Design

Boston's Solar-Powered Benches Will Charge Phones and Collect Data


President Barack Obama and Sandra Richter of Cambridge, Mass., on an example of eco-friendly urban furniture, a solar-powered "soofa," on June 18 in Washington, D.C.

Photograph by Mike Theiler-Pool/Getty Images

President Barack Obama and Sandra Richter of Cambridge, Mass., on an example of eco-friendly urban furniture, a solar-powered "soofa," on June 18 in Washington, D.C.

Boston has started installing park benches that double as electronic device charging stations. “Your cell phone doesn’t just make phone calls,”  said Boston Mayor Martin Walsh last week. “Why should our benches just be seats?”

The multitasking benches, dubbed Soofas, have USB ports in which park dwellers can plug in their devices. The seats also connect wirelessly to the Internet to upload local environmental data such as air quality and noise levels, as well as information on how much energy is being generated. So far, two Soofas have been placed in Boston Common and two in Titus Sparrow Park. Several more will be added in Boston and Cambridge in coming weeks.

Soofas are the creation of Changing Environments, an MIT Media Lab spin-out co-founded by three women in their early thirties—a designer, an electrical engineer, and a marketing expert. “We’re all from Germany, where solar energy is very popular,” says Sandra Richer, the startup’s co-founder and chief executive. “We were thinking about how can we change public opinion to accept more solar … and start a dialogue about air quality in cities and renewable energy.” Verizon (VZ) is providing the group with technical support, and Cisco Systems (CSCO) paid for Boston’s first benches.

The smart seats are already gaining traction. “We average between 12 and 20 people using the benches per day,” Richter says. On Sunday, she notes, “there was what we think was probably a couple because there were two people charging from 5:30 to 7:30 in the morning.”

Changing Environments plans to make all the Soofa data publicly available once it improves its real-time data map. The group is also hoping to speed up production and develop more advanced versions of the bench. “This is a small, three-girl operation right now,” says Richter. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls already from cities and people asking, ‘When do we get our Soofa for our city or boardwalk?’”

Public access USB ports do present some unique problems. When New York inaugurated charging stations last year, experts warned that hackers might implant tiny computers to infect phones with viruses that could steal banking information, e-mail passwords, and perhaps even track the movement of phone owners. Richter says Soofas, made from concrete, sheet metal, and wood, won’t be vulnerable to such attacks. “The concrete boxes are screwed with security screws and only we have the actual bits to open them,” she says. “If one were to take an ax and hammer to one, the electronics would be useless.”

To make money, Changing Environments plans to charge a setup and monthly subscription fee or charge people, organizations, and companies to have their names and brands featured on subtle bench plaques. The startup has yet to determine its pricing. Another option, says Richter, would be to use motion sensors on the Soofas to collect data for companies, allowing them to better gauge how many passersby are in the area. “So if they have a billboard in the area, for example,” Richter says, “they’ll know how many people are likely to see it.”

Cwinter
Winter is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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