RFID, logistics and material flow

On the final day of How I learned to love RFID we visited the Fraunhofer institute for material flow and logistics. The institute concentrates on supply chain, logistic and robotic applications. They also foster the Open ID Center, that intends to create open platforms for the use of RFID in the supply chain.

Logistics and supply chain applications are mostly out of the scope of investigation for Touch. However, the discussion covered interesting areas such as the potential of RFID to offer a more transparent supply chain, that may have an impact on the ways in which we interact with things in the future. For this, it was very useful to get a deep insight into the ‘other side of RFID’.


The form of the discussion was an informal talk with Ralf Neuhaus while observing the various testbeds for containers, palettes, conveyors and robots. Then a question and answer session with Hunika Nemeth, a software engineeer working with Enterprise Resource Planning systems.


The Fraunhofer people were very honest that they are still conducting basic research in RFID technology. Their focus is on the integration of standard components that form useful supply chain applications. They are creating prototypes and products around these integrations for their clients. They aim for lean processes that are decentralised, distributed and transparent. This is inspired by MIT ideas about ‘lean production’ and Japanese thinking around management process.

'High end and low tech'

In their view, logistics shouldn’‘t be seen as a discrete, closed, compartmentalised system: Everybody is part of logistics, we start to interact with these systems the minute we order something, or interact with daily life: the systems that order the food we eat, that manage the ways that cities run, that keep higher level systems such as transport running.

Are there new business models around this?

They have the intention of making an ‘internet of objects’ but they foresee huge problems when they move outside of closed systems. They predict that the true internet of things will not happen for a while.

When an RFID supply chain is being designed, negotiation between partners is a critical problem area. Clearly trust is really important between partners, but this needs to be encoded in software and hardware. What if my competitors can see what is on the shelves in my warehouse? How do we balance co-operation and competition?

They are trying to develop ‘high end and low tech’ systems, meaning that there is the use of off-the-shelf components (that do not require basic research) that used together offer new ways of solving problems.

How is an RFID system organised?

There are three levels to an RFID system:

An Enterprise Resource Planning system (ERP)

An ERP is a database that can be leveraged and queried at a management level. It is typically asked questions like ‘how many goods do I have in storage?’. It can be queried about motion and velocity: how much goes in and out over certain time periods. It also links into other personnel, financial and material management systems, where staff, machines and economics can be planned. 30% of the ERP system is about relationships to suppliers and customers.

A Warehouse Management System (WMS)

This system has all of the information about the status of a warehouse, such as the movement/guidance of the vehicles, locations of palettes and items. All things (relationships, movements, contents, etc.) are historically recorded: a kind of ‘archaeological development’: so that jobs or tasks are not done twice.


The interfaces are on control panels and wireless handheld terminals as well as visualisations on large screens that include 2D plans and images, so that people can see with a glance what is going on. The WMS is usually tailored to customer needs, and this is what Fraunhofer have developed most themselves. It’s connected to the ERP, but in some cases might be better off as a single system.


Nobody really knows what RFID middleware is yet. It is it something that everyone needs to use, and is developed in situated contexts according to very different needs. There is a huge challenge in that all customers try to integrate their existing software landscapes into an RFID system.


RFID technologies are fundamentally different to previous barcode or signature based systems, in that they contain more detailed information as to history, ownership, value, time constraints, etc. plus the fact that we can read and write to RFID. This means that they are representational different in software. The basic affordances of the RFID needs to be represented in the two systems above.

ERP system providers are working with Fraunhofer, and designing their own middleware. At the moment these providers are integrating their middleware into their customers systems. They are unifying many different chaotic things in the middleware. Each customer is different, they all have historically grown systems.

Fraunhofer tries to make lean middleware, to accept different data streams and to get them into unifying languages. Middleware shouldn’t know what will happen with this data, it just routes data between systems. The leaner the software, the easier it is for the customer to integrate it into their legacy systems.

What is interesting about this is how layered the systems are at all levels. Objects know where they need to go, and don’t need warehouses to tell them. Systems are layered into local levels. Things get pushed to higher levels when needs arise: not central authority, but local reporting. Like blogging! Yet in all cases there seem to be exceptions, and apparently in some special cases, the transponder can go directly into the WMS or ERP and change the direction of the conveyor.

What about hardware?

At a basic level there is only the use of RFID readers and RFID transponders (tags) of many different types.

RFID gate

RFID readers are organised into ‘gates’. There is not yet a technology capable of scanning an entire warehouse and working out what is there.

As the ERP needs to know whether to put the objects on the plus or the minus side of the inventory, these gates cannot just read the IDs, they also need to know whether the items are going in or going out.

RFID transponders are passive and active. Again we see interesting layering of responsibility. Packages or items contain passive tags that communicate to a gate, and the gate then writes an active tag on the palette so that it knows what it contains. This overcomes some of the problems with reading passive tags over long ranges.

