Meet the hyper-connected phone booth of the future

In cities all over the world, old phone booths are sitting around, not doing much of anything. 

What are the possibilities for adaptive reuse for such outdated infrastructure?

In Japan, we’ve seen the Kingyobu collective’s answer in the form of old phone booths transformed into giant goldfish aquariums. 

Now, in New York City, a company called City24x7 is making strides in making the phone booth relevant as an information portal, even for those who’ve got a fully charged cell phone in their back pocket.

Fast Co.Exist reports that City24x7 pulls out the black phone of the old booth and replaces it with a 32-inch iPad-esque touch screen. Through this screen, users can catch a glimpse of real-time news happening around them, including local events and transportation information (such as bus delays and traffic snarls). 

These facilities offer passersby promotions from local merchants, warnings of local environmental hazards, and conveniently enough, double as WiFi hot spots.

Download free music. Learn about local landmarks. Receive access to “exclusive walking tours.” Engage in place-based gaming. And — here’s the bit that’s apparently proven popular with advertisers — get the low-down on “secret sales.” (That’s right, they’re offering a buck off Frappacino at that Starbucks right around the corner.)

Lest you think this all so much frivolity, however, consider that regularly spaced WiFi spots can also serve the purpose of public safety in a city. Like the old highway call box (or even the police call-box Dr. Who’s TARDIS was fashioned after), part of the idea here was to give citizens a convenient place to notify the authorities of an emergency, should they observe or happen to be involved in one. And, in a bit of a nod to the booth’s former function, people will eventually be able to use these ADA-accessible SmartScreens to make Skype calls.

The aim is nothing less than to use technology and new social media to “inform, project, and revitalize cities,” according to City24x7 CEO Tom Touchet, who recently presented his company’s smart screen tech at the Meeting of the Minds conference in San Francisco. 

City24x7′s screens are filled with buttons that look a whole lot like apps, and many of them actually are based on real apps and available online services.(Restaurant reviews? Those come from Google Places’ Zagat info.  Transportation data? Roadify.)

Both of which you could, of course, just pull up on your iPhone. But the difference here is that all info is hyper-local — no more searching through a whole website (on a tiny screen) to get the nugget you need. “It’s highly integrated. You don’t need to go to the Roadify website–all channels of the city are local to where you are,” explains Jeff Frazier, director of global public sector practice at Cisco IBSG (Cisco is also involved in the SmartScreen project).

City24x7 is just now wrapping up a two-year pilot of its screens in NYC, and is moving ahead with 250 SmartScreens in the coming months. One of these comes could be coming soon to a city near you, as the company is currently in talks with approximately 20 other cities around the world.

* Susan DeFreitas, EarthTechling