In Designing with RFID we explore the potential for RFID objects in everyday contexts. Because RFID is a wireless, radio-based technology it is inherently invisible once embedded, and this raises issues around visibility and interaction. How does the addition of hidden interactive qualities influence the design of physical RFID objects? There is a need to develop tangible design qualities such as shape, materials, build quality and affordances for RFID-enabled objects.
In this process we explore ways in which RFID objects can be designed to balance various physical and digital qualities. This approach has illuminated opportunities and constraints in designing augmented objects that enriches the vocabulary around RFID for industrial and interaction designers where physical and visual material are essential elements.
RFID is most commonly used by consumers for ticketing, payments and access control. The design challenges in these contexts has concentrated on infrastructures and systems as opposed to the design of physical tokens. The design of these objects is limited to simple, mostly flat enclosures; cards, key-fobs or stickers.
The bare RFID tag itself does not offer significant meaning beyond its technical appearance. In order to create meaningful relationships towards these objects, RFID tags must be embedded in an object or signified by shape or sign. The physical design of most current RFID objects are limited to the form factors of the protective encapsulation of the tag. It remains at the simple level of encapsulation and packaging that does not yet address the wide range of physical possibilities for objects in everyday contexts.
To understand the ways that RFID tags have been designed into consumer products, we conducted a product review that documents the physical aspects of RFID products from around the world. This has been a process of reflection on existing industrial and consumer products that includes a range of cards, keyfobs and tokens, the Mattel Hyperscan games console, Star Wars Commtech figures, Brio Network, Violet Ztamps and other RFID peripherals.
The product review shows many uses for RFID but limited exploration of design qualities such as materials, shape, size, construction, manufacture, build quality, affordance or metaphors. But the potential for RFID in consumer products is significant, given the inexpensive hardware of RFID systems and the opportunity to enable digital interactions with even the simplest of objects. The technical properties of RFID, such as the batteryless tags which allow for cheap and maintenance free operation are perhaps the most significant opportunity for playful products and toys.
The intention for this series of experiments was to gain a rich working knowledge of the kinds of design qualities that RFID objects may embody. We used an explorative design approach to the physical aspects of RFID and this involved a process of prototyping, where physical RFID objects were built and evaluated in the Bowl environment. Through a sketching process we developed an understanding of the relationships between physical forms and tags. Form-explorations were then used to visualise findings, to generate further models and to examine surface qualities.
This approach has illuminated opportunities and constraints in designing physical RFID objects that now need to be translated into patterns and models that are useful for interaction and industrial design. See the full paper below for more detail around the objects, sketches and models.
The interactions and gestures that have been learned over time for such objects as dolls, toys, chesspieces, microphones, shower heads, telephones, flashlights, magnifying glasses, spraycans, screwdrivers, hammers, kitchen utensils, stamps, and handles, with gestures like stirring, pointing, poking, drawing and shaking are useful starting points for imagining RFID objects and interactions.
Two very distinct kinds of gestures emerged from our workshops and experiments with the Bowl and Orooni Table interfaces. These gestures are pick and place (eg. moving a chess piece) and grab and point (eg. waving a wand).
A form vocabulary for RFID
Designing new gestures, taxonomies of form and affordances specifically for RFID will come only from designing a new set of objects, with their own elements and properties. Through the process of designing new RFID objects we uncovered properties such as direction, balance, similarity and geometry. Here we see some of the variations and abstractions around the elements of RFID form. This is the beginning of a form vocabulary for RFID including balance, similarity, direction and multi-direction.
Through introducing RFID as an element that influences the shape of physical products, we begin to design an inspirational or generative set of forms for RFID-enabled objects. They effectively communicate the physical aspects of the design findings and help us to evaluate and refine a vocabulary of forms.
As the internet of things emerges as an increasingly important discourse within research and consumer products, the design of the RFID things themselves needs to be addressed. Our practice-driven approach involving products, models, objects and visualisations has resulted in a vision for an ‘internet of things’ that places designed things in the centre.
A hands-on approach has allowed a re-evaluation of RFID technology through the lens of design, and communication of this in design-focused language. Through a process of making, evaluation and communicating a number of artefacts and an emergent design vocabulary is being built, that talks to the needs and concerns of interaction and industrial designers.
These making, sketching and visualisation processes may also be important for the design of emerging technologies in general. With the increasing implementation of networked and interactive technology in consumer electronics, aspects of digital and physical design will increasingly need to be addressed by both industrial and interaction designers. Physical design is a critical part of the way in which tangible technologies are experienced, and by allowing design processes to guide product development we are able to approach emerging technology in a plausible and understandable way.
‘Designing with RFID’ is being presented at Tangible & Embedded Interaction 2009 in Cambridge UK.
The paper contains a full account of the product review, the sketching, making and modelling, and conclusions around the design for RFID objects. The paper from the Tangible and Embedded Interaction conference will be available at the ACM digital library. You can also download the full PDF here.