What to do with obsolete pay phones? USC lab has ideas

When's the last time you used one of these? A USC project aims to find a modern use for obsolete technology in Leimert Park.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

That sound you hear is the past calling. And possibly the future.

An enterprising group of USC students, artists and community leaders in Leimert Park have been looking to a relic, the pay phone, as a portal to the neighborhood’s rich cultural history. The result was the Leimert Phone Co., a five-week design research lab led by USC professor Francois Bar, PhD candidates Benjamin Stokes and Karl Baumann, and Ben Caldwell, the owner of the local new media center Kaos Network.

Three teams looked at the obsolete technology of the pay phone to explore how aging infrastructure could be repurposed. Given the experimental nature of the project, ideas ranged from the fanciful (creating a beat box out of the numerical keypad) to the practical (using the phones as local guides, referring listeners to businesses and events).

The short timeline is part of an experiment with short immersion courses through the Annenberg Innovation Lab, part of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

“We have just five weeks and we’ll see if there is any traction,” said Bar, who also has taught a graduate-level course called “Learning by Hacking.”


With a possible metro stop in Leimert Park on the forthcoming Crenshaw light-rail line, the neighborhood expects development but also has fears of gentrification and displacement. The design lab posed the question: Can new technologies and community-centered design spur sustainable development?

To bridge the physical and the digital, the school bought 14 pay phones on EBay for a total of $309 so participants could learn how to hack them. (One of the phones contained $208 in quarters.)

The teams were charged with not only reimagining public space but also reinforcing the historical identity of the neighborhood and improving economic vitality. Students and artists presented their prototypes to the community and members of the Leimert Park Business Improvement District earlier this month to gather feedback and discuss funding options to continue the project.

Videos provide a taste of the teams’ initial ideas:

1. “Dial-a-track”

2. “Transmedia Storytelling: Sankofa Search”

3. “smARTphone”

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