5696589315_1419230813_bMayor Bloomberg has announced an open competition for people to reinvent New York City’s public payphones. He wants to see prototypes that will help modernize payphone infrastructure in the city and make the best use of public space once the City’s current payphone contracts expire in 2014.

Cool idea. Not only are payphones a public necessity ripe for reinvention, but they could also stand to be a lot more useful, more attractive, more efficient, less prone to vandalism, more hygienic, and perhaps even cheaper.

All of these things can be achieved by making them VOIP-first and by leveraging some emerging technologies. And if those things happen, then local government has a great chance of helping to advance innovation.

Picture, if you will, an ATM-like space on the wall of a city building. In it, behind protected glass, is embedded a monitor that can display maps, search results, and local listings. It would also have a camera that stares back at you, for security reasons. The computer would also be locationally aware, so all of its recommendations make sense to where you’re standing. Okay, basically it’s just a tablet computer baked into the wall.

You could direct this thing with Siri-like voice controls that only work when you’re standing directly in front of the machine. For the majority of the controls, however – to start a call, hang up, open a new map – you could use 3D hand gestures, powered by Leap Motion.

If you’re engaged in a call, which would be placed over the Internet like a Skype call, there’s no need for an ear piece or a handset – you could hear the voice on the other end of the line within a very defined one-person-sized space, thanks to an “audio spotlight.”

And to pay? Well, if you had an account with Google Wallet, or Square, or Amazon, you could just use voice or gesture commands to pay that way. If you don’t have any of the above, you could pay with plastic or cash, just as you would at a subway ticketing kiosk.

Hell, you might as well even open up the operating system’s API so that you can leverage the creativity of third-party developers, who could find ways to bring useful software to the “phones,” which could be updated ay any time.

Gone would be the need for space-hogging booths. Gone would be the smashed glass of said booths. Gone would be the questionable gooey substance caked on the mouthpieces of yore. Gone would be the eyesore and expense of dangling cords, stripped of their handsets and their utility. Gone would be the era of the dumbphone, even on the gritty city streets.

This, Mr Bloomberg, would be a payphone for the future. Dial that baby up.

To enter the Reinvent Payphones Design Challenge, participants should visit www.nyc.gov and submit their prototype application for consideration by February 18, 2013.

[Photo credit: Ryan Tir]