Active palettes

Within logistics there is an economic factor: if the product is high-value then it makes sense to have sensors and active tags to track things like temperature limits or shock damage. Active tags used for these purposes can be switched into passive and back again to save battery power.

Active tag

In typical environments they last for about seven years, and do not have replaceable batteries! On the tag we can store 256 bits of data such as time labelling alongside sensor data. As soon as we have temperature and other measurements then it gets more complicated, particularly integrating the data into the database.

There are also interesting investigations into material handling, such as parcel sorting using distributed intelligence, and grabber technologies that can handle just about any shape of object through the use of rotating rubber bands.

How are you thinking about security?

Security has mainly been a question of whether the objects are online or offline. Fraunhofer have been developing intranets where certain permissions are given and shared between suppliers and customers, this is perhaps a more traditional question of access priveleges.

UHF ceiling reader

But when it comes to RFID transponders and readers, the security question is more open. There is no established rules yet about the permissions structure for transponders: who is allowed to read the transponder data? Who is allowed to write over the data? For each customer the question is different. In pharmaceuticals for instance they need very strict documentation of processes, there must be no permissions for manipulation, what is written on the contracts must be fulfilled, and transponders and readers must obey this.

Then there are material security questions, such as the kind of ‘logistics of goods that you use more than once’. There is always loss, even in closed systems. In one year a typical logistics firm will lose about 30% of their containers: they are re-appropriated for other purposes. This is experience from everyday life and must be encoded into the software systems.

What about the internet of things?

There is pressure from industry to put everything on the internet, which is difficult from both a security and management perspective. If we put a transponder on every product then we will have data-overload problems, even if we are running local servers. Future intra and internets will need to be powerful, scaleable and high-bandwidth.


Fraunhofer runs a project that asks what will happen if everything has a transponder? If we take yoghurt pots for example. We have 1000 yoghurts on one two metre high palette. Where do we put all of the transponders? The gates typically break down after 150 IDs, and it breaks down at the level of physics, not software. But should we solve this problem? Is it important? If we solve this then perhaps the middleware becomes too overweight. This is then not sellable, because the software will be too complex to integrate into legacy systems. The ERP could then be overloaded, and would require a huge management task.

At this point many of us in the room shouted out that of course it will be solved! If we look at Moore’s law, the history of technology, mobiles, laptops, wifi, etc. it all seems to work on desire.

The Fraunhofer people partially agreed, but re-iterated that there is a problem with physics, not software. At a certain point hundreds of tags pulsing is indistinguishable from background radiation.

What about printed electronics?

At the moment it’s not even possible to get a prototype of printed RFIDs from the research labs, so it hasn’t yet been possible for them to test out the technology. Maybe in 2 or 3 years printed tags will reach the power levels that the silicon/metal/soldered labels currently in use.

RFID printer

There is still the need to develop the right polymers for use in the printing, at the moment the base-material in many of the polymers is not activated by UHF radiation, making it useless in current reader systems. And then even if we have the polymer transponder: there are still huge infrastructural developments to make it work. Until the right material technology is found we can use the experience that we gain with non-printed tags.

In order to reach the internet of things Fraunhofer wants to try to integrate tags in packaging. When people talk about RFID they often refer to the 3 cent goal for the tag, but if we look at the whole picture there are also other printing, moving and ‘sticking’ costs which all cost time money. This is why printed polymer technologies are promising. This is interesting both for putting on ‘yoghurt’ items and for integrating into packaging.

Is RFID designed to remove people from the process?

At this point there was discussion around real industry intentions, are they just removing checkout and warehouse workers. Is it about efficiency or removing people?

The response from Fraunhofer was that perhaps we are removing some ‘slave jobs’: the jobs are being transferred into IT and integration work. Fraunhofer stated that they probably cannot be addressed at the institute, that the problems were too complex.

What about embedding privacy at the hardware level?

Rob Van Kranenburg is adamant that privacy can also be a unique selling point: look at the IBM clipped tag, customers and users are less critical once they have control over it. If privacy had been considered and integrated from the very beginning, then it would be now much easier to sell RFID. Very many people are critiquing RFID now, from science fiction to art, politics, activism.

RFID cart + conveyor

In the next three years privacy will be in the centre of international attention, and even technical RFID research should engage with this.

The response from Fraunhofer was non-committal about this, it seems as if they had not fully considered the privacy issue at a hardware or software level. Overall they are not yet considering the technology at the level of culture or society, instead focusing on fundamental hardware and software problems. This seemed like somewhat of an oversight, and it could be something that they factor into their research, at least at a high level.

Thanks to Susanne Ackers and Francis Hunger for the excellent realtime translation.

