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The Bench of the Future Could Charge Your Smartphone

Jason O. Gilbert
Technology Editor
June 18, 2014

The team behind the Soofa –– Jutta Friedrichs, Sandra Richter, and Nan Zhao –– pose with their creation. (Soofa)

The old familiar park bench is great for relaxing. Soon, it could also be great for energizing — your smartphone, that is.

At the White House’s first ever Maker Faire on Wednesday, the startup Changing Environments will show off the Soofa, a bench that can charge your cellphone using the solar power it collects throughout the day. The Soofa, an play on “smart urban furniture,” features a visible solar panel, a battery, and two USB slots, where bench-sitters and the desperately underpowered alike can plug in their smartphones and other devices.

“We want to make cities updated for our generation,” Sandra Richter, one of the three inventors of the Soofa, said in an interview with Yahoo Tech. “One trait we have is we run around with our phones all the time, and they die every five minutes. So for us it’s really important to be charged up all the time and be connected to each other.”

The Soofa isn’t just about phone charging: It also contains noise and air sensors embedded in the bench’s “brain.” Those sensors constantly collect data and beam it over Verizon’s 4G network to Soofa’s website, which will let people know where there is an available bench, in a quiet location, with fresh air.  

A screenshot of the map on Soofa.co, which shows benches around Boston and the data around them, too. (Soofa.co)

The first dozen benches will be installed around Boston this month; prototypes had dotted the Boston landscape this winter. Boston residents will be able to find free benches on an interactive map at Soofa.co. Clicking on a bench brings up information about the temperature, noise, air pollution level, and recent foot traffic around the location, as well as whether a charging port is available.

For now, it’s BYO cable if you want to juice up your phone. Future versions of the Soofa, Richter said, will have inductive charging, or the ability to place your device on a surface and have it power up, no cord required. (Starbucks recently began installing inductive charging mats made by Duracell at its stores around the country.)

The Soofa isn’t only novel in concept; the team behind it is also unique in the tech sphere for its makeup. Changing Environments consists of three women, all from the Boston area: Richter, a visiting scientist at MIT’s Media Lab; Nan Zhao, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT’s Media Lab; and Jutta Friedrichs, who graduated with a master’s in art, design, and the public domain from Harvard. Richter and Zhao met at the Media Lab and recruited Friedrichs, “a friend of a friend,” Richter said, to design the bench and make it visually appealing.

While the first benches will be installed in Boston, the startup is also talking to San Jose, California, and New York City about putting in benches there, too.

The first stop for the Soofa, however, is the White House. Back in February, the White House announced plans to host its first-ever Maker Faire, the increasingly popular gatherings for tinkerers, builders, and hackers to show off their creations; on Wednesday, the Maker Faire will kick off, with President Obama also declaring June 18 to be the “National Day of Making.” Richter says her team was particularly excited to be invited, since the so-called “maker movement,” and the tech scene in general, is traditionally dominated by men.

“What’s really important to us is we’re three women in hardware, which is actually pretty rare,” Richter said. “We want to show girls that they can make sh*t happen, and that they can build companies. Being in the maker community is really important to us.”

The Changing Environments team on one of its benches in Boston. (Soofa)

A Soofa bench costs about $3,000. That is, admittedly, a lot more than a bench that you just sit on, though it does come with a 25-year guarantee from Changing Environments, and cities can pay by the month. Richter and the team hope that the sustainable energy and the data on air pollution and noise quality can persuade municipal governments to shell out a little cash for their “smart benches.”

They’re also hoping that the benches become more than just, well, benches: Changing Environments envisions the Soofa as a sort of public water cooler, where strangers intermingle in cities while charging their phones, or meeting points where friends can agree to convene. Each Soofa will have a name, which denizens of any given city will be able to suggest on the Changing Environments site.

In fact, Bostonians can go to Soofa.co right now to submit their own nominations. Might I be so bold as to suggest Nomar?

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