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

The 2019 Porsche Macan S is the pinnacle of luxury SUVs, but it's no road tripper

The roster of models challenging the Porsche Macan grows annually. The German firm updated its smallest, most affordable SUV with a new engine, more tech features, and subtle design tweaks to keep it looking fresh.

Nissan and Italdesign’s GT-R50 concept will become a $1.1 million reality

The Nissan GT-R50 is a customized sports car built to celebrate the 50th anniversaries of both the GT-R and design firm Italdesign. Underneath the sleek bodywork sits a 710-horsepower engine fortified with race car components.
Smart Home

The Dyson Pure Hot + Cool cools, warms, and purifies the air in your home

The Dyson Pure Hot + Cool is an all-in-one temperature control system and air purifier designed to capture up to 99.97 percent of all harmful airborne particles that threaten the air quality of our homes every day.
Emerging Tech

Feast your eyes on the wildest, most elaborate Rube Goldberg machines ever built

Want to see something totally mesmerizing? Check out several of the best Rube Goldberg machines from across the internet, including one that serves cake and other that do ... nothing particularly useful.
Emerging Tech

The 20 best tech toys for kids will make you wish you were 10 again

Looking for the perfect toy or gadget for your child? Thankfully, we've rounded up some of our personal favorite tech toys, including microscopes, computer kits, and a spherical droid from a galaxy far, far away.
Emerging Tech

Scoot your commute! Here are the 9 best electric scooters on the market

Electric scooters are an affordable, convenient way to minimize your carbon footprint and zip around town. Check out 8 of our current favorites, whether you're working with a budget or have some cash to spare.

Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.
Emerging Tech

Sick of walking everywhere? Here are the best electric skateboards you can buy

Thanks for Kickstarter and Indiegogo, electric skateboards are carving a bigger niche than you might think. Whether you're into speed, mileage, or something a bit more stylish, here are the best electric skateboards on the market.
Emerging Tech

Hear the sounds of wind on Mars from InSight’s latest audio recording

NASA's InSight craft has captured the sound of the wind blowing on the surface of Mars. The audio file was picked up by the air pressure sensor and the seismometer which detected vibrations from the 10 to 15 mph winds in the area.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Folding canoes and ultra-fast water filters

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

New experiment casts doubt on claims to have identified dark matter

A South Korean experiment called COSINE-100 has attempted to replicate the claims of dark matter observed by the Italian DAMA/LIBRA experiment, but has failed to replicate the observations.
Emerging Tech

White dwarf star unexpectedly emitting bright ‘supersoft’ X-rays

NASA's Chandra Observatory has discovered a white dwarf star which is emitting supersoft X-rays, calling into question the conventional wisdom about how X-rays are produced by dying stars.

Amazon scouted airport locations for its cashier-free Amazon Go stores

Representatives of Amazon Go checkout-free retail stores connected with officials at Los Angeles and San Jose airports in June to discuss the possibility of cashier-free grab-and-go locations in busy terminals.
Emerging Tech

Full-fledged drone delivery service set to land in remote Canadian community

Some drone delivery operations seem rather crude in their execution, but Drone Delivery Canada is building a comprehensive platform that's aiming to take drone delivery to the next level.