Interactive maps debut on Tokyo subway

Digital signboards will supplement wall maps for a couple of months to gauge the usefulness of a high-tech map system

Interactive map board on trial at Tokyo's Ginza subway station on April 20, 2009

Interactive map board on trial at Tokyo's Ginza subway station on April 20, 2009

Travellers on Tokyo's subway system are getting some high-tech help finding their destinations with the start of trials Monday of an interactive map system.

The maps run on 47-inch LCD panels that have been installed at Ginza station in the heart of the city. Three subway lines intersect at the station, which serves around 275,000 people each day heading to and from one of Tokyo's busiest shopping and entertainment districts.

As well as big department stores the area is home to numerous boutiques, cafés, bars and small shops that can be hard to find, especially with 32 exits from the station to choose from. In short: It's a great place to try a high-tech map system.

Travellers can walk up to one of two screens being used in the trial and be presented with an area map. Alongside it are buttons to highlight popular destinations such as nearby banks, ATMs, convenience stores and post offices. Touching one of the buttons reveals the location of these places with an icon, and touching the icon draws the shortest route to that destination.

For other destinations travellers can enter an address. The system covers only the local area, so half the address is already decided and users just enter the two or three numbers that specify the particular area and building in the Ginza area where they're heading and the route comes up.

Owners of cell phones that support the Felica RFID technology can also get the destination coordinates transferred to their cell phones by pressing a button on the map to activate a Felica sensor and holding their cell phone close to it. Once above ground they can use a cell-phone mapping service to work out their route to the destination.

The maps feature Japanese most prominently, although most of the functions and labels are also displayed in English. The screens are being tested until the end of June.

Trying them out and observing other people using them on Monday revealed a couple of pieces of early feedback. Finding a place, especially if the address is known, is very easy using the screens, but unlike the existing maps, the new system can only be used by one person at one time. The existing maps are large enough -- sometimes occupying most of a wall -- that several people can peer at them and figure out their route at the same time.

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