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Going places with digital signs and more

TOV Virtual Singapore is expanding its range of products.

Mr Ngiam (far left) and Mr Cha are bent on contributing to the Smart Nation concept in Singapore.

HE STARTED out as a one-man band - going from door to door, and making cold calls on companies. It was June 2012. Six months later, his first order came in.

It was a pleasant surprise; little did he expect that one of Singapore's top property developers, Far East Organization, would be his first client. And it remains so till this day.

The man is Ngiam Tee Chang, founder and director of TOV Virtual Singapore. A year later, in June 2013, he was joined by Michael Cha as a shareholder, who became a director of the company as well.

TOV Virtual Singapore is a provider of digital interactive solutions. Its services include 3D information and multimedia systems like digital signages, shopping mall kiosks, digital directory kiosks, media walls, near-field communication (NFC), and webpages for enterprises.

When asked what inspired him to start the company, Mr Ngiam said it was due to an observation he made in shopping malls: long queues of shoppers at the concierge desks, as well as people who stood in front of the static black-and-white directory boards for an extended period of time.

"(After) more than five minutes, they still cannot find the shop they want. So that's why I bring in this idea (digital directory kiosks) to Singapore from Korea (to increase efficiency)," he said. "Our company is the first one in Singapore to introduce this interactive way of finding."

The digital directory kiosks have a user-friendly page design which enables users to easily navigate it without the use of instructions, and it has the layout of the different levels in a shopping mall for them to visualise how to get to their final destination.

Mr Ngiam said: "Page design is very important. You must have a very experienced designer to design the icons so that when they see the kiosk, they don't need any explanation; they will straightaway touch.

"For our kiosks, the average time taken is two minutes. People can find their way after that."

The kiosks are also equipped with the NFC system, a short-range wireless connectivity standard that enables communication between devices with just a tap, like Android Pay. This feature allows the users to download the map of the shopping mall into their mobile phones for easier navigation, with a simple tap.

In addition, the company has a centralised-control digital signage backend and frontend system which provides the client access to real-time monitoring of the kiosks across malls in different countries, just from a single server based in Singapore.

"So now, when they sit in any office in Singapore, they can monitor what is Chengdu and Shanghai doing," said Mr Ngiam, giving an example of a client who has shopping malls built in Singapore and China.

After the launch of the first digital directory kiosks in Orchard Central and Clarke Quay Central back in March 2013, the company started expanding its reach, which resulted in more of its digital interactive solutions popping up in shopping malls and public spaces around Singapore over the years.

One of its most recent projects is the pilot smart bus stop located in Jurong. The project was launched in August and is a collaboration with the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and other government agencies for the Smart Nation project.

Moving ahead, Mr Cha talked about some of the trends he observed happening in the industry. He said: "I think, now, integration with mobile is the trend - mobile payment."

As to how they plan to stay ahead of that, Mr Ngiam said that the company is looking to enable users to download perks like discount coupons and vouchers into their mobile devices via the NFC system at the kiosks. He also mentioned that the company has already done up a system like that in Shanghai, and has even taken things a step further with a face-recognition feature.

Mr Ngiam explained that users would have their own membership account with the mall, with the data keyed into the system. When they make a purchase of items worth S$50, for example, their digital tree would grow.

As they make more purchases, the tree would get bigger and when it finally bears fruit, the users would be able to unlock a gift; the more fruits it bears, the more gifts they can unlock.

All they have to do is approach a kiosk in the mall, and the system would be able to recognise their faces, allowing them access to their trees.

"It's logged into your individual account. After the face recognition, they tell you how tall your tree is now. You don't need to key in anything," said Mr Ngiam.

Mr Cha added: "All this reduces printouts. You don't need to print the map, voucher and discount coupon. It's all downloaded into your mobile phone."

However, all the glamour aside, one challenge has remained for the company ever since its humble beginnings: convincing potential clients to use the technology.

"They (the clients) say people still like standing there to ask the concierge. The young generation know digital very well but the decision maker is top management; they don't understand, so we have to convince them," said Mr Cha.

Mr Ngiam added: "Because our technology is too advanced, they may not be able to accept it."

Another challenge that the company faces is managing its resources. Because it is still a relatively young company, the amount of manpower it can hire and its cash flow remain constraints.

TOV Virtual Singapore currently has five employees, each taking on roles like financial management, marketing, sales, engineering, and design. Singapore is the regional headquarters. However, according to Mr Cha, the company also has a "big brother in Korea" with about 50 employees.

"But this year, we plan to hire more people. So by the end of this year, we'll maybe have 10 employees in Singapore," he said.

As to how it plans to overcome all these challenges, Mr Ngiam said that they would "get one of the reference sites" - like the directory kiosks that are in operation in Orchard Central and Clarke Quay Central - to show its new clients how the technology is already successful.

"Slowly, we will get in all the big malls," he said.

On the other hand, Mr Cha believes that publicity would help the company overcome the challenges as well, as it would help to build credibility for TOV Virtual Singapore.

Asked where they see the company in five years' time, Mr Cha said: "We want to go regional. We don't want to be only in Singapore."

"We also want to contribute to Smart Nation," he added.

As for Mr Ngiam, he said he wants to spread out to other public spaces besides shopping malls, citing as examples theme parks and hotels. He also hopes to bring in payment kiosks like the ones the company has set up in Korea for the bubble tea chain Gongcha.

"Not only doing digital signage. We want to do a lot of digital integration like funding payments on the kiosk, face recognition, membership login, and game kiosks across the region."