an ever-changing experience when you walk up to artwork itself. It does exactly what we want it to do.”

With the Bennington test phase drawing to a close, Sanders and Horwitz are looking to the next step: Setting up a network of kiosks across the county, where the ION’s information and displays can focus directly on a specific audience, such as at malls, street corners or on college campuses.

What they need is a buy-in from artists, businesses, restaurants and civic groups, said Sanders.

Their business model is one of a progressive franchise, where interested parties will pay an upfront fee plus quarterly fees to make use of the kiosks and the ION server. The total franchise fee is about $20,000 over the course of several years, Sanders said.

After about two years, Sanders said the franchise fee for the kiosks drops back to once a year and will begin to ideally pay out with a profit-sharing plan, and any future franchise-related expenses should be a wash, he said.

“After two years, it actually becomes a revenue positive stream for the people who franchise these things,” said Sanders.

Listings are paid for by advertisers, and the more advertisers they draw in, the more revenue.

Sanders and Horwitz have talked to many possible clients, but Sanders said the kiosks haven’t made it over the next hurdle yet to get a taker.

“It seems like a no-brainer that these things should be everywhere,” said Sanders.

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