Immaterials: the ghost in the field

This video is about exploring the spatial qualities of RFID, visualised through an RFID probe, long exposure photography and animation. It features Timo Arnall of the Touch project and Jack Schulze of BERG.

The problem and opportunity of invisibility

RFID is still badly understood as an interactive technology. Many aspects of RFID interaction are fundamentally invisible; as users we experience two objects communicating through the ‘magic’ of radio waves. This invisibility is also key to the controversial aspects of RFID technology; once RFID antennas are hidden inside products or in environments, they can be invoked or initiated without explicit knowledge or permission. (See here for more on the invisibility of radio.)

But invisibility also offers opportunities: the lack of touch is an enormous usability and efficiency leap for many systems we interact with everyday (hence the success of Oyster, Suica and Octopus cards). But there is also the ‘magic’ of nearness one of the most compelling experiential aspects of RFID.

As designers we took this invisibility as a challenge. We needed to know more about the way that RFID technology inhabits space so that we could better understand the kinds of interactions that can be built with it and the ways it can be used effectively and playfully inside physical products.

The experiments

In order to study the readable volume around an RFID reader, we built experimental probes that would flash an LED light when they successfully read an RFID tag. The readable volume is not the same as the radio field, instead it shows the space within the field in which an RFID tag and an RFID reader will interact with each other.

RFID probe (6 of 7)

One version of our probe containing a tag and LED light connected to the RFID reader that is being studied.

In a dark room, the probes were moved around the various RFID tags and readers that we wanted to study, with a camera taking long-exposure photographs of the resulting patterns of light. In this way we could build up layers by slicing through the field in different ways, creating animations that clearly reveal the spatial properties of this interaction.

These experiments were carried out in order to help us flesh out our own models of the technology, and were not intended to be scientifically accurate. So although they accurately reflect the behaviour of the technologies in the situations that we work with, there were no controlled environments or settings for generalisable technical accuracy.

Innovations ID 20

The Innovations ID 20 RFID reader has become one of the standard components in a lot of our work, it is small, robust and relatively cheap. So it has been very important for us to gain an understanding of the readable volume it produces when we embed the reader inside products such as Sniff and Skål.

Field drawing ID20e

Details: Innovations ID20 low-frequency EM4102 reader, 20mm circular EM4102 tag.

The resulting visualisation shows the way in which we have mapped the boundary of the readable volume, although a tag will read anywhere inside this, we have only mapped the edge for the sake of clarity. From the animation (see the video) we start to clearly see that the readable volume is made up of a strong central sphere, accompanied by a smaller lobe that surrounds the edge of the reader.

Oyster card

Mifare cards are one of the largest public applications of RFID, used in many transit systems around the world such as the Oyster and Suica cards. It has become common to have to touch in and touch out of subway stations, and many people have become accustomed to this interaction. So what does the readable volume around an Oyster card look like?

field drawing rfid oyster

Details: Standard Mifare Oyster card, probed with a Sonmicro high-frequency reader.

With a square antenna inside the Oyster and the Sonmicro reader, we get an elongated main volume, accompanied by long skinny lobes on each edge of the card. This looks very different from the ID 20 mapping.


The first two mappings held the reader and the tag parallel to each other, but we predicted that there would be a higher degree of complexity in the relationship if the tag and the reader moved in different orientations. The rig below was built so that we could control the angle between the reader and the tag, which moved along the surface of the table.


Details: Innovations ID20 low-frequency EM4102 reader, 50mm circular EM4102 tag.

There is clearly enormous physical complexity in this relationship, in the animation we can see the volume growing and shrinking, lobes turning into spheres, and vice-versa. But the animation gives us a very clear picture of the ‘throw’ of the reader onto a single two-dimensional plane, almost like looking at it as a torch.

Parallel and perpendicular

To show the two extremes of the relationship between orientation and the readable volume, we created two mappings, one with the tag parallel to the reader, and the other with the tag perpendicular. We mapped them using two different colours of LED: green for parallel and red for perpendicular.


Details: Innovations ID20 low-frequency EM4102 reader, 20mm circular EM4102 tag.

This image is a composite of the two mappings (see the video for animations of the two mappings separately) and it is clear that the readable volume is significantly different. When the tag is perpendicular to the reader, there is a sizeable gap in the middle of the reader where the tag will not read, creating two readable volumes side by side.


We have been continually challenging the ways in which RFID technology has been framed. It is incredible how often RFID is seen as a long-range ‘detector’ or how little relevant information is contained in technical data-sheets. When this information is the primary material that we are working with as designers, this is highly problematic. By doing these kind of experiments we can re-frame the technology according to our experience of it, and generate our own material knowledge.

One of the early motivations in this project was the way in which the animations really captured our tacit, embodied knowledge of the readable volume in a visual way, it was almost as if you could wave your hand through the floating green LEDs and feel them. Of course we had felt it hundreds of times in experimenting with tags and readers, but we had never seen it captured in an image, in a way that was communicable to others without having them try an interactive demonstrator. With this visual material, we can communicate about RFID in ways that we couldn’t previously.

So we hope that this work goes some way towards building better spatial and gestural models of RFID, as material for designers to build better products and to take full advantage of the various ways in which spatial proximity can be used. And with this better understanding we hope to be able to discuss and design for privacy and the ‘leakage’ of data in a more rigorous way.

