At first glance, they look like just another couple of slightly advanced TV sets, playing commercials, intruding into the lives of those who walk by.
But the words and the visions of two men -- 43-year-old Robert Hallock and 24-year-old Robert LoCascio -- transform what might appear to be a mere tourist attraction or campus fixture into a computer-age source of information and power.
Both men left jobs in corporate America to start separate, small businesses using a technology that is changing the way people receive information.
Mr. LoCascio, a Loyola College graduate, founded Sybarite Media Inc. in September 1991 to build and install interactive informational kiosks on college campuses. But for now, he and three colleagues have their hands full selling advertising for their first machine, in Towson State University's student union.
"Right now we're fed information, and that's why people are bored with it," Mr. LoCascio said in a small office downtown. "But if people can gather information, like they're meant to, it empowers them."
And there's Mr. Hallock, who is offering small businesses an inexpensive way to get their message across to tourists. His first machine was installed last week in the lobby of the Hyatt Inner Harbor Hotel.
"I see it as a way of satisfying the needs of customers, satisfying the needs of advertisers, and that's what gives me pleasure," Mr. Hallock said.
The technology that has these men so excited is known as interactive media, and what it does is allow users to pick and choose the information, and advertising, they want to see and hear.
In the Hyatt lobby, Mr. Hallock's Video Hotline machine features about 18 categories from which to choose, including Chinese, Italian and steak house restaurants, attractions and night life.
nTC The monitor then shows either a photo or a video commercial of various establishments that have paid $75 to $100 a month for Mr. Hallock's production time and expense, and for a slot on the machine.
The user is encouraged to punch in a two-digit number on the attached telephone to connect immediately to one of the nearly two dozen initial advertisers.
"In some ways I feel like the recession is helping me," Mr. Hallock said, "because businesses are anxious to find new ways to generate traffic."
Likewise, Mr. LoCascio said his success would come from the solution he thinks he's found to the problem that mom-and-pop shops have in marketing on college campuses: "I spent about four months doing research and realized that a lot of the [reason for] the failure in college marketing is distribution. We've solved it."
Sybarite's prices are a little higher, from $250 a month on up. But the machine, called IKON, for Interactive Kiosk On-campus Network, does a bit more. It spits out coupons from each advertiser, and because it runs with a digital computer program, as opposed to Mr. Hallock's laser disk-based machine, it can display up-to-date information about on-campus and off-campus events.