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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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.