NYC Subways Deploy A Touch-Screen Network, Complete With Apps

An inside look at a bold new initiative to modernize NYC’s digital subway infrastructure.


Not so long ago, we featured a radical proposal for New York City’s payphones. The criticism we sensed was that this networked, touch-screen system–equipped with cameras and Wi-Fi–was too too sci-fi for a city of today.


But the designers behind that vision–Control Group–have been hired by New York’s MTA to bring a very similar plan to their subways. Starting this year, 90 touch-screen kiosks will make their way to thoroughfares like Grand Central Station and hip stops like Bedford Avenue. Together, they’ll make a beta network for 2 million commuters and tourists a day.

The Beginnings Of A Mega Network

“60 million people a month would be a really sizable website,” Control Group Partner Colin O’Donnell says. “If we can capture a portion of that and get them interacting, we have a real chance to do some amazing things at the urban scale.”

Each kiosk, designed by Antenna Design, is a 47-inch touch screen, encapsulated in rugged stainless steel, with an operational temperature up to 200 degrees (which is more than durable enough to handle 120-degree summer days in the subway). They’ll be placed, mostly in pairs, outside pay areas, inside mezzanines and even right on train platforms. Control Group has skinned the hardware with a simple front end and an analytics-heavy backend, largely reminiscent of their work with Kate Spade. And the platform will even support third-party apps approved by the MTA.


At launch, the screens will feature all sorts of content, like delays, outages, and, of course, ads (which bring in $100 million in revenue for the MTA each year, but mostly in paper signage). Yet its most powerful interaction for many will likely be its map, which features a one-tap navigation system. Seriously. You look at the map, you tap your intended destination, and the map will draw your route, including any transfers along the way. It’s an interface that puts Google Maps to shame.

Into the future, this map will feature points of interest to simplify the experience for tourists. Thanks to a robust backend with heavy analytics at work, the MTA will quickly be able to prioritize which spots should be the most prominently featured by which are tapped most frequently, and these spots could even be changed by season. For instance, Rockefeller Center might be a more prominent attraction in the winter, when the tree is up and tourists are skating below Prometheus.

“We can dynamically tune the messaging to the situation,” O’Donnell says, “taking the experiences that are successful to the web and translating them to physical space.”

Thanks to an omnipresent network connection, such information could be updated in real time. Ads, which are a huge component of the rollout, could be modified according to temporal context–matched to weather, or just whether the Yankees won or lost.


The Power Of Extra Sensors

At the same time, the system’s screens could be the least interesting part of this project. The kiosks will be fitted with extra modules–video cameras, mics, and Wi-Fi–to open up a whole secondary layer of data collection and interface.

With cameras and mics, the MTA can enable two-way communication (what I imagine as emergency response messaging), and they can also pull in all sorts of automated metrics from their stations–they’d have eyes capable of counting station crowdedness or even approximate user ethnographics.

Meanwhile, Wi-Fi opens the door for networking a whole platform of mobile users with Internet access and other streamed content. Given that the average person waits 5 to 10 minutes on a platform, O’Donnell sees the potential of engaging, sponsored experiences, like a networked game of Jeopardy, while people wait for the train, or streaming media content, like TV/movie clips. A tourist could, of course, do something far more practical, too, like download a city map in moments.

“We can’t provide Internet for everybody,” he says, “but we can allow interactivity on the platform.”


The Importance Of Physical Networks

Of course, a skeptic might ask, if these kiosks have Wi-Fi, why do the kiosks need to exist at all? Why not just make this MTA platform a mobile app?

“NYC serves people of all abilities, physical and financial,” O’Donnell says. “Even though as much as 60% of the population has a mobile phone, it’s really not fair to have that as a requirement to navigating the city.”

It’s also a hardwired network that can be quite powerful during emergency response. During an event like Hurricane Sandy, the city would be able to reach across the city with dynamically updated, rich information. And while that might not sound like a big deal with a mere 90 of these kiosks rolled out in the first wave of testing, it could make a major difference when NYC’s 400+ stations are equipped with reliable, relevant information and Wi-Fi.


“Sandy proved that we do need public messaging infrastructure separate from mobile devices,” O’Donnell says. “Such a large population didn’t have power or cellphones. They were literally wandering the streets. In an instant, you could change every display in town to say, ‘The subway will be down in 15 minutes,’ or ‘There’ll be another train in a minute, so don’t cram onto this one!’ Having our environment able to change in context to what’s going on is really important.”

The MTA will begin the rollout later this year.

[Update: In response to comments and tweets regarding sanitation issues, Control Group gave us the following statement: “One of the principles of our design was to minimize touch and gestures with one click navigation. Also, the DST display works with any object–finger, nail, pen, etc. And the screen is in waterproof enclosure to enable regular cleaning. And just like the thousands of Metrocard machines in the NYC subway system that feature a touchscreen, the MTA will maintain the new kiosks.” I might also add, our society shared payphones for decades, and those touched our hands and our faces.]

See more here.

An earlier version of the post didn’t credit the kiosk hardware to any entity. It was created by Antenna Design.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach