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Techies and Designers Imagine City's Payphone of the Future

By Janet Upadhye | February 1, 2013 7:30am

NEW YORK CITY — Designers all over the country are thinking about New York City’s payphones.

Since the city launched the ‘Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge’ in December, designers, techies and students have been collaborating and concocting outrageous plans to revolutionize the payphone.

They are contemplating booths that print 3-D phones for users to take with them or that double as karaoke booths, art galleries or track local weather conditions and pollution levels.

“This is the chance for us to imagine what’s possible,” said Fort Greene designer Phil Groman who plans to submit a prototype with his girlfriend, designer Patricia Adler. “We think about it every day.”

Since the late 1990’s New York City’s payphone flock has gone from upwards of 35,000 members to a mere 11,412. Groman is one of hundreds of local and national designers who are rubbing their hands together in a scheme to give new life to the ailing payphone.

But while the Groman team is holding their design close to their collective chest until after the submission deadline on Feb. 18, others have gone public with their ideas, seeking feedback and working out the kinks.

A group of students from Columbia and Fordham universities and New York University presented an idea during a Tisch-sponsored payphone hackday that quickly became a fan favorite. Their project, named Street Beacon, “makes each payphone a hub of hyper-local and community information.”

Their payphone would be a 6-foot wide booth with a bench and bicycle rack separating two phone kiosks. A "ticker" connecting the kiosks would constantly display information such as local business specials, events, meal deals, traffic patterns and crime.

Within the kiosk, a touch screen would provide a more personalized experience, where users could read local news or see neighborhood Twitter feeds.

“The payphone kiosk would essentially be an all-encompassing hub for the community,” said team member Sam Slover, a technology designer at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. “The kiosk grabs all the information that’s out there and curates it down to a hyper-local level.”

Yangbo Du, community chair of the reinvent payphones meet-up group, recounted several other notable ideas. One is a "zip phone," which can be shared, while another is a project called "Wind Chime" that would serve as an environmental sensor hub, particularly useful during a natural disaster.

“Designers have actually traveled around the country to see what other cities are doing and gather ideas,” said Du, adding that some ideas originated in Silicon Valley. “They are taking this very seriously.”

But with only weeks left in the competition, designers like Groman and the Street Beacon team are making final touches and keeping their fingers crossed. They hope to among the top 15 who will get to demo their prototype on March 5 to a panel of judges including 3rd Ward’s Jason Goodman, betawork’s John Borthwick and Startup Box’s Majora Carter.

“Payphones are so unique because they are a private bubble in public space and each one is connected within a five-borough network,” Groman said. “It presents a very interesting opportunity.”