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Rob van Kranenburg at ‘How I learned to love RFID’

On the 20th May, Rob van Kranenburg talked at How I learned to love RFID in HMKV in Dortmund, Germany.

This is a short summary of a huge presentation on RFID issues, that covered many valuable topics including local activism, EU policy on ubiquitous computing, participatory culture and distributed computing. Rob seems to be someone that thinks many times faster than he talks, and has so many valuable things to say, that it’s very difficult to succinctly summarise his presentation.

Rob van Kranenburg lecture at HMKV, Dortmund.


Few people talk about genetically modified foods anymore, genetic modification is now something that is talked about in fashion circles as a creative technology. The field has taken about 10 years to get to the point where the discussion is no longer about ethics but about fashion.

In the case of RFID, we are perhaps at the beginning of this process: RFID has become Smart Cards, Near Field Communication, M2M, etc. There is a huge re-branding effort going on, and there is little debate about using Smart Cards for public transport for instance.

We are dealing not just with technology, protocols or standards: but a context: a deadlock between technology and the environment. From the technology of the pen onwards there has been tension about externalising what should be internal. Distributing information to the environment implies that we trust the environment. But people have a deep, deep mistrust of the environment. It is also very hard to come to terms with something that has a 100% memory, we are all highly analogue.

In an experiment to probe this mistrust The Watch out team was welcomed to a small town in Netherlands: to watch out for everyday things. The enthusiasm with which they were welcomed was scary, see this quote from the above link:

“The idea of this performance like intervention was to draw feedback of the kind that would get the joke, that would be aimed at the experienced top down disciplining process going on. What happened instead was far more interesting but also far more disturbing. Whenever they were approached with a question like what kind of organization are you from, they’d reply: the government. We are the Watch Out Team, a new government sponsored initiative. At the market where they dished out watch out umbrella stickers to grateful umbrella holders I overheard a daughter telling her mother: “They should have done this much sooner!””

RFID and the EU

I will not see the liberty of citizens and their fundamental rights being compromised
Viviane Reding

The EU sees RFID as a key technology that will shape the age of the Ubiquitous Network Society. RFID tags will be nodes in most future ubiquitous IT systems, and the glue that binds ubiquitous computing together.

Behind this vision, they claim a strong social concern. Can this intention be upheld when we are in the midst of a ‘war on terror’ and RFID is a perfect candidate for tracking and control?

But overall the EU seems to be doing a pretty good job of scoping out the issues of RFID, and aiming towards world governance of RFID issues.

How should we deal with privacy?

It is naive to say that RFID tags do not contain information, and thus cannot be linked to individuals: that disregards the whole history of data mining. Transparency is important, individuals should certainly have access to the information that their tags carry. This view has been fuelled by the Nokia phone that reads and writes tags.

EMF leakage will also be a huge problem. One approach would be to specify zones for different kinds of sensors, how do we solve this visually? Digital territory, digital bubbles, various mediascapes, seamless technology, networked objects, etc.

We need to design for emergence: the behaviour of an agent cannot be entirely pre-programmed: we need to launch and learn. We also need better interactions and relationships, opening up space for more consumer control. Interestingly, and perhaps problematically, there is currently no competitor/predator for the ubiquitous computing model.

Changing dynamics of society

A digital network turns civilians into professional amateurs. We see a growth of informal networks operating between a formal policy level, and a idiosyncratic everyday life. As an example, the browser has drastically disrupted the dynamics of society, from house buying to local politics to personal relationships. We are seeing a revolution from below. We cannot hand over ubiquitous connectivity and expect people to stay the same.

To probe this, a scenario was created, depicting the death of the EU in 12 steps which shows that Europe is a dying dynamic. People are being more pro-active in local planning, new business models disrupting existing businesses (real estate for instance), and the localised tax system becoming increasingly irrelevant. It was particularly interesting to start to make this link between bottom-up, participatory culture and the distributed technologies like RFID.


Rob has just completed a report on RFID with co-authors Matt Ward and Gaynor Backhouse. It’s a great overview of RFID technology and use:

“This TechWatch report provides a brief discussion of these issues as well as a detailed examination of RFID technology, including some of the current uses within research, administration and teaching and learning. The report also includes an overview of the significance of RFID as an enabling technology towards achieving the ‘seamless’ and ‘calm’ vision of ubiquitous computing, the role of the Internet of Things, and plots a future trajectory for RFID development within the wider context of wireless, networked environments.”

Download the report here.

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FoeBud: How we learned to stop RFID

FoeBud are a German group of privacy activists that has has a long history of public interventions in privacy and RFID. Rena Tangens and Padeluun presented their work at the recent workshop How I learned to love RFID at HMKV in Dortmund. This is a brief writeup of their talk and the issues raised during a day of practical explorations with RFID electronics.


