The RFID photo booth

At last year’s Picnic conference we created a networked Photo Booth as part of the Mediamatic RFID hackers camp. Picnic is a conference with about two thousand attendees and multiple venues in the Westergasfabriek in Amsterdam.

One of the aims of the Mediamatic workshop was to experiment with ubiquitous technology for social and playful purposes. Every participant in Picnic was issued with an RFID tag that could be used by various installations around the conference venue. As a controlled setting this was a very interesting environment to experiment with RFID technology in use, and in particular to experiment with physical interactions in online social networks.

One of the participants on the first day. Photo by Anne Helmond.

The photo booth team consisted of Timo Arnall, Anne Helmond, Jorn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen. We wanted to create something that brought people together both in a physical activity and in an online social network. Initially we described it like this:

A photo booth that encourages people to take photos of themselves with others. By waving multiple tags over a touchpoint inside the booth, a photo is taken, a connection is made and pictures are added to the Picnic website.

We built the booth in three days, with many design iterations, and ended up with a large white box with a picnic-themed grassy interior that allowed up to about 10 people to have their photo taken at once.

Inside there was an RFID reader, a camera and a screen that would show what was being recorded, as well as showing a countdown for picture taking. Outside a large LCD screen showed recent and random pictures from the booth, encouraging participation. By touching your tag to a reader outside, you could see pictures of yourself.

Over the course of the three-day event the photo-booth was extremely popular and resulted in literally thousands of pictures and social connections.

Physical interactions manipulate the network

Every attendee’s RFID tag contained a link to their profile within the Picnic network site (their tags were registered and connected at the registration desk). This profile contained their name and any descriptions or tags that they had decided to include, we also had access to their contact details and payment information if we had chosen to do so. When the photo booth detected their tag, it could look them up in the Picnic social network, get their details and manipulate their profiles.

27 September, 23.42-2 28 September, 16.27-3
Left: Inside the booth. Right: Tags on the RFID touchpoint.

The booth attracted curious attendees, who looked at the photos playing on the outside. When they walked into the booth, and touched their tag to a ‘touchpoint’ their name would appear on a screen and a countdown would start. If others then touched their tags within this countdown they would also have their names appear in the photo. People who had their photo taken together would have a connection created between them on the Picnic network site.

On the web the Picnic network showed the pictures from the booth with the names of all the people that had been photographed together. People’s profiles included the photos of them and their connections. This was a different and new way of exploring the network and seeing the connections that had been made.

The Picnic website profile page, showing related photos from the booth.

Photos from the booth were also uploaded to Flickr and tagged with the people’s first name (see for example all the photos taken of me and the tag cloud of the names and IDs of people who used the booth most).

28 September, 00.30

This realtime Flickr stream appeared on the outside of the booth, where people stood around watching their recent creations, as well as seeing random photos where they or their friends appeared.

Physical proximity

With around two thousand tagged attendees this was a great opportunity to design for and study the application of social networks in physical space, and to better understand the relationship between physical interactions and the resulting effects in online spaces. The way in which the photo booth took elements of a digital network and made it manipulable in a physical context was very interesting to us.

We were interested in the details of the interactions between people, their tags and readers. In practice RFID is a relatively mundane technology, it doesn’t flash or beep or cry out for attention when it’s encased in plastic packaging. It is also very limited technically: the read-ranges are typically so low that we require people to ‘touch’ their tags to the readers.

28 September, 16.26-2

Without explicit instruction or ‘attractor loops’ the booth worked through certain ‘gestures’ that were socially learned; people observed and then participated. The activity of ‘touching’ actually brought people—who perhaps had only recently met—into very close physical proximity. This strangely intimate setting, combined with the activity of negotiating, framing and posing for a group photo provided a space for new connections to be formed, and existing relationships to be reinforced.

The attendees also became familiar with RFID interactions over time, and once they had experienced one kind of interaction, wanted to try more. Other RFID-based installations, in particular the free-beer-machine was a very low-threshold introduction to RFID interaction with a very high-degree of motivation… This benefited us all by lowering the threshold to participation.

Playing with controversial technology

With a single touch of a tag to a reader, we could have initiated many different actions within the Picnic network site; we had access to names, profiles, contact information including addresses and phone numbers and even perhaps payment information. But we chose fairly simple events: displaying people’s first name, updating the relationships between people, and relating photos to profiles.

27 September, 23.45-2

However given that we had access to this data, we were very surprised that nobody questioned the fact that the booth knew their name. We expected there to be questions of privacy and security and perhaps some resentment towards the ease with which the booth accessed data. It seemed that the gesture and the resulting feedback was so natural that there didn’t seem to be anything scary about a name appearing on screen, in fact people assumed that somehow the RFID tag contained the information, the network wasn’t seen as part of the interaction. This shows how readily emerging technologies can be accepted without question, and how their implications remain obscure under the surface of an engaging experience.

Low-threshold interactions with social media

Conferences are a relatively constrained setting where there is an impetus to connect with people and social networks that expand, shift and change over the course of a few days. Social networks in this controlled space have many different qualities to the ones experienced in everyday life. So installations such as the photo booth must be designed to play with the existing social fabric and activities of the conference environment.

There are many different ways in which technology can intervene in these settings, something Clay Shirky has called situated software. Whereas most online social networks require users to explicitly state relationships to each other such as ‘friend’, ‘contact’ or ‘follower’ with these physically-based interactions the connection is much more implicit and less formal.

28 September, 00.36

A simple physical gesture—touching some tags together at the same time—is all it takes to create a connection. Browsing through the Picnic network after having used the booth for a few days was an entirely new experience; the network was more random and chaotic, but because it had emerged from physical, social proximity there is a richer texture to the network than one built through explicit selection. Growing an online social network through these kinds of low-threshold physical interactions seems like a interesting pattern that we might see more of in the future.

More photos from the booth and of the booth.

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