Touch as culture

This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating.

Anne Galloway is a social researcher working at the intersections of technology, space and culture. Anne’s research in the Touch project involves looking at touch in different social and cultural contexts, in the first instance working towards Touchpædia, a reference and resource:

“I’m interested in cultural practices surrounding what can, and cannot, touch. Applied to RFID and Near-Field Communication, this becomes a question of connecting some things and disconnecting others. Put another way: whether we’re concerned with issues of technological privacy or publicity in our everyday lives, I believe we’re well served by a stronger understanding of cross-cultural examples of ritualised contact and avoidance. It’s my hope that the Touchpædia will be a step in that direction, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it might lead.”

What are the various meanings of touch, and how do they vary according to social and cultural context? How do cultural meanings of touch manifest in contemporary technology, advertising, media and in the design of technology itself?

This is an exploratory project that would involve field work, and the possibility of collaboration with Anne.


Introducing touch as culture and The rituals of touching, Anne Galloway on the Touch weblog.

Classen, Constance. The Book of Touch, Berg Publishers, July 2005. Link

Ackerman, Diane. A natural history of the senses, Random House, 1990. Link

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Fields and seams

This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating.

Don't place bank cards, hard disks, etc. here. “Don’t place your bank cards, hard disks, etc. here”.

With increasingly ubiquitous wireless networks the physical world is becoming layered with a spectrum of radio waves. These fields range from massive GSM, 3G and DVB cells, through to household sized wifi and bluetooth networks, to tiny RFID and NFC bubbles. Each of these invisible bubbles offers functions or services that can be accessed from various devices. When inside the appropriate field mobile phones may be able to carry a voice call or pay for a subway ticket, laptops can transfer data, while smart cards can authorise access or payments.

What does the increasingly radio-saturated landscape – and our reliance on wireless infrastructure – mean in our everyday use of applications and services? Can we use fields as a material for creative purposes?

This is a central issue for ubiquitous computing where wireless functions or services are embedded – invisibly – into the environment. For a user, knowing what kinds of fields are available and knowing what kinds of functions, applications or services they offer may be a critical usability problem in the near future. If certain fields become critical for our use ubiquitous functions or services, how can we cope with the edges, seams and failures? Do we need to increase the usability and awareness of various radio fields?

Can we introduce certain kinds of visibility back into ‘invisible computing’? How should we visualise the available options? Should we represent them technically, according to applications or services, or should we visualise the kind of information or risk involved in the interaction?

Visual references

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The work of Matthew Chalmers on seamful design is relevant, particularly: Seamful Design and Ubicomp Infrastructure: “In this paper, we discuss taking a ‘seamful’ design approach to ubicomp systems. Some features that we designers usually categorise as infrastructure problems may, to users, be useful interactional features. Examples include the edges and gaps in 802.11 coverage, and the patterns of where one can and cannot get GPS positioning.”

Mobile Landscape Graz in Real Time. “harnesses the potential of mobile phones as an affordable, ready-made and ubiquitous medium that allows the city to be sensed and displayed in real-time as a complex, pulsating entity. Because it is possible to simultaneously ‘ping’ the cell phones of thousands of users - thereby establishing their precise location in space at a given moment in time - these devices can be used as a highly dynamic tracking tool that describes how the city is used and transformed by its citizens.”

Photos of wifi space. “Wifi Camera Obscura reveals the electromagnetic space of our devices and the shadows that we create within such spaces, in particular our wifi networks which are increasingly found throughout cities of the developed world.”

Cell phone disco. “An experimental installation made out of flashing cells. By multiplication of a mobile phone gadget, only slightly altered consumer product, we created a space to experience the invisible body of the mobile phone.”

Usman Haque. “The domain of architecture has been transformed by developments in interaction research, wearable computing, mobile connectivity, people-centered design, contextual awareness, RFID systems and ubiquitous computing.”

Dunne & Raby, Hertzian tales. “The subject of these proposals is the role of electronic products in the aesthetic inhabitation of a rapidly dematerialising, ubiquitous and intelligent environment.”

Gadget allergy. “A university is trying to unravel the truth behind a 21st century “disease” produced by exposure to electrical equipment.”

EMF Absorption by the body. “The public are concerned about the health effects of electromagnetic radiation. Scientific research is needed to find out exactly how electromagnetic fields interact with the human body. These measurements cannot be done on live people and so calculations must be used.”

