Rustic Cyberpunk

Coffee & Cabins

Bringing Back Phone Booths

8 min read

I've mostly gone back to using my phone for calls and text messages. I do sometimes still browse the internet on it, but I fire up the laptop more often for that these days. The larger screen is kinder to my eyes as well. Public transport is usually a respite for me so I try to turn off the rest of the world while on the road, internet included. Silence is a rare commodity in modern civilization, with an exponentially increasing value.

I remember in high school, I got my first mobile flip phone for emergency use. Most other kids with some form of remote communication had beepers. Again, for emergencies, and the school payphones were in high demand.

Communication is a lot cheaper now, but that has come with the cheapening of conversations. There's a noticeable lack of warmth in the smiles I see every day. More people greet each other by bumping into them while looking down on their phone. I don't think we've faced a period in time where people are so connected and yet be so alone. The immediacy of feedback rarely carries the weight of longing and so most conversations, even across continents, feel trivial.

While it's naive to think that having more phone booths will prevent people from accessing their personal supercomputers as long as they have them in their pockets, I think there's still a need for a dedicated, permanent access point for communication.

Phone batteries die all the time. Connection can still be spotty. Privacy is harder on a device that stays with you and sometimes, you really do need to use a screen at least the size of a tablet. Not carrying any sort of complex electronics that can track you might also come into fashion at some point in the future.

When I think of "booths", I usually envision the classic, red phone booths in the UK and the colonies.

K6 Red Telephone Box
Photo by Christoph Braun

But let's be more practical here. These are going to be expensive to recreate and, in an age of lax moral discretion, far more likely to be vandalized. An alternative is to create a monolithic pillar with few protrusions and a simple screen for interaction. While it can serve primarily as a contact point, it can double as a browsing screen with a bigger view. In that regard, it would make more sense to call these "nodes" instead.

The idea for this is of course derived from Blade Runner. Users Staar and Toa Quarax posted these on a PropSummit forum thread a while ago.

Hero phone

Hero phone

Phone side view

Isn't it beautiful?

These are apparently operated by a fictional version of Ma Bell, back when AT&T held on to its roots as the Bell Telephone Company, noted by the conspicuous bell logo. And they're called "Vid Phon".

Phone closeup

Phone front view

This being a "Vid Phon", there is a camera next to the speaker. I think that's a speaker, but it could also be a futuristic "depth thing" a-la Microsoft Kinect.

Camera closeup
From this angle, it looks like a speaker to the left of the camera
Camera closeup
That is most definitely the old Bell System logo

Monopolies belong in cyberpunk fiction, but the real world breakup of Ma Bell was obviously unforeseen. AT&T is now a monopoly again, but that's another topic.

On the same thread, user nickdaring posted this possible concept version.

Video phone concept
Video phone concept with privacy wings

Unlike the concept, they've minimized the final design to be more streamlined. While that makes it less inviting for privacy, it's also less prone to damage outdoors and "in the wild". The front interface is much wider and the keypad is more prominent in the final design as well.

Phone keypad

The screen appears worse for wear. Being the most obvious focual point, it remains as the last vandal magnet on the entire device.

Screen closeup

Writing on screen
Writing on screen on an angle

It seems to be a little over 79cm tall, which actually is within the range of a typical payphone.

Phone height at 79cm+

Note, the back of this is actually made of wood. Being a prop, it doesn't actually need to be vandal-resistant.

Phone back
Back of the phone showing exposed wiring harness and wood structure

I think we can dispense with the phone handset altogether and instead try to use speaker tricks to converge sound to a single point directly in front. This will give some privacy while eliminating yet another potential vandal magnet.

Phone side
Note how the sides offer some privacy while protecting the front as well. I think this is a brilliant design, the more I look at it.

What I especially like about them is the appearence of near-bullet-proof construction. Almost like a bollard turned into a node; Which itself may not be a bad idea. Instead of a row of bollards which do nothing but prevent cars from jumping the curb, why not extend upper portion into an access point.

