Teaching Touch

This spring we have an MA interaction design course dedicated to the Touch research project at AHO called ‘Tangible interactions’. On this course there are 10 students, mainly with an industrial and interaction design background. So far we have had workshops from Tom Igoe on networked objects and Anne Galloway on anthropology and ethnographic method.

There have been lectures from Lavrans Løvlie from LiveWork, Paal Smith-Meyer from Lego Mindstorms, Anders Hansen from Sony Ericsson, Petter Brandtzæg from Sintef, Michael Link from Opera on the Nintendo Wii, Jørn Hansen from Oslo Sporveier on RFID ticketing and Odd-Wiking Rahlff from UiO on 2D barcodes.

The students are currently working on prototypes of services, toys, applications, visuals and critical design projects related to NFC, RFID and radio. Some of their progress can be seen on the project weblogs: Katarina Kjelland, Knut-Jørgen V Rishaug, Sara Johansson, Markus Utomo, Einar Sneve Martinussen, Øyvind Østmo, André Granly, David Vågenes, Ingeborg Marie Dehs Thomas and Una Bjerkan Heimstad.

The course ends in June with an exhibition at AHO, so expect more details then.

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Framtidens mobil / near future of mobility

Norsk Form, the centre for design, architecture and urban area planning, hosted an evening seminar on the Near future of mobility on 11 April 2007. The seminar intended to look at trends and patterns in the design of mobile devices and services. The Touch project was invited to present alongside Anne Galloway and Tapani Jokinen, Senior Designer at Nokia.

“Framtidens mobil. Enklere og mer interaktiv. Minst 2,5 milliarder mennesker eier og bruker mobilen til flere og flere aktiviteter hver dag. I løpet av få år har mobiltelefonen blitt den personlige gjenstanden som alltid er innen rekkevidde og med et stadig bredere utvalg av funksjoner. Hva gjør utviklingen med vår måte å være sosiale må? Hvilke utfordringer står designere ovenfor når de skal lage kompliserte mobiltelefoner som simpelthen skal virke?.”

Anne presented a view on layered places, accumulation and excess, wrapped in a history of her experience as an anthropologist and archaeologist. In particular she discussed how archaeologists and designers are involved in very similar processes, but working in opposite directions. Some notes on her presentation are here.

Tapani presented Nokia’s ‘brand vision’ of connected devices and ‘objects that people fall in love with’. Many of the ideas can be seen in the Nokia A View of the Future videos where seamless connectivity and endless customisation is possible.

My presentation was a range of ideas about the recent history of interaction, the move towards tangible and social ‘computing’, and the problems with designing for mobility and context. I presented some work in progress from the Touch project.

norsk form presentation slides

Download my presentation [pdf 1.2MB] including notes.

The auditorium was packed and many good questions were asked, a refreshing change for a quintessentially quiet Scandinavian audience. Some questions pointed at me were:

  • What about breaking RFIDs, have you designed for unreliability and hacking? I really like the fact that RFID can break so easily, and that information will disappear and need physical maintenance. It also negates some of the problems with RFID privacy, knowing that we can break them with our fingers. But we haven’t designed anything specific around this yet.
  • Will the web go to mobile in its current form? Can we have one universal medium? No. The structure and content of the internet is so different from the ways in which we’d like to use information on a mobile device that we cannot have one huge medium that works for all. Data may be re-used, but there are huge challenges around designing interfaces for many different situations and context, that will need to be included in mobile design practice.
  • What about feedback? How will we get more feedback from phones without looking at the screen? We are looking right now at all sorts of tactile, haptic and sound design issues that will let us use mobile devices in a less screen-based manner.
  • Are you not designing lots of new things that will just add to our information overload? The NFC/touch based interaction issue is attempting to reduce our reliance on visual information overload. We are currently in the middle of a bleeping, distracting, attention seeking device-era, and I’m quite hopeful that in the near future our devices will become less noisy and more respectful of our time and peace.

    The evening was organised with Grafill and the Finsk-norsk kulturinstitutt, thanks to them and to the great audience.

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RFID form factors

As our interaction design students get deeper into prototyping with RFID, we needed to start looking at the range of possibilities around the materials and forms of RFID tags. Last week we created a demonstration board of all the RFID tags that we have collected over the last year. Most of these tags are available from places like Mannings in the UK and Trossen robotics in the US.

The range includes ‘ampoule’ tags for embedding in animals, or under human skin, wristbands, tough plastic ‘pills’, CD labels, palette labels, outdoor labels, sticker-backed tags, various key fobs, playing cards, credit cards and pedagogic clear tags.

One of our students, Einar, has started making standard RFID reading modules using mini Arduino’s and the tiny ID12 reader, which is becoming the standard way for students to explore low-frequency RFID systems alongside the Phidget USB reader.

This gave the possibility of measuring the read-ranges of the 30 or so tags that we have. So now we have a good idea of the relative ranges of each size and kind of tag, which is very useful as we start to design all sorts of interactions around them. We are looking forward to seeing what opportunities emerge as the students explore the intricate details of RFID interactions, and the material possibilities for RFID form factors.

Posted in Interaction design, Product design, Research, Student projects, Technicalities | 3 Comments

Characters for mobile etiquette

Seen last year on France’s TGV trains, two icons that indicate areas where mobile phone use is allowed:





Some evidence that characters work well beyond the archetypical Suica Penguin...

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Bluetooth 2.1 incorporating NFC

The Bluetooth people are now getting on the NFC bandwaggon, the following video shows Mike Foley of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group demonstrating features that are NFC-based:

Bluetooth has historically lacked a compelling ‘user-experience’, with passcodes and security getting in the way of adept interactions. It’s interesting here to see how NFC is being introduced as the ‘user-experience’ component of Bluetooth, and how compelling it seems for these relatively mundane interactions.

