Worldbeat: Now it's the ads that zap viewers

Bluetooth billboards gather steam, unless users elect invisibility

I was hungry and it had started to rain when my mobile phone buzzed to tell me I could now buy sugar in a hermetically sealed packet. A picture on my phone's screen of a goldfish swimming past the cheery new packaging drove the point home.

Suddenly, I had a craving for fried fish in sweet-and-sour sauce. Pushed by some strange urge to seek out a Chinese restaurant, I looked around and saw the same goldfish staring down at me from a nearby billboard.

The message, zapped to my phone over a Bluetooth wireless connection from a billboard near Opera in central Paris, is part of a new service called Chrono Connect offered by French advertising company JCDecaux SA.

The service involves 54 billboards in central Paris, either 8 or 12 square meters in size. The billboards contain a roll of different posters and, had I passed by at some other time of day, I would have seen and received a different message.

Advertisers buy one of four time slots -- night, rush hour, working hours or meal times -- during which their poster will be displayed. Anyone lingering in front of the billboards with a Bluetooth phone in "visible" mode will receive an invitation to download a file. If they accept, the billboard zaps it over to their phone.

Each billboard contains a roll of posters and a small computer with a Bluetooth transmitter. The files for transmission are loaded into the computer from a USB (Universal Serial Bus) stick at the same time as the posters are changed. The computer can match the files it transmits to the model of mobile phone it detects, perhaps sending higher-resolution video to more powerful phones. And while unable to identify individual passers-by or access their telephone numbers, the computer can at least track whether a particular telephone has already been offered or refused a file in the last few hours, so that people who pass frequently in front of the same billboard aren't inundated with messages.

One of the first customers to realize the potential of this medium was French comedian and impersonator Gérald Dahan, who used it to distribute a short video clip promoting his current show about the forthcoming French presidential elections. The mobile phone is a natural medium for Dahan to choose, as he is famous for his telephone pranks. In a recent call he convinced presidential candidate Ségolène Royal that she was speaking with the Prime Minister of Quebec, Jean Charest.

For now, many of Chrono Connect's advertisers are transmitting only a digital image of the poster, like the one I received, but Albert Asseraf, director of strategy and marketing at Decaux, hopes to change that. He says the company is in talks with music publishers so that advertisers can offer song downloads to those willing to stand in front of their posters for long enough. And it could also be a way to distribute movie trailers straight into the hands of people with time to watch them, perhaps with screening times and directions to the nearest cinema.

The technology offers so many useful and entertaining possibilities, Asseraf is convinced people will want to receive the ads his company distributes. The only problem, he says, is that too many of them set their Bluetooth phones to "invisible," preventing them from being "discovered" by other Bluetooth devices such as his billboards.

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