That's not to say, the rest of the device won't face some damage. The care gone into the detail here shows that the cover is meant to resemble a detatchable part whereas the inner core is another "metallic" object. This would make refurbishment easier on an actual device by simply replacing the cover.

Side damage
Although wall-mounted in the movie, it may be just as at home on top of a bollard
Phone labels 1
I have no idea what this says, but it looks beautiful
Phone labels 2
I love the detail on the labels for this

I mentioned earlier about not carrying complex electronics which can track you. Disposable phone cards are one place where this might be viable, provided the cards can still be purchased with cash. The Vid Phone cards are gorgeous as well.

Card closeup
This design is beautiful too
Card in phone
Card inserted into phone

I've also been thinking about a potential technology stack to make this work; The set of features for a communications platform that can be left unattended for long periods of time. Instead of a typical desktop computer, I was thinking of single-board computers which can easily be solar powered and run on batteries with comparatively little maintenance. Most can be configured to run fanless, which makes them quiet, and they're designed for industrial enviornments which aren't friendly to delicate electronics in general. That also makes them more resilient to bad weather. Many have ample GPIO (General Purpose Input Output) pins which enable environmental monitoring, with appropriate sensors, at the node location as well.

The Pine64 series of single-board computers seems the most viable for availability, cost, and foreseeable long-term support. There are many others out there, but this seems the most cost-effective while being supported by the Operating System I've also been thinking of for this: OpenBSD. The current arm64 port does support the Rockchip RK3399 platform so the main board will likely be a ROCKPro64. Even though it's the most power-hungry of the lot, it can run fanless with a tall heatsink and should have enough processor power and memory capacity to function as a decent kiosk. At the time of this post, it costs $80.

ROCKPro64 board

The other option is the newly released Raspberry Pi 3 with its dual monitor support and more attractive price. The down side is that there are some USB-C issues caused by an implementation that didn't follow the spec. Besides this, the board is barely a few weeks old and I don't know how well it will perform in the long run. It hasn't been proven in the field yet.

The ROCKPro64 could also potentially be coupled with an ESP32 for nearby Wifi and Bluetooth as a 1-2 user hotspot. This too is a very cheap component.


I'd like to implement these in pairs of computers. One functioning as the node out in the field, which connects to a "handler" at a central location.

The "handler" will likely be the Sopine compute modules, which can sit on a clusterboard, with seven modules per cluster. Making one Sopine compute board responsible for one node makes running the system more efficient in terms of resources instead of dealing with one big server handling many nodes. Both the node and handler location can be solar powered since there aren't any severe cooling requirements with a cluster of Sopine boards besides a fan or two per cluster.

Sopine compute module

Sopine cluster board

The nodes out in the field are are essentially "fat clients", the opposite of "thin clients" usually seen on kiosk duty. Fat clients have more resources to deal with the applications they're currently running, and they do run them locally most of the time with only data saving and communications sent back.

The "handler" only dispatches the boot image, provides application copies, system updates etc... This allows only a minimal system to be installed on the nodes, making updating the whole thing easier. If there's any problem with a node, try sending a reboot command while swapping out the Sopine compute board. It also gives a degree of resiliency and decentralization since there isn't a single server responsible for a whole swath of nodes. And since each clusterboard can be on its own ethernet connection, only a single cluster with seven nodes will go down if the port fails. This also enables the handlers and nodes to be independently updated in staggered rollouts without taking down the entire node system.

Speaking of the network, media converters can be used to maintain Ethernet connectivity over much longer distances. There are media converters with 2km to 20km range at reasonable prices now and most don't consume much power, keeping that solar power option open. Using fiber out to the field also makes it less attractive to copper thieves while maintaining high bandwidth. The whole package for the node - case (bulk of the cost), mainboard, media converter, batteries, solar panel - will probably be around $1000. Adding it on top of a bollard will make installation simpler so that's an additional reduction in cost.

There are still a great number of details to work out in this project, the least of which is the software configuration. OpenBSD makes for a very simple desktop, especially when coupled with Xfce in kiosk mode.

A lot to digest, but I've been thinking strongly about all of this for some time. All of this will have to come after my cabin project, of course.