What if all of New York’s payphones were something more?

What if they had wrap-around touch screens?

What if they were networked, via fiber optics?

What if they could actually see one another? And what if any person could explore this network for free?

It’s all part of a pitch as to what will happen to NYC’s 11,000+ payphones in 2014, when current leases are up.

Paying parking tickets sounds like the handiest feature--imagine handling lots of these local government headaches right on the street.

But it’s all the unforeseeable use cases that have the most potential--what you can do with a network of regionally distributed computers equipped with eyes and ears.

But it’s all the unforeseeable use cases that have the most potential--what you can do with a network of regionally distributed computers equipped with eyes and ears.

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A High-Tech Makeover For The Payphone

An ambitious proposal suggests we upgrade NYC’s payphones with a fiber-optic network of public computers.

In the age of cell phones, the idea of a payphone has gotten a bit absurd. Why invest in such an infrastructure when that money could be better spent subsidizing wireless plans for low-income individuals. Well, there may still be a benefit to some physical infrastructure—not phones per se—but public information spaces.

At least that’s the vision of Control Group and Titan, who’ve partnered up to develop a project they call NYC I/O—a submission to NYC’s contest to remake their 11,412 payphones once the current vendor agreements expire in 2014.

The team imagines a network of touchable information booths, transparent-screened kiosks connected by fiber optics. Each booth would be a free place to do everything from search for a restaurant to paying a parking ticket to, yes, even making phone calls. The idea is that costs could be subsidized through ad revenue—and no doubt, you’ll notice in this concept art that users are basically rolled up in a giant ad.

Even still, a skeptic might ask, why do these need to exist? The answer is simple. Even in the wireless age, there’s still value in a geographically distributed network.

"On the whole, our long-term interest is in the infrastructure and real estate that the payphones currently occupy," Control Group partner Colin O’Donnell tells Co.Design. "Their physical distribution throughout the five boroughs means that when outfitted with a full sensor array, we can collect immense amounts of valuable input about the immediate vicinity in which each is located. That data can be used to make each booth a learning machine individually or as part of the overall network, from which we can discover longitudinal trends."

Stepping into a booth, a user could literally look across the city, adopting the eyes and ears of any other booth on the network. Is there a line outside your favorite pastry shop in Brooklyn? Check near your work in Manhattan before getting on the subway. That might seem like a shallow example—and it is—but the fact that the network could learn over time if people actually acted with these sorts of behaviors is an exciting prospect—like bringing big social data from Google and Facebook, then leveraging that within the city’s physical infrastructure.

O’Donnell also explained that these booths could extend information to your mobiles, allowing you to interact with this city information layer, much like you might snag Wi-Fi at a Starbucks. Connected with a HUD like Google’s Glass, it’s easy to imagine a myriad of futuristic use cases. (Imagine the walking tour that 11,000 embedded fixtures could give!) It’s also conceivable that, with the right radio transmitters, these booths could create a whole NYC wireless network on top of the fiber-optic network, but at this point, my imagination may be exceeding the scope of the NYC I/O proposal.

It would be a shame, however, to be so shortsighted that we forget the importance of our public infrastructures amidst the digital revolution. I’m glad that our government doesn’t run Google, but I also don’t want Google running our government. Public digital infrastructure seems like it has some promise in keeping a semblance of balance within that equation.

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  • John

    Pretty lofty proposition for a company that looks like the majority of their projects have a high rate of defeat. Smack of desperation for a hit I guess along with an extremely pedestrian attempt at a marketing video. 

    I wouldn't hire these guys to install a toaster in my house. 

  • KaraG

    Wow.  Talk about an overly slick marketing video that basically reeks of BS.  Do these guys seriously think that their system will be used so that little girls can find their missing cats??  How long until perverts are broadcasting nude shots to their neighborhood?  And what's with the shape of that thing?  Is that supposed to be made of glass?  Because that will really last long on the streets.....puh-leeze! I will say this though, great acting job from that first guy....oscar worthy performance!

  • Jonathan Vigil

    I agree 100%. This is an extremely exaggerated "Reinvention" of the payphone. I am all for reinventing the payphone, but to replace it with an enormous iPad is ridiculous. Can you imagine the number of people trying to use this as a personal device. Not to mention the high risk of theft or fraud that could occur when you're so innocently paying for your parking meter. 

  • Needles2

    I just have to say - what if you don't actually own a cell phone and need to have coverage - or say your phone has no coverage - pay phones are still needed (I am in the minority of non-smart phone users, and when I go to Europe, I won't even discuss what happens if I am out and need to call someone...).

  • Lantern

    Very cool concept that goes beyond digital signage. Having digital data points spread across the city will hold an tremendous amount of value. 

  • Leigh

    This would also be a great place for emergency resources.  Local ground data sent immediately to EMT transport or the blue stand it seems to have looks similar to a Blue Light Phone, providing a safe refuge for people in need.

  • Super Phil

    This is literally the biggest load of BS I've ever seen. Typical that it would be from Titan. They lie, cheat and steal their way around the world. I've never seen a company so universally despised for acting underhanded.
    Why would NYC ever get in business with Titan? Didn't they see what happened with the MTA contract? Let alone what Titan did in Europe!

  • Arman Nobari

    I find my love for street art conflicting with my love for technology.. A few stickers on the exterior of these (or worse, the interior) would ultimately make this a very expensive lamp post. Maybe combine this with MIT's weird non-stick coating for ketchup bottles (called "LiquiGlid") to keep adhesives or paints off this surface?
    (FastCo on LiquiGlide: http://www.fastcoexist.com/167... )

  • Nick Fesinstine

    "Stepping into a booth, a user could literally look across the city, adopting the eyes and ears of any other booth on the network. Is there a line outside your favorite pastry shop in Brooklyn?"... 

    I have another example: Look across the city to find the booth that least smells like urine. 

  • rmintzes

    Brilliant idea, but I worry about information display on the outside with the curved design. I know it's just a concept right now, but that last render of the kiosk by the brick wall would make for an odd display condition for people passing by. The curved design on the inside would be great for having an integrated enveloping display, but for the sake of outer advertising, flat panels perpendicular to the sidewalk might be the more ideal way to go. A combination of these two might be optimal, if it didn't negatively effect the beautiful minimalism and transparency of the original concept.

  • Adipawar

    * Not context sensitive: What happens if a passer by decides to stick a poster on the screen! or worse, it attracts the attention of the neighborhood graffiti artist. What if multiple people want to use it, what if its noisy outside, what about privacy, what if there is a emergency next door and i just want to call that one number ...... etc 
    * Dont agree with transparent displays in public spaces (getting high traffic) or for that matter touch screens and voice activated interfaces (usability and hygiene issues)
    * The multitude of options are simply overdoing it. Keep it simple stupid!

    Some ideas are acceptable but they seem to have crammed in as many interaction design- buzzwords as possible.Sorry guys, you would not get my vote on this one.