Field icon

RFID icon

Download a PDF file of the RFID icon.

This RFID icon is based on the shape of the ‘readable volume’. Created by Timo Arnall & Jack Schulze, it is licensed for use under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Go ahead and use it!


The project was made by Timo Arnall and Einar Sneve Martinussen from AHO and Jack Schulze from BERG. Thanks to Jørn Knutsen for help in building the rigs.

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88 Responses to Immaterials: the ghost in the field

  1. @jameyk1stner 12 October 2009 at 16:07 #

    Great article guys! Truly fascinating stuff, I look forward to future experiments and I totally think you guys should push to use the field icon as a future symbol for RFID technologies.

  2. @webponce 12 October 2009 at 17:18 #

    such a simple and effective way of explaining pickup fields. i love the iconography of the field too.

  3. TomM 14 October 2009 at 0:23 #

    Clever stuff.
    Privacy folk will want to see some field strength information and also the third party eavesdropping volume. Eavesdropping implies that a third party might listen to to the tag/reader interaction at a much greater distance than the reader can excite and read the tag .
    This work is important in designing the location of reader and placement of the tag in the “as intended” tracking and inventory use.

  4. Teun 15 October 2009 at 12:39 #

    Really nice article. Apart from the beautiful way in which the magic invisible world was made visible it also gives some real insights on how big RFID fields for this particular chip are.

  5. Michael 15 October 2009 at 20:54 #

    Very interesting. I love your approach & methods. Its very difficult to imagine the 3D space from the 2D image. There is an interesting trick though, no idea how it is called, that by toggling between two static images taken from slightly different angles, our brain creates a spatial representation. Have a look here: Maybe that’s an idea for you? It reminds a little of the Matrix ‘time slice’ principle.

  6. @gef3233 15 October 2009 at 21:32 #

    That’s Really ggood

  7. Ann L 15 October 2009 at 23:07 #

    Hey Jack, great to hear what you are doing and that it’s so inspiring. Been doing work to help people get their heads round ubiquitous computing – this is the best tool I’ve seen…

  8. GCBB 16 October 2009 at 1:38 #

    It is totally inspiring to see the sensibility you have in conveying your research. These films manage to encourage a deeper attitude of this technology than what has been shown before. And the icon sets new standards for visual communication of technology, beautiful! and I hope to see it adapted!

  9. Gene Becker 16 October 2009 at 19:17 #

    Very nice work. Have you considered haptic feedback to provide a physical sensation of the extent of the field? It would be interesting to have a little tactile feedback in handheld tags to signify nearness. Would not be unreasonable for a powered device like a phone, although possibly impractical for a Suica card.

  10. Simon 16 October 2009 at 20:47 #

    I like your idea to use the field shape as a symbol for rfid in general. However I think that the annulus should be slightly fatter and the lobes should be more elongated. The shape immediately reminded my of the shape of wave function of the 3-d-orbital in a hydrogen atom. I’m sure there is some mathematical, geometrical reason for that similarity. The equation for the orbital can be looked up. I personally find the actual shape prettier than you stylized version of it. Good luck with getting people to use the symbol.

  11. paul martin 19 October 2009 at 12:49 #

    Try a bigger bulb and see if you get rf lighting

  12. david 31 October 2009 at 0:17 #

    the effect of the field on LED helps to characterize the shape of the the different lobes.
    i’m working as radio engineer for a gsm network company. in our field, we use softwares to modelize the radiation pattern.
    see for defitions:
    thanks to these sw, we design antennaes in function of the different needs. it’s possible to get a 3D schema of the pattern and may be it could be helpfull for you to compare what you get and the theorical pattern. check ADS from Agilent for ex.
    we also use models in order to calculate the effect of the environment (forest, building, rivers and so on…) on the propagation of the microwaves.
    in the same ideas, i know it exists now pretty good sw capable to materialize EMC inside complex box with electronic components. for ex:
    10 yrs ago, it was not the case simply because the computers were not powerfull enough.

  13. Louis Delmas 31 October 2009 at 0:23 #

    Very Stylish video, really. I like this way of “feeling” physics, instead of the usual modeling. Mixing the designer’s approach with the scientific processes is a way for the future. BUT !
    WTF ? All of that for a symbol ? Really ? You got lost in your way didn’t you ? If that was what you were looking for you could have asked a junior physicist to draw it for you… (I could get even more crazy here but I won’t because I really like the way you handled this in the first place….still …”mystification”... come on guys !)
    To finish on a positive thought; I admit it : I am jealous, you have the dream job… and I am disgusted because I get the feeling that you don’t get everything you might get out of it.

  14. Lavoisier 31 October 2009 at 15:52 #

    Entirely agree with Louis Delmas. A great moment of poetry in the laboratory.

  15. IlievPlamen 2 November 2009 at 12:51 #

    I realy enjoyed the video…
    I work in these systems for a few years now, but the idea of the field visualization is a great one ;-)
    By the way, I also like your icon…

  16. John Mellor 7 February 2010 at 20:06 #

    What a great idea, simple and effective. We did some work on improving the range of vehicle tyre tags where we increased the effective range using a mixture of approaches. Visualisation would have helped us a lot.

    I see the value of this in studying the impact ofthe environment, people, clothing on range and field. John.


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