Touch project interview

In December 2005 I was interviewed for Printed and Disposable Electronics News about the Touch project, the future of RFID and on the social implications of NFC. Here is the plain interview, since an online version of the magazine is not available.

1. Explain what the ‘The Touch Project’ is and what it hopes to achieve?

The Touch project looks at the personal and social use of RFID, driven by the growing availability of NFC enabled mobile phones. We see that there is significant potential for user-driven applications of RFID beyond logistics and supply chain management. We envision RFID not just as a replacement for barcodes, but as a technology that could affect our interactions with everyday objects. Simplistic examples of this might be personally marking the physical environment with information or enabling social contact through physical things. Touch intends to look closely at behaviour and activities in everyday life, and to build RFID applications that support, enhance or change those activities in useful, interesting or playful ways.

2. What technology will the project make use of and what advances do you hope to make in the uses of these technologies?

At the moment the project makes use of standard mobile phones from Nokia (the 3220 and 5140) and re-writeable MiFare RFID tags.

Please touch tag

The project doesn’t intend to advance the state of the art in technology, it hopes to develop applications and knowledge around the use of RFID. However, it is likely that the project will uncover latent needs for certain kinds of tags and technologies, for example printable tags in mass-produced stickers or washable tags in clothes. It is also clear that the project will have a voice on user-centred privacy, and this may turn into technological recommendations for the privacy and security of tags.

3. Explain how the project will make use of RFID tags?

The project looks at the ways in which tags can be embedded in everyday objects, spaces and environments. At the moment we are particularly looking at the personal space of the home, as a place to augment things with information.


In the near future we will be looking at the ways in which RFID tags can be used as social objects: gifts, business cards, stickers or flyposting in public space.

4. What has been the reponse of industry and the retail markets to the project? Will the new concepts developed aid advertising and marketing in the future?

At the moment there is a lot of interest in NFC in general, we are looking at ways of presenting our research to industry: to encourage it to shift it’s focus from traditional markets (the back-end logistics side) to making useful products for users. We are not interested in aiding the marketing of RFID as a technology, but we are interested in new activities and behaviours around it, that may in turn, make it more visible, useful and acceptable to people.

5. How will the use of NFC help drive innovation in retail, marketing and public services?

In retail the innovations are mainly around usability improvements. The ability to connect the real world to the virtual world: the billing and banking abilities of the telecoms directly to ‘touchable’ physical objects may change the retail experience drastically. This change may uncover new markets around craft objects and short-run items outside of the mass market. In marketing there are clear applications for service discovery: touching a poster or magazine to download a URL or ringtone. In public services it should become easier to report local issues, by easily notifying services about problems in specific locations.

6. What new markets and uses for technology have you uncovered so far during the course of the project?

Games are an interesting area of development, we are thinking about prior examples such as “Pokemon”:Ă©mon and NeoPets, that are based on real and virtual trading.


We think that RFID based functions will have a large part to play in these socially driven gaming worlds, where physical objects can be swapped and combined in different ways to affect virtual games worlds. We think there are also markets in furniture, industrial and service design, where RFID can provide object history, re-cycling information, located instruction manuals, etc.

7. How has ‘The Touch Project’ changed peoples attitude to technology? Do you think the use of RFID, NFC and interaction with digital services and objects will become as easy for Europeans as it is starting to be in the Far East, particularly Japan?

This has yet to be seen. This is the first time in the popular-history of RFID that it is actually useful for the user or consumer; until now it has been an invasive, corporate technology. NFC tests by Philips in Caen, France have been very positive, and generally the people that are using the phones here have said that it feels very natural to touch tags with the phone, and to interact with information in a more tangible way.


So far we have encountered some physiological and social problems with the technology: for instance it is difficult for people to walk up to posters or stickers on the street and touch them with their phone. This is not ‘normal behaviour’ in public space, at least in Scandinavia. However, given that the technology is being pushed heavily as ‘Wallet phones’ and for ticketing, we expect these kinds of interactions to become more natural and habitual over time.

8. Are people just inherently suspicious of technology or are you finding an open mind set on these things?

Amongst technology-literate users there is a very suspicious attitude towards the technology. The governmental (In Norway, US, etc.) use of RFID in passports and other sensitive places (like Goodyear’s tyres) is quite rightly furthering this negative attitude. We are working with a technology that has huge potential for creative mis-use and we need to be very sensitive to that.


Amongst non-technology-literate users there is a very valuable process of discovery, as the phones open up new possibilities of interactions that were previously hidden. This opens up the controversial technology to discussion in places where it wouldn’t have arisen before.

9. In the design of ‘The Touch Project’ have you looked at the way the Japanese use mobiles,digital and NFC technology?

We are following Japanese developments closely, particularly through Shin’ichi Konomi’s great weblog. Our exploratory research begins in Tokyo and Seoul in 2006. The use of NFC compatible phones is reaching critical mass, with DoCoMo predicting “ten million “wallet phones by March 2006. The use of 2D barcodes or QR codes in magazines, advertising and signage is also great inspiration, it is ‘prior art’ for things that RFID may be applied to.

