The public payphones still located around New York City recall an era long ago, when cell phones were not commonplace and where detectives needed coins to call the station. Next year the old phones will finally get a long overdue overhaul.

Derelict NYC Phone Booths Get Smart Makeover

The city held a contest this month called the Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge. Experts were invited to submit prototypes for modernized public pay telephones to replace the 11,000 or so still lingering around New York. More than 125 submissions came in and a panel of judges picked six designs that stood out from about a dozen semifinalists. The winner has not yet been decided, but according to the design challenges’ Facebook page, the Popular Choice Award is supposed to be announced today. (The Huffington Post has a nice slideshow of the designs under consideration, if you want more eye candy.)

My favorite has to be Frog Design’s Beacon (above), which won the judges’ best visual design award. Their tall, slender “open communications platform” already looks right at home in all the renderings. Instead of touching anything, the person gestures or speaks to it. According to the designers, Beacon has an uninterruptible power supply as well as LED screens that can display mile markers for the NYC Marathon, ads or even evacuation instructions during an emergency.

Other prototypes included streamlined designs for phones with broader capabilities such as touchscreen interfaces, free Wi-Fi, automated emergency information, solar power, gesture recognition and, of course, dynamic advertising space. None of them said anything about access to the Ministry of Magic, though.

Back in the 1990s, I loved reading about Mark A. Thomas’ Payphone Project, an obsessive endeavor started in New York that partly encouraged people to dial payphone numbers and start conversations with strangers. These days Twitter seems to take care of that. Besides, by the time I moved to New York, nearly everyone had a cell phone.

Virtual Library Brings Books to NYC Subway

Payphones have been germ repositories for a while now. New York City’s contracts covering their installation and operation were signed in 1999 and don’t expire until October 15, 2014. There are still a few hurdles remaining, including the actual design and production of the new payphones. But after that, New Yorkers could finally — finally! — get public communication hubs they might actually use.

Rendering showing the Beacon prototype, one of several payphone concepts recognized in the city’s redesign contest. Credit: Frog Design (video).