TréPhonos Calls Up History In Houston

Houston’s historic third ward, aka “The Tre,” is ripe rife with history, and some of that history is digitally preserved and accessible through an art installation in the form of repurposed payphones. We love payphones for obvious reasons and seeing them alive and kicking warms our hearts. Packing them with local history checks even more boxes. Twenty-four people collaborated to rebuild the three phones which can be seen in the video after the break, including three visual artists, three ambassadors, and eighteen residents who put their efforts into making the phones relevant not only to the ward but specifically to the neighborhood. One phone plays sound clips from musicians who lived or still live in the ward, another phone has spoken word stories, and the third has field recordings from significant locations in The Tre.

Each phone is powered by a solar cell and a USB battery pack connected to a Teensy with an audio adapter board, and a 20 watt amplifier. Buttons 1-9 play back recorded messages exclusive to each phone, star will record a message, and zero will play back the user-recorded message. Apps for smart phones are easy for young folks to figure out but the payphones ensure that these time capsules can be appreciated by people of any age, regardless of how tech savvy they are and that is wise as well as attractive. The coin return lever and coin slot also have associated sound clips unlike regular payphones so the artists get extra credit.

Did we say that we love payphones? Yes, yes we did. The very first post on Hackday was for a redbox and that got the ball rolling.

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Payphone Boombox Straight Out of the 1990’s.

Due largely to the overwhelming dominance of mobile phones, payphones are a sometimes overlooked relic from the 90’s and earlier eras. While seldom seen out in the wild these days, they can however still be acquired for a moderate fee — how many of you knew that? Setting out to prove the lasting usefulness of the payphone, Instructables user [Fuzzy-Wobble] has dialed the retro spirit way past eleven to his ’90 from the ’90s’ payphone boombox.

Conspicuously mounted in the corner of his office, a rangefinder sets the phone to ringing when somebody walks by — a fantastic trap for luring the curious into a nostalgia trip. Anyone who picks up will be prompted to punch in a code from the attached mini-phone book and those who do will be treated to one of ninety hits from — well —  the 1990’s. All of the songs have been specifically downgraded to 128kbps for that authentic 90’s sound — complete with audio artifacts. There’s even a little easter egg wherein hitting the coin-return lever triggers the payphone to shout “Get a job!”

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My Payphone Runs Linux

For the 20th anniversary of the Movie “Hackers” [Jamie Zawinski], owner of DNA Lounge in San Francisco, threw an epic party – screening the movie, setting up skating ramps and all that jazz. One of the props he put up was an old payphone, but he didn’t have time to bring it alive. The one thing he didn’t want this phone to do was to be able to make calls. A couple of weeks later, he threw another party, this time screening “Tank Girl” instead. For this gathering he had enough time to put a Linux computer inside the old payphone. When the handset is picked up, it “dials” a number which brings up a voice mail system that announces the schedule of events and other interactive stuff. As usual, this project looked simple enough to start with, but turned out way more complicated than he anticipated. Thankfully for us, he broke down his build in to bite sized chunks to make it easy for us to follow what he did.

This build is a thing of beauty, so let’s drill down into what the project involved:

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Breathe New Life Into Payphones with Asterisk

Payphones used to be found on just about every street corner. They were a convenience, now replaced by the ubiquitous mobile phone. These machines were the stomping grounds for many early computer hackers, and as a result hold a place in hacker history. If you’ve ever wanted to re-live the good ol’ days, [hharte’s] project might be for you.

[hharte] has been working to make these old payphones useful again with some custom hardware and software. The project intends to be an interface between a payphone and an Asterisk PBX system. On the hardware side, the controller board is capable of switching various high voltage signals required for coin-line signaling. The controller uses a Teensy microcontroller to detect the hook status as well as to control the relays. The current firmware features are very basic, but functional.

[hharte] also wrote a custom AGI script for Asterisk. This script allows Asterisk to detect the 1700hz and 2200hz tones transmitted when coins are placed into the machine. The script is also in an early stage, but it will prompt for money and then place the call once 25 cents has been deposited. All of the schematics and code can be found on the project’s github page.

[Thanks mies]