RFID in Seoul: High-end smartcards

The contactless ticketing and payment system of choice in Seoul is called T-Money. Seoul was the first city to use Mifare standard smartcards in 1996. Although retail payment doesn’t seem to have taken off as much as in Japan or Hong Kong, T-Money is fairly ubiquitous and can be used on all public transport, a few vending machines and selected retailers.

There are two elements to this system in Seoul that are interesting. The first is the availability of customised cards and accessories from market stalls and groceries (the subject of a future article). The second is the availability of high-end products containing the T-Money smartcards. These are designed to compete with other products in categories such as consumer electronics, fashion, toys, music and computing.

Here are three examples of this type of product.

RFID Hippo

RFID hippo (Tmoney)

This ‘Fancy T-Money’ hippo costs 24,800 Won (about €20) available from the online shop. It is a smartcard with a USB interface, which means that you can plug it into your PC and fill it up with money from an online bank account (after installing the right drivers). Inside the hippo you can feel a standard 56×28 mm RFID card that is connected to the mouth via a cable.

The USB plug in this case is thoughtfully placed in the hippo’s mouth, which means it looks like the hippo is chomping away at the computer when plugged in (not as grotesque as the USB bear or as weird as the USB twig).

RFID hippo (Tmoney)Fancy Tmoney

Given the Korean love of characters, I’m wondering if the hippo is becoming a symbol or mascot for T-Money, in the same way as the Suica Penguin has become synonymous with mobile payment in Japan. Or will this be the start of a collectible range of characters? Some T-Money is bought with discounts built in (for kids or elderly for instance), it would make sense that this is for children, but I’m not certain that this is the case. Let me know if you know more. More photos at Flickr.


T-Pop USB reader/writer (Tmoney)

This is a tiny RFID reader/writer that is bought alongside a standard T-Money card for 9,900 Won (about €8). Plugging the T-Pop into the USB port and placing the card on top allows it to be topped up. The T-Pop is designed with a clip so that it can be carried around, but the clip also acts as a holder when the card is being charged. This might have been a nice compromise on the drawing board, but in practice it seems clunky: the action of charging a card could be embodied in the physical form, rather than as an afterthought. This is interesting as the first consumer RFID reader/writer that I have found.

T-Pop USB reader/writer (Tmoney)T-Pop USB reader/writer (Tmoney)

What does putting the RFID reader/writer in the hands of users do to the service in terms of hackability? One would think that both the near-field and USB transfer of cash could be analysed in detail and reverse engineered in the comfort of one’s own home (it’s very different from trying to analyse transactions in the wild).


RFID memory stick (Tmoney)

This last example is a simple memory stick that also acts as a T-Money card, a 256 Mb version is available for 39,800 Won (about €32). As the designers began to explore the recharging of cards via USB it must have seemed obvious to integrate other USB devices. Thoughtful convergence means that topping up money on this kind of T-Money can be done at the same time as transferring or using files.

RFID memory stick (Tmoney)RFID memory stick (Tmoney)

There are other convergent examples, some of which I will cover in the future. The T-Money mp3 player, also available from the online shop, was beyond my budget.

New service touchpoints

Overall the re-packaging of contactless cards is an interesting mix of service, interaction and product design. The way in which the service touchpoints of the Seoul transport system are fanning out to include the home PC is interesting. By providing software and hardware for charging smart cards at home, T-Money have invested a lot in technical and service development. What kind of studies went into making these products: who said that they needed to top up their cards at home? Would the same service work in other places, with the Oyster card for instance?


It’s difficult to know the relative success of these convergent devices (MP3 players, memory sticks, even mobile phones). My contention is that the usability benefits of these converged things do not outweigh the drawbacks of using a compromised device, or having options in style, interface, or any of the other things that people like to have choice in. When T-Money cards can be attached to phones, cameras or any other device as straps, embedded within wallets or handbags, or worn in sleeve pockets, the arguments for convergence seem quite weak. Products like the hippo show us that many functions will remain discrete.

Materials & product design

Products like the hippo are just scratching the surface of possibility, particularly around the use of materials and the kinds of emotional attachments we have to everyday objects. The underlying technology (RFID) allows easy re-packaging in almost unlimited forms and materials (as long as it’s not metal or liquid). I’d like to see explorations of high-end materials like leather, glass, stone and ceramics, to look at reliability, trust and to think more about the ways in which these functional things could be inflected by fashion, design and everyday behaviour.

What would the ‘ideal’ payment device look like? Does the fact that these things are designed for public transport place them within a certain category of objects that are mundane and everyday, or even within a certain social status?

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