When wireless dreams come true. “Waves, a recent exhibition and conference in Riga curated by RIXC and Armin Medosch, tuned in to artistic engagements with the electro-magnetic spectrum. By exploring the material, if imperceptible, base of the information sphere, this event attempted to escape the conventional fetishisation of message over medium.”

ætherspace. “With ætherspace I would like to make hertzian space audible, make the invisible sonic. Briefly, wearable transducers/antennae would pick up the various components of hertzian space as the user walked around in the city, home, or workplace.”

Maxwell city workshop. “A workshop proposing an artistic investigation into electromagnetic substance within the city of Oslo and its surroundings.” Video

Electroprobes. “The Electroprobe allows you to listen to electronic objects while they are talking and dreaming.”

Phantom geometry and tissue-simulant liquids. “Investigating the visualisation of electromagnetic fields.”

EMF meter. “A scientific instrument for measuring Electromagnetic radiation.”

EMF fabrics & household materials, paints & plastics from Block EMF and Less EMf.

On the Effectiveness of Aluminium Foil Helmets: An Empirical Study. “Aluminum helmets serve as the protective measure of choice against invasive radio signals. We investigate the efficacy of three aluminum helmet designs on a sample group of four individuals.”

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Interfacing the ‘internet of things’

This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating.


The ‘internet of things’ is a vision of a world full of interconnected things that participate in a wider network of the internet. The idea has been driven by the proliferation of wireless networks and the increasing use of RFID in logistical applications, many see it as the inevitable result of the insatiable drive for efficiency in the globalised marketplace.

So far applications have been limited to logistics and inventory management; outside of the experience of most people. But if every product is tagged and tracked there are certainly implications for people at the consumer / user / human end of the supply chain. Although many have speculated on how the ‘internet of things’ might be interfaced from this perspective, there has been very little interaction design work towards user-needs, prototypes or testing out ideas.

With the introduction of the first NFC devices in 2004 some people started thinking of the mobile phone as a human interface for a machine-readable, internet of things world. This was driven by a desire to have more agency over ubiquitous technologies like RFID and to perhaps reverse some of the dominant structures of privacy and control imposed by RFID systems.

Do NFC devices have a role to play as an interface for the internet of things? If NFC devices become commonplace how might they be used as interfaces for products, services and brands?

In this project you should look at specific users, contexts or situations and create ideas for the way in which trackable, identifiable objects could engage with them. You could also take existing things as a starting point for new interfaces, keeping use and context in mind.

The design process here may be in danger of being fragmented, including methodologies from interaction and service design, as well as business, marketing and technology. It will be very important to lay out specific values, goals and contexts at every level in order to keep strong constraints on the project.


ITU Internet Reports 2005: The Internet of Things. “The report takes a look at the next step in “always on” communications, in which new technologies like RFID and smart computing promise a world of networked and interconnected devices that provide relevant content and information whatever the location of the user.

Internet of things: working bibliography. Anne Galloway traces the history of the ‘internet of things’, a lot of good sources.

Siorpaes, S, et al. Mobile Interaction with the Internet of Things. Embedded Interaction Research Group, Media Informatics Group, University of Munich / DoCoMo Eurolabs. PDF

Roduner, C. The Mobile Phone as a Universal Interaction Device – Are There Limits? Institute for Pervasive Computing, Department of Computer Science ETH Zurich. PDF

Near field interactions. Workshop on user-centred interactions with the internet of things at Nordichi 2006, October 14 and 15, 2006 in Oslo, Norway. PDF

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RFID and the everyday

This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating.

Many of us have experienced RFID as a way of paying for tickets on public transport or gaining access to places. But are there other ways in which RFID, through things, places and behaviour, may become part of everyday experience?

RFID chips are cheap and tiny, they can be embedded in just about anything, lasting forever without a battery. But in most situations RFIDs are also extremely limited in range, capacity and susceptible to being broken and hacked. This is the cheap and dirty end of ubiquitous technology.

What kinds of interfaces or identities could everyday things have? How might identifiable objects affect our social relationships and how might people hack or subvert these affects? What kinds of needs and desires exist around everyday things and how might these change?

Some possibilities that have been explored in the past include household objects as interfaces, urban screens that display custom media or tokens or gifts that contain personal information (see references).

