How New York City is giving payphones a 21st century revamp

Quirky Payphone

There are 11,000 city-owned public payphones in the five boroughs of New York City. But let’s face it: these machines have turned from a place you make prank collect calls to a homeless person’s toilet. The booths are dark, uninviting, and often covered in graffiti and trash. It’s just an all-around unfriendly spot. And that’s what New York needs – another thing that’s unfriendly to its visitors and inhabitants.

To fix the issue and give it a technological scrubbing, the City of New York hosted a Reinvent Payphone challenge, hosted by industrial design firm Quirky, to test how we can reimagine the next generation of payphones. The contest launched December 2012, and last night, crowds gathered to witness the 11 finalists whose design will eventually be adapted for official proposal.

01-CONCEPTTo say people got creative would be an understatement. One design idea, Smart Sidewalks, features an underground meter that could harvest kinetic energy from foot traffic that pass above it on a daily. The steps counted could also be useful in tracking how many eyes potentially see the commercials displayed on the color panels to aide ad sales. Another design, Windchimes, focused on something more eco-conscious than futuristic; The prototype had all sorts of sensors at the top aimed to measure air quality levels. These resulting data could be useful to local urban farmers and residents to promote healthy living.

The contest originally garnered more than 120 submissions, said Citywide Chief Information and Innovation Officer Rahul Merchant. “I was briefed on about 50 of them, and it was hard to get it down to 11. The ideas were phenomenal and so full of innovation.”

Not all designs were well received by the panel of judges. One presenter said he wanted to build more than just “an iPad on a stick,” before displaying a design for a large touchscreen with a garden on top that Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman pointed out “looked like an iPad on a stick with some grass on it.”

While an iPad-esque design would be a substantial upgrade to our current payphone situation, these ideas lacked a sense of who their users are. A common aspect most submissions shared were giant screens with apps to recommend local businesses, display current weather and hyperlocal news, and hail a cab depending on the payphone’s location. But in the age of the smartphone, why would we want a payphone that has features most of us already own on our mobile devices? What would convince one to otherwise touch a public germfest machine?

Beacon Reinvent Payphones NYCThis alone made Windchimes’ design stand out, along with Beacon, a larger than life pole with dualscreens – one that offered apps and phone functionality and a larger screen up top for advertisements, news alert, even mile mark for the city’s annual marathon or parades. Beacon’s size also makes it useful as neighborhood landmark. Heck, the one design that featured a directional arrow which always point uptown seems more useful. It’s important for designers to remember who will be using the phones, not just what we can cram into a single device. The new payphones need to offer more than what we already have in our pockets.

NYC Reinvent Payphones loopWhile the ideas presented last night seem nearly ready for proposal, the final product may be entirely different than any of these renderings. “Whatever ideas we got from tonight will be incorporated with research we’ve done prior to the design challenge. Together, they will combine into a Request for Proposal (RFP) where other vendors would come in and bring their own ideas along with the ones presented here,” Merchant said. “From there it will be the next generation of telecommunication device. This is New York City, and we set global standards. The way we do that is to get the best ideas from everybody’s minds.”

The current deadline for the new NYC payphones is set for October 2014. The project will be funded by public and private partnerships as well as advertisers, so no digging into the city’s capital budget for these next-gen street candy.

If you want to vote for your fan favorite submission, you have until March 15 to voice your opinion on’s Facebook page. For more info on Quirky, see the video below.

Product Review

Asus Zephyrus S is a laptop for gamers. Everyone else need not apply

RTX graphics have finally made it to gaming laptops, and the first we've tested is the new Zephyrus S. Now with a 17-inch display and those new graphics inside, the Zephyrus' unique design boasts some additional power.

Audi’s Geneva-bound Q4 E-Tron concept will give us a glimpse of the future

Audi has released a trio of teaser sketches to preview the Q4 E-Tron concept. Scheduled to make its debut at the 2019 Geneva Auto Show, the design study takes the form of an electric SUV with a muscular design and a tech-filled interior.

New rumors suggest the iPhone 2019 will continue to use Lightning over USB-C

While it's not been long since the last iPhones launched, rumors for the next iPhone are already surfacing. Apple's 2019 flagship could include a variety of upgrades ranging from a new design to enhanced features.

Apple’s most affordable 2018 iPad is now even cheaper on Amazon at $249

The entry-level iPad is the iPad to get for the vast majority of people. It's inexpensive, well-designed, and quite powerful, especially for the price. Speaking of price, the 9.7-inch iPad is now even more affordable from Amazon.
Emerging Tech

Of all the vape pens in the world, these 5 are the best

Vaping concentrates has become significantly more popular, especially among those that use cannabis for medicinal purposes. But don’t use just any vape pen: we found these five devices to be our favorites in 2018.

The HoloLens 2 will be announced at MWC. Here's what we know about it so far

The HoloLens 2 is ripe for an announcement. Here's what Microsoft has revealed so far, what's likely in store for the next generation HoloLens, and everything that we know about this mixed reality headset.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Grow veggies indoors and shower more efficiently

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

A river of stars one billion years old flows across the southern sky

Astronomers have identified a river of stars flowing across our galaxy and covering most of the southern sky. The estimated 4000 stars that comprise the stream were born together and have been moving together for the last one billion years.
Emerging Tech

Descending at an angle could be key to landing heavier craft on Mars

Landing on Mars is a challenge: The heavier the craft, the more difficult a safe landing becomes. Scientists propose using retropropulsion engines and angling the craft to create a pressure differential to land heavier crafts in the future.
Emerging Tech

Ant-inspired walking robot navigates without GPS by using polarized light

What do you get if you cross Boston Dynamics and Ant-Man? You get Antbot, a robot from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) which uses ant-like navigation to move around without the aid of GPS.
Emerging Tech

InSight’s heat probe will dig 16 feet beneath the surface of Mars

New images from NASA's InSight mission to Mars have confirmed that the lander succeeded in setting the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package instrument onto the surface, from where a self-hammering spike will burrow downwards.
Emerging Tech

White spots on Ceres are evidence of ancient ice volcanoes erupting

Scientists are pouring over data collected by NASA's Dawn mission to learn about the dwarf planet Ceres and the bright white spots observed at the bottom of impact craters. They believe that these spots are evidence of ice volcanoes.
Emerging Tech

NASA to launch SPHEREx mission to investigate the origins of our universe

NASA is launching an ambitious mission to map the entire sky to understand the origins of the universe. The Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx) mission will launch in 2023.
Emerging Tech

Probes exploring Earth’s hazardous radiation belts enter final phase of life

The Van Allen probes have been exploring the radiation belts around Earth for seven years. Now the probes are moving into the final phase of their exploration, coming closer to Earth to gather more data before burning up in the atmosphere.