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Community / Public space

Boston is installing solar-powered phone-recharging benches

The problem with benches, right, is that they’re really really boring. I mean, they only do one thing. Okay, we all need to rest our legs once in a while, but once you’ve tried sitting down for a bit, you’ve basically exhausted the entertainment value of the bench, haven’t you? No more fun for you.

But worry no longer – for a Massachusetts start-up has invented the Soofa. It’s a bench! It’s a phone charger! It’s a device for collecting “location-based information”! And there are now three of them occupying the streets of Boston.

Here’s one now, surrounded by its creators:

The Soofa is the work of Changing Environments, a start up that span out of the MIT Media Lab. Each unit uses a solar panel to run an integrated computer, which collects data on things like air quality, noise, and foot traffic. The company is planning to make all this publicly available; at the moment, though, they still seem to be working up to it, and the main thing you can learn from its data is how sunny it is in Boston:

The Soofas have names. This one’s called Boris.

As a nifty side effect, though, you can use some of the spare electricity to re-charge your phone. Previous experiments with public USB ports have led to fears that hackers could use such stations to infect users’ phones with viruses. But the heavy duty street furniture should make this impossible, claims Changing Environments chief executive Sandra Richter, who told Business Week:

“The concrete boxes are screwed with security screws and only we have the actual bits to open them. If one were to take an axe and hammer to one, the electronics would be useless.”

There are currently only four Soofas in the wild (three in Boston, one which was shown off at the White House a couple of months back), each of which has a name. The company is up for installing more of them – but its page uses the words “sponsorship requirements”. It’s a reminder that, however useful they might be, computerised benches will be more expensive than the old fashioned wood-and-metal variety.

Changing Environments is still debating its business model: advertising is one option; selling data to corporate customers is another. If its multi-purpose benches are ever to go global, getting that right will be key.
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