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Hybrid World Lab


I’m pleased to announce that we will be involved in the Hybrid World Lab at Mediamatic in Amsterdam from 7 – 11 May 2007:

Mediamatic organizes a new workshop in which the participants develop prototypes for hybrid world media applications. Where the virtual world and the physical world used to be quite separated realms of reality, they are quickly becoming two faces of the same hybrid coin. This workshop investigates the increasingly intimate fusion of digital and physical space from the perspective of a media maker.

The workshop is an intense process in which the participants explore the possibilities of the physical world as interface to online media: location based media, everyday objects as media interfaces, urban screens, and cultural application of RFID technology.

Every morning lectures and lessons bring in new perspectives, project presentations and introductions to the hands-on workshop tools. Every afternoon the participants work on their own workshop projects. In 5 workshop days every participant will develop a prototype of a hybrid world media project, assisted by outstanding international trainers and lectures and technical assistants. The workshop closes with a public presentation in which the issues are discussed and the results are shown.

Sign up here.

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Physical hyperlinks presentation at XTech

Our presentation on Physical Hyperlinks has been accepted to XTech 2007. The presentation will be an overview of some of the concepts around physical hyperlinking, and perhaps some ideas about why it may not be a good interaction model for all situations. Here is the description:

From Cooltown to CueCat, the physical hyperlink has been a recurring theme in ubiquitous computing. As the name suggests, this is about the interactions involved in getting information from the physical world into a mobile device. There are a number of recent projects including Yellow Arrow , Semapedia , Thinglink and Microsoft Aura that offer some form of linking or tagging of physical things with web-like content.

Why is there such interest in these applications? Mobile devices are getting more complex and capable, but significantly they are aslo getting smaller. Everyday web-applications are generally difficult to use using small screens and limited text input, so we need ways of easily grabbing information, downloading applications and participating in these services. If we are to get out of the ‘walled gardens’ of operators menus, and towards a more open mobile internet, there must be simple ‘service discovery’ that will allow us to easily discover and use new things.

Outside of Japan - where QR Codes are widely used and RFID-enabled phones are mass market - most trials have failed. Does this technology hold the key to integrating web applications with mobile phones and the physical world, or is it a fundamentally flawed interaction?

We give an overview of the history of these interaction types and the different technologies involved. We have experimented with a number of prototypes in this area that we can demonstrate using RFID and Near Field Communication (NFC) to connect web-applications and services to mobile phones. By moving beyond the ‘hyperlink’ metaphor we are able to see new sets of applications that allow new ways of using mobile devices.

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In the diploma project Talsmann: Using products to introduce cross-country skiing as a spare time activity in China, Birger Løype looked at cross-cultural translations of products and activities. After a wide-ranging study of cross-country skiing in China, Birger used mobile phones and near field communication to propose a service that integrates information, products and physical places.

The project had two overall intentions:

  • To explore how the design process can be used to integrate activities and products based on one cultural value system into a society with a different cultural value system.
  • To create a case study to visualise how the process impacts a product. Cross country skiing and its associated products were chosen as the activity.


    In Norway there is a long tradition of cross country skiing. Skiing was a necessary skill to survive in everyday life hundreds of years ago. During the 19th century skiing became part of the Norwegian national identity. It has since become a popular spare time activity. Based on this tradition some of the best ski equipment brands are located in Norway such as Swix, Madshus and Rottefella.

    Cross-country skiing is not a well known activity in China. A month of field work was conducted in ski resorts around Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdo, China to uncover more about skiing activities. The output of this research informed the resulting product development, and can be summarised like this:

  • Collectivism is one of the most important cultural values in China. For cross country skiing there’s a desire to belong to a group and to get information from people they can identify with.
  • A Chinese skier’s primary motivation is the feeling of adventure and as a way of expressing identity. These differences in motivation create different demands for associated products.
  • Ski wax is the biggest difficulty for a beginner: basic information about all aspects connected to ski wax is needed.

    ‘Talsmann’ concept

    The result of this project is a conceptual Swix service where all Swix products are the first touch points to the service. Through an RFID tag embedded within products the user get access to instructions and user-driven forums where people have described their experiences with videos, images and words.



    One of the biggest barriers to taking up cross country skiing is ski-waxing: which can make the difference between enjoyment and frustration. The conventional wax thermometer was redesigned to include an RFID tag as well as the usual temperature and wax recommendations. These would be placed at ski resorts where users can share recomendations for wax according to different temperatures, conditions and routes.


    Track markings would also act as touch points to the service.


    Through these touch points the user get access to a geographically dependent forum. By using the multimedia features of modern phones, the user will also find information about wax through a service where Swix gives advices about what wax to use and how to wax the skis. This could be triggered by the first touch points of the products.


    Birger’s project shows some strong near-future trends. The first is the increasing levels of brand involvement through the integration of service, infrastructure and community into physical products. This will become more important as the cost of simple technologies like RFID reduces; allowing cheap – even disposable – products to have identities and connections to a network. Distributing physical products may become more like distributing service touchpoints.

    The project also shows the longer-term potential of integrating service infrastructures into physical spaces. Although it was driven by a desire to create physical ‘products’, the project covered many of the steps towards creating situated software that affect people’s behaviour and activities in public places. It seems sporting activities could be a good starting point for the design of place-based services, and this is an area that needs more attention from an interaction design perspective.

    See more student projects.

Posted in Interaction design, Product design, Service design, Student projects | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments