Beacon: A Pay Phone That Saves Lives And Google Searches

Frog’s concept for a reinvented payphone would be an information kiosk and a brand-new infrastructure platform.

Sometime in 2014, New York City’s agreement with its payphone vendor will expire–the final death rattle for a technology long eclipsed by mobile devices. As we noted earlier this month, a design competition called Reinvent Payphones is helping the city generate ideas about what should be done with the 11,412 archaic hookups once the contract is up. It’s a tidy way for the city to drum up attention for its tech industry while involving local designers in a debate about public infrastructure.


Tuesday night at Quirky’s Manhattan office, the 12 semi-finalist teams of architects, programmers, and other design professionals gathered to present their concepts. The winning proposals will, theoretically, inform an RFP that the city will unveil within the next few months. After a half-hour deliberation, the jury announced the five winners, each deemed champion of a different genre like “community impact” and “functionality” (a popular vote winner is forthcoming).

One of the more interesting proposals came from Frog, which won the “visual design and user experience” category for a column of four screens called Beacon. Unlike many of the other proposals, Beacon’s interface is gestural, meaning you’d speak to activate the displays and communicate using hand motions, eye movement, and facial expressions. It’s built upon a 3-D sensor called Capri (designed by PrimeSense, the original developers of Kinect), which senses motion directly in front of it, while a set of microphones and speakers drown out nearby car horns and chatter with white noise. “Recognition technologies and algorithms have become sophisticated enough to recognize a very broad set of gestures, gesture combinations, and normal speech voice commands and can respond very accurately to the user’s intent,” Jonas Damon, Frog’s creative director, tells Co.Design. “In other words, it won’t be annoying to stand next to when you have no intention of using it!”

Beacon may have won an award for its looks, but as Damon tells me, it was designed primarily for durability (one of the major public criticisms of the other proposals being “these ninny touch screens will last about two hours in the city”). The shell is concrete and stainless steel, and its screens aren’t fragile LCDs like many of the other proposals. Rather, they’re made of RGB LED matrices, the sort you see on billboards or crosswalks. That makes them way tougher than normal touch-screen LCDs. And according to Damon, the embedded cameras could help deter vandals. “You wouldn’t want to be caught on camera scratching the screen, would you?,” he quips. Another important detail: the solar panels on the upper edge of the device, which trickle charge the internal battery. In the event of a long-term power outage like the one New York experienced in October, Beacon could continue to support critical functions, communicating vital emergency information long after the grid goes down.

Beacon’s bottom two screens are designed for interfacing with users interested in any number of things, from calling a cab to asking for a restaurant recommendation. The design team conceives of the lower level as an open platform, accessible by web or app, where nearby businesses can pay to advertise and locals can send messages to each other. “We imagine each Beacon having a unique ID attached to it. With this ID, small ads, notices, and messages could be uploaded via web or mobile app to the local section of a specific Beacon,” Damon explains. “While the cost of ads could be variable, they would be kept at a cost bracket that is appropriate for the given block. The idea is to easily enable mom-and-pop stores, food trucks, and other small businesses to advertise.” Meanwhile, the upper screens will broadcast more expensive ads from corporate buyers and city sponsors, generating revenue to support the free usage of the eye-level screens. And, what’s perhaps more intriguing about the video above, those upper screens could also work in concert. For example, during a parade they could be synched as banners. During a marathon, they could serve as mile markers.

The general public reaction to Reinvent Payphones seems to have been incredulity, and understandably so. One juror described several of the proposals as “iPads on sticks,” which illustrates how most of us still conceive of these technologies as precious. It’s hard to imagine these things being bumped by cabs or crapped on by pigeons. But that’s bound to change over time, as gestural and touch-screen tech migrates from our phones out into the world at large. The question isn’t really whether we should hasten that migration, but rather, how it can be leveraged to build better cities and communities.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.