Your process may involve field work, observations, material or personal object studies and interviews. You might want to create a series of scenarios around everyday behaviour from these studies that others could build upon.


Personal, Portable, Pedestrian Mobile Phones in Japanese Life. Edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe and Misa Matsuda.

Publications by Rich Ling. Lots of research into the use of mobile technology from a sociologists perspective, with a particular focus on Norwegian culture.

Institute For The Future on RFID Downloadable PDFs on the future of RFID in everyday life.

Galloway, Anne. 2004. Intimations of Everyday Life: Ubiquitous Computing
and the City.
Cultural Studies, Volume 18, Numbers 2-3, pp. 384-408. Link

Mobilities in everyday life and On the persistence of the everyday. Anne Galloway.

33 Ways RFID Has Invaded Your Life Lots of current and near-future uses for RFID.

Cool, Surprising and just Plain Scary: 51 Futuristic Uses for RFID A good list of current and near-future uses of RFID, read through the list to get beyond the interaction design clichés.

What is the problem?. Good reasons why many might not want RFID in everyday life.

Frequently asked questions about NFC Mentions of everyday activities, mainly transactions, in this document from the NFC Forum.

Greenfield, Adam. Everyware. The dawning age of ubiquitous computing., 2006.

Feldman, A. Tapia, E.M. Sadi, S. Maes, P. Schmandt, C. ReachMedia: on-the-move interaction with everyday objects. Ambient Intelligence Group, MIT Media Lab., Cambridge, MA, USA. PDF

Carvey, A., Gouldstone, J., Vedurumudi, P., Whiton, A., and Ishii, H. 2006. Rubber shark as user interface. In CHI ‘06 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Montréal, Québec, Canada, April 22 - 27, 2006). CHI ‘06. ACM Press, New York, NY, 634-639. PDF

Kindberg, T., Barton, J., Morgan, J., Becker, G., Caswell, D., Debaty, P., Gopal, G., Frid, M., Krishnan, V., Morris, H., Schettino, J., Serra, B., and Spasojevic, M. 2002. People, places, things: web presence for the real world. Mob. Netw. Appl. 7, 5 (Oct. 2002), 365-376. Link

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Universal design with NFC

This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating.

NFC has been suggested as an enabling platform for universal design or design for all. Universal design can be summed up as: “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Source)

There are perhaps many reasons that NFC is seen as an enabling technology in this area:

  • Touching an object with a mobile device is seen as a simple and intuitive gesture, and may be easier than interfacing through buttons
  • Moving services and functions out into a physical interface may present opportunities that are not possible when navigating hierarchical menus
  • An NFC device has multiple modes of input and feedback and can present information in a perceptible way across many senses
  • An NFC mobile device can contain user-preferences and identification, which can present information or services relevant to the user’s needs

    So: how might NFC be used to create interfaces that are appropriate for the widest range of users?

    One of the most basic NFC interactions is using a physical object as a call or SMS request: touching an object creates a phonecall or an SMS. A common scenario is using a collection of photo frames to make phonecalls instead of accessing names through the phone menu. This can be easily achieved by attaching NFC tags behind photos or inside photo frames. But there is a distinct lack of research and testing in this area, and so far there is no proof that this is easier or more desirable for any group of users.

    In this project we would like you to create applications that use NFC in ways that makes mobile applications easier to use for a wide range of users. These applications should be designed and tested out in collaboration with a range of potential user-groups.


    Access-ability A great document covering transport, ticketing, financial transactions, public access terminals, telecommunications, smart housing, smart media and biometrics, touchscreens, keypads, typefaces, pictograms, icons and symbols, audio input and output, wireless systems, training, instruction books and help facilities. 

    Universal Design – Clarifying the Concept “The principles of universal design are being applied in a growing number of spheres. In Norway, these principles have already been integrated into several acts of legislation and efforts are underway to incorporate them into even more of the statutory framework. To ensure that the principles remain operational, it is necessary to clarify the scope of the concept of universal design, and to specify more clearly the opportunities and ramifications this implies.”

    Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Standards Section 508 makes sure that federal employees with disabilities have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access and use by Federal employees who are not individuals with disabilities. This document covers the basics from software and web to telecommunications and media products.

    Accessibility Guidelines for Public Access Terminals Good information on accessibility for public access terminals like information kiosks, ticket vending machines, information displays, point of sale customer card payment systems and card door entry systems.

