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Designers Show Off Payphone Re-Inventions in New York

BY Sam Roudman | Thursday, March 7 2013

Frog Design's Beacon, winner of best visual design in New York's Reinvent Payphone challenge

Since last year New York City has tested ways to update its increasingly disused (but revenue producing) infrastructure of over 11 thousand payphones. But the city’s experiments with touch screens and free wifi seem tame in comparison to what designers, architects, and students showed off at the demo day for the city’s Reinvent Payphones design challenge, last Tuesday.

The event, at the headquarters of product designer Quirky, gave 11 semifinalist projects, chosen from 125 entries, the chance to present in front of a group of judges. The projects will help the city shape its official Request for Procurement to update the city's payphones, likely later this year.

“Generally the way the way the city works is have an RFI, get some ideas back, and then you produce an RFP,” says Nick Sbordone, from New York’s Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications, which manages the city’s payphones. “What we’ve done is added a bunch of steps to that, all with community input.”

Projects were presented in rapid succession, with three minutes for the designers to explain, and two minutes for the judges to respond. At the end, the judges took a half hour to deliberate, and awarded projects in the fields of connectivity, creativity, visual design, functionality, and community impact. The popular favorite will be announced tomorrow.

Amongst the designs were pay phones outfitted with arrays of environmental sensors, pay phones that consolidated other street furniture like parking meters into a single unit, payphones that could charge your cell phones, payphones that acted as info hubs for tourists, and payphones that the public wouldn’t have to pay to use. Some featured urban greening like the High Line, others bike racks and solar power. A couple featured hyperlocal ad networks, for businesses in the area surrounding the payphone, and at least one featured “sound harmonizing technology,” which sounded eerily similar to sound dampening technology.

The judges' comments rarely strayed from the quizzically respectful (these projects were done pro bono, after all), although team Look Up’s claim that the city needed more than “an iPad on a stick” was met with a judge's retort to the effect of “this looks like an iPad on a stick with grass on top,” and a ripple of “ohhhh” from the packed house of nearly a hundred onlookers.

“What I thought was really funny, is I think 75 percent of everyone’s content was the same,” said Jonas Damon, from Frog Design, whose project Beacon won the visual design award. “We all have this focus on community,” Damon says, referring to the hyper local ads and free, ad supported phone calls, which showed up in project after project. To Damon, the challenge is "just a matter of how you stitch those together."

“One thing I definitely learned is the pay part of payphone is gone,” says Rahul Merchant, Commissioner of DoITT.

The consensus from project participants was that the effort they took to complete challenge was worthwhile, even though unpaid.

Members from Team Windchimes produced an array of interchangeable environmental sensors on top of a payphone. They had honed their project through an NYU payphone hack day in January, and were co-winners of the Community Impact Award. If their project doesn’t do much to change payphones, it still might benefit science.

“Through NYU and through Parsons we met data researchers and scientists who were really excited in what we were doing,” says Ann Chen, an NYU ITP grad student from the team, which also had members from Parsons and Cooper Union.

“Winning is a bonus,” said Christian Kaulius, a third year architecture student from Philadelphia University, who designed a project called “An Augmented Reality,” a concept compatible with Google Glass, that also featured a crime alert system, and the ubiquitous bike rack. “Talking to all of these different designers is just awesome.”

This post has been corrected to correctly spell the name of DoITT's spokesman, Nicholas Sbordone.