9. What do you see as the future in these areas of technology? How will our lives change over the next 20 years in terms of interaction with technology?

The big shift that we are seeing right now is a move towards tangible interaction: a move away from the screen and into physical objects and spaces. At the mass-market forefront of this is gaming with Sony’s EyeToy and Nintendo Revolution with gestural control.

NFC public space

RFID and NFC should be the enablers of the move towards tangible interaction within everyday objects. There are enormous cognitive, physiological and social problems with using small screens in our rich, messy world (for example browsing a web page on a busy bus with shopping, text messaging while walking, or browsing in a restaurant). If we can move any of these functions out into the real world: answering the phone by touching a tag, or setting the profile of the phone to silent by putting it in a certain spot, then we have reduced the reliance on the already overloaded screen.

10. Do you think that this type of technology could actually become invasive and be used as a tool to track peoples movements or spy on them?

This depends if we are talking about NFC phones or RFID tags.

The phones will usher in a more secure use of RFID: they can be turned on and off at will, and have more processing power for security and encryption, unlike most contactless ticket/credit cards that feature relatively weak security. One of the interesting potentials in NFC is the ability to read and write your own tags via the mobile phone, which effectively reverses some of the usual notions of RFID as a tracking and surveillance medium.

However, once written, most tags are insecure and we can’t control the leakage of data from them. If the use of NFC leads to us adorning our friends, clothes, objects and artefacts with tags, then there are of course implications for tracking and surveillance. This needs to be taken into account as we design applications and services around it.

Address book jacket

Compared with other pervasive technologies however the implications for RFID are quite low. Of course there are already cases of Skimming of cards in wallets, hacking of Speedpass payment systems and it’s possible to ‘Relay’ a contactless credit card from someone’s pocket to a reader. But in terms of tracking people and surveillance, RFID has physical limitations on reading distance, in that beyond a few metres the signal is reduced to noise. If we compare this with an ordinary mobile phone, which most of the time knows where you are to within about 100 metres, knows what you say both in voice and text messages (with no guarantee of privacy), the privacy issues are somewhat out of proportion.

This is also generating fascinating new counter-markets for things like RFID-proof paper and fabrics. Contactless credit cards for instance need to be sent in the post, and RFID ‘smart cards’ might be held safely within a faraday cage wallet.

11. Obviously these types of technology are to aid in the accumulation of information or dissemination of information but could there be a potential for misuse of such information or fraud?

On a broad level there is a clear danger of that. The thoughtless use of biometric RFID data in passports and other documents will inevitably lead to cases of digital fraud and misuse.

On a narrower level though, I am more concerned about how RFID, GPS and other ‘tracking’ technologies may effect our close social relationships. Much is made of the typical scenario for location based services: the ability to ‘see that my friends are just around the corner’. But the management, reciprocity and deniability of this information needs to be taken into account.

12. What social and communicative uses for this type of technology has ‘The Touch Project’ uncovered so far?

So far we have been looking at augmenting personal objects in the home: the desk, the fridge, the doorframe, the kitchen table, etc. It has so far been possible to test out the use of everyday objects as triggers for phonecalls, SMSes and URLs. We haven’t started looking at the more social and communicative aspects of the technology yet, we are waiting for more phones to reach the market, and the general awareness of the technology to be higher before we conduct larger scale studies.

Related things:

  1. Touch project Touch is a research project at the Interaction Design department at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. Touch takes a user-centred approach to Near Field Communication (NFC). NFC is a technology that enables......
  2. A PhD in Touch Radio Frequency IDentification is a wireless technology that is is currently finding applications in the replacement of barcodes in supply chains and logistics. This cheap and potentially ubiquitous technology is likely to influence the......
  3. Nokia releases first mass-market NFC handset Nokia today announced the 6131 NFC phone, the first integrated NFC handset that will (operators willing) be available to the public. Previously NFC had been confined to ageing handsets like the 5140 and 3220......
  4. Workshop: Near field interactions This is a call for proposals for a workshop on user-centred interactions with the internet of things at Nordichi 2006, October 14 and 15, 2006 in Oslo, Norway. The user-centred Internet of Things The......
  5. Thoughts on Nokia’s NFC developments On April 15th Nokia announced the 6212 ‘classic’ phone that incorporates Near Field Communication technology. This phone is the fourth NFC-capable phone from Nokia in as many years and it is the first NFC......

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  1. Posted 10 May 2006 at 11:43 | Permalink

    Nice interview, but your link referring to “hacking Paypass systems” is not correct: the article referred hacks an EPCGlobal system based tag (using 40-bit encryption, known to break using off-the-shelf hardware). It’s a completely different beast.

    Paypass systems have not been at all, AFAIK.

  2. Posted 10 May 2006 at 11:52 | Permalink

    Ah, thanks Janne, I meant to say ‘Speedpass’, which uses the EPCGlobal chip and I’m referring to RFID in general rather than just NFC, I’ve updated it now.

One Trackback

  1. By Touch network building / Touch on 12 June 2006 at 10:16

    [...] For those interested in the intentions of the project, have a look at this recent interview about Touch. [...]

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