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Last updated: 4/3/17

Soofa

A solar-powered seat that can charge smartphones and collect data on the environment.

The MIT Media Lab helped develop the Soofa. We put two prototypes in place on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in the fall of 2013 under the name, “Seat-E.” We expanded the project in the summer of 2014 to six benches in four parks around Boston.

Why we did this

The project evolved from the City’s Complete Streets effort. We’re interested in building greener, smarter, and more pedestrian-friendly streets. Part of that work includes using street furniture to address unmet resident and City needs.

We thought this would make a good experiment after meeting with designers and creators of the Seat-e / Soofa, including:

  • MIT alumna Ines Gaisset
  • Media Lab Visiting Scientist Sandra Richter, and
  • Media Lab PhD candidate Nan Zhao.

The experiment

Our hypothesis? Soofa can be an example of a new type of street furniture that serves many functions. People will have a place to sit that offers more services than just a regular seat or bench.

We installed two Seat-e’s in a popular park between Boston’s downtown and the North End. Thanks to a solar panel, people could charge their phones as well and interact with embedded “social lights.” These lights shifted colors based on the use of the seats.

The next version of the design, The Soofa, included:

  • two-usb ports
  • an extra seat
  • and sensors for data on the environment.

We plan to add more interactive features in the future. This includes prompting plugged-in phones with poll questions, trivia, or upcoming events. The data we collect will be available to the public.

This project emerged from a collaboration between two Media Lab research groups:

  • Changing Places, headed by Principal Research Scientist Kent Larson, and
  • Responsive Environments, headed by Professor Joseph Paradiso.

Results and lessons learned

Interest high

It’s still early, but the seats have caught the interest of designers, technologists, and the media. We also think there’s a chance to use the same approach with tables and other street furniture.

Adding signs

People often don’t seem to realize that they can charge their phones while sitting. So, we added signs to make it more clear. This is similar to what we observed when we introduced parklets.

Some surprise

We targeted specific groups for the seats, including:

  • visitors and tourists
  • people using basketball courts, and
  • families using tot lots.

However, this led to some unexpected outcomes. In one location, we noticed that the homeless population used a location for about 12-14 hours each day.

Durability

We removed most of the Soofas before the winter to allow for plow operations within the parks. However, we left two out and they both weathered well. Though they were completely covered in snow, when the snow melted, they were operating just fine.