Ambient findability in practice

Every time we run physical computing at AHO, some students want to make a system for finding lost things. So it makes me very happy that there is now a commercial product that does exactly that, so that we can move beyond technicalities to issues such as ambient findability in practice.


The product is called Loc8tor, designed in the UK, built in China, it uses active RFID tags (frequency and standards unknown) and a directional RFID reader in a system that detects things up to 180 metres away.

“Loc8tor is an innovative product using award winning patent pending technology that helps find important possessions and can even stop them from getting lost in the first place. By blending the best of old and new technology Loc8tor provides the first affordable personal homing device of its kind. For young and old, pet lovers to parents and gadget lovers to grandparents, Loc8tor is designed to be exceptionally easy to use and helps avoid that feeling of frustration when you mislay your valuables. From finding keys, handbags or mobile phones to ensuring the safety of your children, pets and personal possessions, Loc8tor’s versatility means it can be used in almost any situation by simply attaching the tag to any item you want to protect.”

In practice one attaches the tags to important objects by way of key fobs, adhesive backing or containment, and then name the tags one by one through the interface on the handheld finder. When you lose something, you press a button, select the thing you want to find and the unit starts bleeping: the intensity of the sound, and the bars on the screen are proportional to your proximity to the lost item. Because it’s directional, you can turn around slowly in a circle, and find an initial direction, then repeat this a few times and you normally find the thing you are looking for. This part of the product experience works very well. This is a remarkable technical achievement, given the small size of the handheld, the longevity of the tags, and the intricacies of RF communication.

Loc8tor attachedLoc8tor homing tag

Where this product fails miserably is in the interface. The arrangement of buttons and screen menus shows a lack of thought or design process: they are inconsistent, badly labelled, overly hierarchical, highly modal and very prone to simple errors.

The designers thought it would be good to have two main modes: a ‘locate’ mode for finding things, and an ‘alert’ mode for warning when things go out of a specific range. The usability of this second mode is questionable, this kind of asset tracking I think calls for another kind of device. Trying to squeeze so much into the handheld interface makes the main menu long, adds extra buttons to the interface, and makes the product more obscure.

When in ‘locate’ mode, a ‘signal strength’ indicators appears on screen in a formation that makes it look like directional feedback. But actually it’s just a fancy bar chart with a single axis. Quite confusing.

Loc8tor menuLoc8tor locating

Given that the act of losing something – or remembering to take things with you – usually happens in moments of stress: walking out the door, gathering things from around you, getting off the train, this interface is overly complicated for its intended use.

Earlier this year one of my students Giulia Schneider worked on a concept that integrated tags and readers much more seamlessly into everyday objects and activities. She used inspiration from Nokia’s Mobile Essentials, studies of brand identity, and her own ethnographic studies to find important things and ways of augmenting them with findability. More on this soon.

Related things:

  1. RFID peripherals Plug and play RFID-reading USB peripherals are all the rage, as indicated by a stream of recent product announcements. These readers plug into a PC and make various things happen when they are touched......
  2. 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......
  3. RFID and physical social networks Poken is offering a physical networking platform, with physical, RFID-based objects that plug into a PC via USB (where have we heard that before?) A Poken is a connected business card, when you meet......
  4. Playful augmented products This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating. It extends an older brief Playful RFID with an emphasis on exploring material and experience prototyping. Last week Interaction......
  5. Bowl: Token-based media for children In spring 2007 interaction design students at AHO participated in a research-driven course called Tangible interactions that investigated themes around RFID, NFC and the Touch project. This is one of the projects that emerged......

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One Comment

  1. Posted 3 May 2007 at 17:19 | Permalink

    This is my review of the Loc8tor, and accepted by

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