    SmartTouch project A pilot project in Oulu is using NFC as a basis for eldercare services: “The City’s elderly care department, its catering service Oulun Ateria and logistics firm Oulun Logistiikka have been engaged in a pilot project involving ordering meals for the elderly based on touch technology.”

    Seeing Eye Phone Mentioned briefly in the ‘Touching the future’ competition winners is the Seeing Eye Phone, an NFC-based service that converts product information into synthesised speech. While this is not strictly a universal design it’s an interesting example of the mobile phone acting as an intermediary between physically located information and other senses.

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Sniff wins prize for ‘Design for all’

Sara Johansson’s project ‘Sniff’ has won the IT Funk prize for best student project in Design for all at this year’s Oslo School of Architecture & Design prize giving.

“Sniff is a toy dog that gives feedback through sounds and vibrations on tagged objects that comes close to his nose. The use can be in daily situations as well as in play, either alone, together with other kids or together with other Sniffs.”


Her project is written up as a good case study here (in Norwegian), and there is much more details about the project in Sara’s own report (PDF, in English).


Sara was working with the Playful RFID brief this spring. Her project will be documented further here alongside the other results from the course.

Posted in About the project, Events, Student projects, Universal design | 5 Comments

Recent NFC news and links

Some recent news and links:

The Daily Telegraph reports that the London Oyster card may soon offer NFC at least in a trial form:

“Mobile phone companies Orange, O2 and Nokia are in talks with Transport for London about using phones instead of Oyster Cards to pay for tube tickets [...] O2 is talking to Tube managers about trialling the technology with visitors to the Millennium Dome [...] Transys, the consortium which installed and operates the Oyster card system in London, has already opened its network to Barclaycard. Within a year, new cards issued by the bank will be able to pay for Tube journeys.”

The suggestion of more trials will be worrisome to some, who have seen many NFC trials take place with no firm commitments to commercialisation.

Yet the problems implementing mobile payments are becoming clear, and not just from an infrastructure perspective. Critical interaction design problems are also becoming clear: mobile payments don’t yet offer a compelling experience beyond using a credit card:

“Rules adopted by the payment card organizations allowing U.S. consumers to make low-value purchases without signing receipts, tapping cards or other tokens to pay is not appreciably faster or more convenient than swiping the cards at the point of sale.”

And in Japan, Mobile Suica has been doing less well than expected, with only 350,000 people signed up:

“The registration process has been difficult for many prospective users, acknowledges Akio Shiibashi, director of the Suica Systems Department at JR East. “Membership is a little complicated, so we need to make it simpler,” he says. “The digital ticketing function has not materialized.”

Nonetheless Slashphone reports on the latest NFC developments from Japan including interfaces for ATMs, taxis, restaurants and petrol stations.

New FeliCa interfaces

“More Near Field Communication (NFC) tests are going on around the world, Japan is advancing to their very own NFC v2.0 and expand into more services. Several companies are presenting their new Felica chip. The new contactless chipset has bigger memory capacity and double the transmission speed (424kbps). Here are some of the demonstration of the possible NFC usage in Tokyo. You can use your NFC enabled mobile phone as a ATM card. Once you place your NFC enabled mobile phone on the ATM machine, the machine will recognize your identity and read the security information from your phone directly. The security information sent to the ATM machine includes your bank account ID, maximum cash out per day and other customize settings depends on different banks [...] The biggest advantage of using the NFC enabled mobile phone is up to 6 card information, which means 6 banks can be stored into the phone at a time [...] Japan taxi might soon implement contactless payment in the taxi, letting you bring less cash while you can pay the taxi fee from the stored value or real time transaction.”

At his keynote speech at CHI 2007 Bill Moggridge apparently “showed an entertaining video of a Japanese woman trying to purchase a soft drink with her i-Mode (Cmode) cell phone. This was a usability disaster, and illustrates how the design of many mainstream products is still basically broken.”

Shin’ichi Konomi responded by posting a video of his own mobile-vending machine experience with Suica rather than Cmode: “Incidentally, Cmode doesn’t seem as popular as SUICA vending machines, at least in my area. Here’s me buying a drink (first selected a drink, and then showed my phone).”

It’s worth watching the video to see first-hand what NFC interactions should, or could be like.

