Replacing 11,000 Payphones in NYC with Public Smartphones and Free Wifi

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NYC Loop by FXFOWLE, one of the finalists in New York's Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge

Best Creativity: NYC Loop, by FXFOWLE.

When Mayor Bloomberg announced New York City’s Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge last winter, we were excited to see how designers would reimagine these idle relics of last century’s infrastructure into something other than a shading device for smartphone-browsing in sunny weather. From the looks of the finalists, which Bloomberg announced Tuesday, tomorrow’s payphone could have a lot of app-style features, from weather reports and wayfinding to voice and gesture control.

A handful of New York’s roughly 11,000 payphones already serve as wifi hotspots thanks to a pilot program launched by the city last summer, so the leap to hyperconnectivity isn’t as far-fetched as it may seem. A few years down the line, we could all be using a shiny new network of payphones to call taxis by voice command, charge our devices, check the weather for our urban farms, and, inevitably, look at ads. The six finalists in five categories—creativity, connectivity, functionality, community impact, and visual design—are now competing for the popular choice prize. Vote for your favorite on Facebook before 5 p.m. EST on March 14, and you could help shape the payphone of the future.

A pilot program will turn 10 New York City payphone kiosks into wireless hotspots, with more to follow.

None of the finalists will receive a commission to build the next phone kiosk, but their ideas (and the results of the popular vote) will help officials determine the guiding principles for a future design. The city will issue an RFP later this year to kick off a formal competition, notes Engaget, in time to find a workable idea before the current payphone operating contract expires in October 2014. Without further ado, here are the finalists!

NYC Loop, by FXFOWLE, one of the winners of New York's Reinvent Payphones Design Competition

NYC Loop, by FXFOWLE.

Designed as sinuous communications portal, FXFOWLE’s NYC Loop features a smart screen for making calls, complete with sound-harmonizing technology and a projector that creates an “information puddle” on the sidewalk. It’s all powered by piezoelectric pressure plates on the ground, which convert kinetic energy into electricity.

NYFi, by Sage and Coombe Architects, one of the finalists in New York's Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge

Best Connectivity: NYFi, by Sage and Coombe Architects.

With their NYFi module, Sage and Coombe Architects want to declutter the streets and roll single-function sidewalk fixtures (parking meters, bus ticket machines, assistance kiosks, and, of course, payphones) into one narrow, sleek station. This multipurpose communications hub would come in two sizes: a larger version for commercial districts and a petite model for residential streets where, the designers note, payphones are usually not permitted.

Beacon, by Frog Design, one of the finalists in New York's Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge

Best Visual Design: Beacon, by Frog Design.

Frog Design’s Beacon is the sanitary option for squeamish New Yorkers. Its voice- and gesture-controlled module accounts for the germophobe’s ick factor when it comes to interacting with public machines. Featuring indestructible LED matrix screens like the ones in Times Square, Frog’s concrete-and-steel structure can serve as an info station in emergencies so that we can call our families and know which way to evacuate when the next Sandy strikes.

Windchimes, one of the finalists in New York's Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge

Tied for Best Community Impact: Windchimes, by a team of students from NYU’s ITP, Cooper Union, and Parsons.

Think of Windchimes as the boutique weather service you never knew you needed. Taking advantage of sensor technology that is available today, this module just needs a regular phone jack to collect micro-climate data from the environment. Together, thousands of Windchimes could help New Yorkers with respiratory ailments keep track of air quality and help urban farmers know when to plant their nightshades. Bonus feature: plan your bike commute around wind patterns so the breeze will always be at your back.

Smart Sidewalks, one of the finalists in New York's Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge

Best Functionality: Smart Sidewalks, by a team from Syracuse University, UC Davis, Parsons, Rama Chorpash Design LLC, and Cheng+Snyder.

Like NYFi, Smart Sidewalks reduces the footprint of the payphone. Strips of LEDs on the sidewalk announce location information to passersby—a great wayfinding idea for anyone stuck between avenues without a clue of which way is east or west. It also serves as a deployable bit of infrastructure, with curbside bays to manage water runoff. Solar panels power the station, which, like Frog’s Beacon, includes gesture controls.

NYC I/O, by TItan and Control Group, one of the finalists in New York's Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge

Tied for Best Community Impact: NYC I/O, by Titan and Control Group.

Like a virtual telephone pole and yellow pages in one, NYC I/O offers a range of services through a single interface. Users can pay for parking, import information on local businesses to their phones, and talk to one another by uploading community announcements and posting signs. “We are evolving a new organ for the city to have,” Chas Mastin, director of Control Group, says in a video about the design. “This is a way for the citizens in the city to talk to the city and hear the city speak back to them.”

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