In the age of the smartphone, payphones have become an anachronism. But a new company is planning to bring phone booths into the 21st century by retrofitting them with high-definition LED "SmartScreens" that display maps, neighborhood attractions and safety alerts.
Following a small-scale pilot program that consisted of about 25 touch screens in New York City and New Jersey, City 24/7 now has plans to expand to 250 installations in New York City. City 24/7 CEO Tom Touchet says the information found on each touch screen will be targeted to its specific location, and can include everything from restaurants and neighborhood amenities to traffic info and travel times.
The street locations double as free Wi-Fi hotspots, and information from the SmartScreens can be accessed via Wi-Fi by nearby smartphones, tablets and laptops. The SmartScreens themselves won't provide unlimited web access, though, as City 24/7 will control and restrict the content on the screens.
"It is a combination of open government and hyper-local information with a safety layer," Touchet says. "If you can save somebody $5 or five minutes, you've won them over."
City 24/7 imagines the SmartScreens could help city officials communicate with residents in the event of major storms or disasters, like Hurricane Sandy. As a storm approaches, the screens could share weather forecasts, information about subway and road closures, and other safety alerts. They also have the capability to make Skype calls, but so far the voice connection will only be used to serve blind users. Touchet says that in an emergency situation, the two-way communication function could easily be turned on, enabling users to contact urgent call centers.
In the coming weeks, the network will focus on community revitalization in areas that were affected by Sandy, and it'll highlight volunteer opportunities around New York.
Like any for-profit company, City 24/7's motives aren't purely altruistic; the screens will display location-based ads, and the company stands to make plenty of money from them. Those ads could also benefit the city, which will eventually collect 36 percent of ad revenue from the screens.
Durability is a natural concern for public touch screens. "Will they survive 24/7 attacks with baseball bats and crowbars?" asked one commenter on the New York Post website. "A $4 can of spray paint will make the touch screen unusable because you won't be able to see it," another writes. Touchet dismisses that notion, explaining that the installations are over-engineered with ATM-strength glass and steel casing, designed to withstand extreme weather. And if the power goes out, City 24/7 screens have a backup battery that gives them an extra few hours of use (although that wouldn't be much help during an extended outage).
There are almost 13,000 outdoor payphones left in New York City, but Touchet says City 24/7 doesn't expect to replace all of them with SmartScreens. The company will work with city officials to identify places where they make the most sense. And the program won't be limited to old payphones; bus shelters, call boxes, or even electric car charging stations could also be candidates for the new screens. The city won't pay a dime for the screens, which will be supported with ads. After the screens are established in New York, City 24/7 plans to extend to other cities; Touchet says that 19 other cities around the world are interested.