Shin’ichi Konomi also reports on a new form of interactive advertising from Suica called SuiPo where subway travellers present their Suica cards to the poster and receive relevant ads on their mobile phones.

Suica interactive advertising

And finally two first hand reports, again from Shin’ichi Konomi, about the experience of using RFID enabled services in Japan. The first is a worrying report about the lack of infrastructure to deal with out of the ordinary problems with RFID, such as the ability to cancel a ticket. The second is a description of the process of buying a movie ticket using an RFID-enabled phone, where RFID ends up being abandoned in favour of a paper ticket.

NFC/RFID and related news and links get published as a regular stream of links here (RSS).

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The universal controller

This is a design brief, one of many themes that the Touch project is investigating.

Much research in ubiquitous computing focuses on the idea of a universal controller; a device that can adapt from making phonecalls to controlling the air conditioning. The mobile phone is seen as a good platform for controlling interactions in a range of other devices. It offers an adaptable interface with more diversity than most commonplace consumer appliances: a screen, sound, haptic feedback, internet/data access and the ability to process information. NFC technology offers a cheap technical platform to base these concepts on, and a set of touch-based interaction methods to start building complete interaction process around.

But if mobile phones start to do a lot more than voice calling and text messaging, how should the mobile interface change? What does a universal controller look like, and how does it function? Should the form factor change along with the function?

What changes may happen to the physical devices themselves? Should phones still look like phones? Should they look like wallets or keys? In the way that mobile cameras and music players have their own, dedicated buttons, do we need to consider extra physical affordances that specifically control these new functions? Should they offer robust surfaces to ease the effect of being constantly placed against readers? Where should active surfaces be placed, and how will this affect the overall usability?

This project should consider the design of many devices for different purposes, should physically prototype many of the devices and test them out in everyday situations.


Christof, R. 2006. The Mobile Phone as a Universal Interaction Device – Are There Limits? Proceedings of the Workshop Mobile Interaction with the Real World, 8th International Conference on Human Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services (Espoo, Finland, September 2006) Link

Koskela, T. and Väänänen-Vainio-Mattila, K. 2004. Evolution towards smart home environments: empirical evaluation of three user interfaces. Personal Ubiquitous Computing. 8, 3-4 (Jul. 2004), 234-240. Link

Hodes, T. D. and Katz, R. H. 1999. Composable ad hoc location-based services for heterogeneous mobile clients. Wirel. Netw. 5, 5 (Oct. 1999), 411-427. Link

Myers, B.A., Nichols, J., Wobbrock, J.O., Miller, R.C. Taking Handheld Devices to the Next Level. Computer, Volume 37, Issue 12, Dec. 2004 Page(s): 36 - 43 2004. Link

Nichols, J., Chau, D. H., and Myers, B. A. 2007. Demonstrating the viability of automatically generated user interfaces. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (San Jose, California, USA, April 28 - May 03, 2007). CHI ‘07. ACM Press, New York, NY, 1283-1292. Link

Nichols, J., Myers, B. A., Higgins, M., Hughes, J., Harris, T. K., Rosenfeld, R., and Pignol, M. 2002. Generating remote control interfaces for complex appliances. In Proceedings of the 15th Annual ACM Symposium on User interface Software and Technology (Paris, France, October 27 - 30, 2002). UIST ‘02. ACM Press, New York, NY, 161-170. Link

Nichols, J., Myers, B. A., Higgins, M., Hughes, J., Harris, T. K., Rosenfeld, R., and Litwack, K. 2003. Personal universal controllers: controlling complex appliances with GUIs and speech. In CHI ‘03 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, April 05 - 10, 2003). CHI ‘03. ACM Press, New York, NY, 624-625. Link

Nichols, J. W. 2001. Using handhelds as controls for everyday appliances: a paper prototype study. In CHI ‘01 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Seattle, Washington, March 31 - April 05, 2001). CHI ‘01. ACM Press, New York, NY, 443-444. Link

Omojokun, O., Pierce, S., Isbell, L., and Dewan, P. 2006. Comparing end-user and intelligent remote control interface generation. Personal Ubiquitous Comput. 10, 2 (Jan. 2006), 136-143. Link

Zimmermann, G., Vanderheiden, G., and Gilman, A. 2002. Prototype implementations for a universal remote console specification. In CHI ‘02 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, April 20 - 25, 2002). CHI ‘02. ACM Press, New York, NY, 510-511. Link

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