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Kendall Sq. visionaries

Smart benches seek to transform city fixtures with data

Sandra Richter got her chance to explain the vision behind the Soofa bench to President Obama at the first White House Maker Faire.
Sandra Richter got her chance to explain the vision behind the Soofa bench to President Obama at the first White House Maker Faire.AFP/Getty Images

From an ‘old fart’ to millennials, this collection of doers, thinkers, and visionaries could help to shape the neighborhood, and the world, for years to come.

A solar-powered park bench that charges your phone and dispenses free Wi-Fi sounds pretty awesome.

Now load it up with Internet-connected sensors, and you can learn a lot about the world around it — weather, pollution, noise, even how many people walk by.

That’s the big idea behind Soofa, an MIT spinout that wants to give the most humble of urban infrastructure pieces a 21st-century overhaul.

The company, headed by cofounders Sandra Richter and Jutta Friedrichs, is less than two years old and has only about 10 employees. Expect that to change. Soofa has already installed “smart benches” in nine states and three countries, including projects in Los Angeles, Boulder, Colo., and Austin, Texas. Boston and Cambridge were early adopters, and today, you can find prominent examples of the bright-red benches on parkland and sidewalks around both cities.

Internet-connected Soofa benches can detect Wi-Fi-enabled devices within 100 meters, which can give governments valuable data about the foot traffic in a given area — and, importantly, without identifying individual people, Richter said.

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Soofa is especially conscious of the tightrope companies and government agencies must walk when collecting ambient data about the public. That’s why Soofa benches are so eye-catching, Richter said.

“People know we’re there,” she said. “They have a place to e-mail and call and ask questions. We didn’t want the smart city to be these faceless sensors hiding in a lamppost.”

The company is also working on the Soofa sign, which it says will use an e-ink screen (E Ink is another MIT spinout, by the way) to display transit schedules and other information that passersby would find useful.

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Curt Woodward can be reached at curt.woodward@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @curtwoodward.