IBM upgrades kiosk technology for both consumers and IT

New features include larger screens, wireless support and improved management tools

An interactive kiosk with arms and legs would be a robot by another name, and that may be the long-term direction the technology takes as market leader IBM continues to turn kiosks into multipurpose retail machines.

The company upgraded its kiosk technology Tuesday, announcing new models that include larger screens, full-motion video, an improved user interface and other features for consumers, as well as technologies designed to make the systems more friendly from a back-end IT standpoint.

IBM's goal is to make it easier for companies to manage the kiosks and add new functionality to them, and it's trying to do that through the use of wireless technology and remote-management software that can give data center workers more control over the machines and additional information about their performance and health.

Jill Puleri, IBM's vice president of worldwide retail-store system sales, said the vendor thinks that consumers want more kiosk-based self-service options and that their interest is being spurred by the online buying habits they have developed. "The consumer today is so used to getting information at their fingerprints when they want it," Puleri said.

Kiosk use is growing rapidly, according to IHL Consulting Group, company that studies store automation technologies. IHL estimates that consumers will buy about US$525 billion worth of goods and services through retail kiosks this year. That number is expected to increase to US$1.3 trillion by 2011, according to the firm.

IBM, under its Consumer Services Initiative program, is working to improve the integration and management capability of its kiosks. Many of the systems use the IBM 4690 operating system, which originally was designed for use on nuclear submarines.

"As you can imagine, it's very secure and very reliable and not designed to be interfaced too well," said Greg Buzek, an analyst at IHL. He added that the company's new kiosk framework uses XML technology, creating a native interface between the operating system and back-end management tools.

The AnyPlace Kiosk product line that IBM introduced today includes a model with a new 19-in. screen, and the vendor said the devices support full-motion video, high-quality audio and 3-D graphics. The kiosks can also be equipped with a Sprint mobile broadband card or other wireless technologies, giving companies more flexibility in where they can deploy the systems, IBM said.

The wireless support may make kiosks more ubiquitous, Buzek said. For instance, a large retailer could place kiosks outside its stores in shopping malls in order to attract customers who are passing by.

One of the fastest-growing kiosk applications may be gaming, with users being able to play bingo and order food and drinks from the same system. And when the party ends, there's another kiosk available that may help people restore their health.

Virgin Life Care, a unit of Virgin Group, has developed a kiosk with IBM that has several functions: it weighs people, checks their blood pressure and takes Body Mass Index -- or body fat -- measurements. Andrew Pelosi, vice president of marketing at Virgin Life Care, said users also can upload pedometer data into the system to see, for instance, how close they are to taking the recommended 7,000 steps a day. (One mile is between 2,000 and 2,500 steps, depending on a person's stride.)

Employers can install the kiosks at work sites and, under a program that Virgin Life Care has set up, individual employees can receive as much as $400 annually in cash rewards depending on their progress toward health and fitness goals. Pelosi said that for employers, the program pays for itself through savings on health care costs and improved productivity in the workplace.

"Many of the conditions that people are suffering from today are preventable," he said. "Trying to get more people to be physically active has an amazing effect."

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