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High-tech designs vie to replace NYC's payphones

The lowly payphone has become as unfamiliar to the average city-dweller as it was once familiar. Cell phones, laptops, and other modern conveniences have rendered the sturdy touch-tone booths something of an anachronism. How can this once-critical communications hub be maintained in the modern era? New York City, faced with the prospect of replacing thousands of payphones, decided to ask the tech and design community for ideas.

Of course, the question isn't just how to make a better payphone. It's also what a payphone would be like if we invented it today.

The designs, submitted over the last few months and selected by judges,show that the payphone no longer needs to be just a payphone. In fact, it need not be a payphone at all!

"We need to replace them, reinvent them, bring these things into the 21st century," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at an eventannouncing the contestin December.

Most of the concept devices being shown off bear enormous touchscreen displays, which could be used —much like a few existing prototype kiosks around NYC—to send and retrieve all kinds of data. One designincorporated a tall two-sided display that could be used to show ads, street information, or emergency announcements.

Another design, called Windchimes, doesn't use a screen at all. Instead, it bristled with sensors for air pollution, temperature, and wind — details which would be sent to a central location, acting as a sort of nervous system for the city.

Like many concept designs, they're not particularly realistic. Could a huge display and Wi-Fi network be powered by the footsteps of people walking by? Probably not.

That's part of the reason why none of the designs will actually be used as the replacement for traditional payphones — instead, they serve as an indicator of what the urban, tech-savvy population wants and needs from a city resource like this. Add to that a little municipal know-how (making sure the device can be kept safe and sanitary, for instance) and you may end up with something that's equally useful to bloggers and tourists alike.

The city hopes to have its formal solicitation, outlining the requirements and aims of the project (things like Wi-Fi, touchscreens, solar panels), by the middle of the year. After that, someone will actually have to design and manufacture the payphones (although they won't likely resemble the term), which will then be installed towards the end of 2014 — that is, if everything goes according to plan.

Whatever design and capabilities the city decides to go with, it's the beginning of the end for the classic, dirty, reliable, straightforward payphone.

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is