Goodbye Pay Phones,
Hello All These New Things

September 22, 2014 | Rhett Jones

RIP pay phones! On October 15, the contract with franchisees that maintain all of NYC’s 9,670 pay phones will expire. While there’s still no official decision about what will happen next month, it’s probably safe to say the odds of franchisees renewing their contracts are much smaller than even a few years ago.

In 2013, DoITT (Department of Information Technology) held a design contest for ideas to replace the often broken relics. Five finalists were chosen based on the criteria of “connectivity, creativity, visual design, functionality and community impact.” There was also a public vote conducted on Facebook, but the DoITT hasn’t said how much sway that has over any final decisions.

Below we present some pretty pictures of the winning proposals, along with their designers’ flowery explanations about connectivity, “information puddles” and synergy.  TL;DR — advertising, advertising, advertising.


Best in connectivity — Sage and Coombe Architects:

NYFi uses existing pay phone infrastructure to create a sleek, interactive portal to public information, goods, and services, a hub for free wireless internet access, and an open infrastructure for future applications.


Best in creativity — FXFowle:

NYC Loop combines a beautiful, contemporary payphone with a uniquely tailored public space that can be chosen to suit New York’s diverse communities. It provides sound harmonizing technology as well as a smart screen for making calls and enhancing personal mobile communication. The Loop also features a responsive projector that creates an ‘information puddle’ on the sidewalk with which any passerby can interact—an amazing opportunity for local artists or as a means of generating revenue from advertising space.


Best in visual design — Frog Design:

From easily translated neighborhood maps for tourists, to a bright light that can be used to signal cabs, Beacon presents contextual information when and where it matters.

To allow citizens and businesses to connect, frog conceived of an open platform and that lets customers display simple ads on Beacons throughout the city, acting as a friendly neighborhood message board.Sophisticated microphones and sensors capture voice and gesture for hygienic, touch-free operation.The system translates and localizes content and news. Evacuation instructions and local updates can be broadcast on screen, offering a vital link to official information in moments of confusion.


Best in functionality — Smart Sidewalks (video here):

Smart Sidewalks is driven by two competing aims: to pack as much function into a single device as possible and to reduce the phonebooth’s footprint.  “Everything” –communication, sustainability, and wayfinding is squeezed into “nothing” – a 6” wide interactive strip that folds up from the sidewalk.

The design works within the existing 5’ sidewalk grid and has two main components. The first lies flush with the ground, and introduces a combined sensor and display with storm runoff storage below. The second stands vertical and functions as a touch-screen, Wi-Fi hub, energy source, charging station, and a range of other functions. In short, a location tethered smart-phone. The bent form is shaped by accessibility, viewing angle, and optimal solar exposure.  A curb-cut bleeds storm water into storage cells dissipating it into existing soil. Sidewalk space is freed, putting to work the invisible space below.


Best in community impact (tie) —  NYC I/O:

(Designed around) the transformation of the corner payphone into a digital node that will usher in a new era of The Responsive City. By updating the payphone with a modern array of sensors and displays to create a foundational input/output system for an open, urban-scale computing platform, we can allow New York City to respond to and serve the people.

tumblr_inline_mj99ndCpww1qz4rgpBest in community impact (tie) — Windchimes:

Windchimes are environmental sensor stations that talk through payphones.  They can plug directly into existing technologies and communication infrastructure, making them low cost and immediately deployable.  New York City’s existing payphones become a distributed sensor network providing real-time and hyper-local records of the city’s rain levels, pollution and other environmental conditions.

Imagine Windchimes data helping you:
– Plan your bike commute so that the wind is always at your back.
– Tend to your urban farm using micro-climate data.
– Care for your asthmatic child with air-quality metrics.

Wow. Advertising.  (Photo: Sage and Coombe ArchitectsFXFowleFrog Design, NYC I/OWindchimes)