In the past they have organised the Big brother awards, and Stop RFID campaigns at high profile industry events. They have gathered momentum in public opinion, to the extent that many German retailers and manufacturers have had to change their policy on RFID usage.

Data privatizer
The FoeBud data privatizer can read, write and copy RFID tags.

They have probed the issue of privacy with such actions as printing personal information on personalised t-shirts to understand why there is a general lack of knowledge about the valuable data that people willingly give up. How do people feel about walking around with their marital status, passport numbers, age, address etc. in full public view. This is somewhat related to the experimental project called Loome by Livework about personal information and value.

They have also created a set of scenarios (in German) that probe the potential misuses and problems with RFID and tagging of things. As a design exercise these are really creative and interesting. They have also apparently had a large effect on public opinion of RFID.

Nokia 3220 RFID reader: detected!
Detecting radiation from the Nokia 3220 NFC phone with FoeBud’s bracelet.

In one large intervention they invited Katherine Albrecht to visit the Metro future store. The Metro group is exploring advanced uses of RFID on the customer side of the supply chain. They are using RFID enabled DVD covers that act as physical tokens for movie trailers on an in-store screen. On the surface this seems like an intuitive example of interaction design, but customers must also use their RFID enabled customer card to verify that they are 16 years or older in order to view the movie. This leads to concerns that the store is tracking the viewing habits of their customers. This is not the most pressing privacy concern, but what is problematic is the way in which the tracking process was invisible, the Metro group tried to hide the fact that they had RFID in the customer cards and were secretive about the technology involved in the process. Clearly this is not the way to roll out a new user-centred technology.

They have also explored the upcoming use of RFID in the World Cup. In this case the organisers are using customers passport numbers to verify them: and embedding RFID into the paper tickets. What is interesting here is that it is very difficult to find out why they are using RFID, it seems that it’s a large scale technology trial that is overly invasive, without any user-benefits.

Tag finder
The FoeBud tagfinder.

During the workshop we created two electronic prototypes: an RFID reader detector and a tag detector. Both products are sold by FoeBud on their website. These are extremely interesting products: well made and useful. In the same way as NFC in mobile phones starts to offer end-users some control over RFID, their products start to give us an awareness of the emerging readers, writers and tags embedded in the environment and in objects.

Bruce solders
Bruce Sterling solders surface mount components for an RFID ‘Tagfinder’

These products seem like the first signs of an emerging market for tools that allow greater user-awareness of RFID. It would be useful to explore how we might embed such technology in other everyday products, or make more commonplace objects for detecting, reading, writing, copying and perhaps jamming.

An RFID reader detecting badge, soon to be available.

Overall it’s great to meet people that have a lot of fun doing the work that they do, they seem to get an enormous sense of satisfaction out of the triumphs they have over large industry. Although I disagreed with their presentation of RFID as being uniformly invasive, it was great to see a group being so pro-active in offering ways for people to visualise and protect their own privacy.

You can buy some of their ‘privacy enhancing’ products at their online shop, look particularly for their RFID products.

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Bruce Sterling at ‘How I learned to love RFID’

On the 20th May, Bruce Sterling talked at How I learned to love RFID in HMKV in Dortmund, Germany.

He covers a lot of ground, including approaches to sustainability, artist use of RFID and proposed interventions, many of the themes from Shaping Things. When he lays out the potential for misuse, the use of RFID for tracking cocaine supply chains for instance, he manages to reverse our pre-conceptions in a very useful way. Some of these statements are deliberately provocative, and they usefully challenge many of the commonly circulated ‘black and white’ opinions about RFID.

This is an outline of the talk that is edited from a rough transcript. It’s impossible to properly capture Bruce’s words that pour out in a stream of tangible utterances, so any errors are probably mine.

How I learnt to love RFID

Four ideas of sustainability

The talk started with perhaps an incomplete list of designers approaches to sustainability:

1. Collapse
In this scenario we end up in the wreckage of the unsustainable. This is the grim meat hook future that many think we’ll end up in.

2. Make less stuff
In this scenario we have people that want ‘a good design solution to every problem’: permanent tyres, housing, etc. and no more planned obsolescence. A utopia that never changes. In this case the Amish may have done it, but no child ever agrees to their parents version of reality.

3. Biological or biomemetic materials
In this scenario we use only biological or biomemetic materials: only materials that can be recycled or grown. But many believe that we can’t survive without our current heavy industries. This is an interesting approach but may be many decades away.

4. A sustainable internet of things
In this scenario (that Bruce is proposing) we use RFID and green technologies to enhance our current material world. We have a chance to make a whole bunch of really fresh mistakes!

About RFID

RFID is currently being imposed from on high by DOD and Walmart. The ‘RFID industry’ rarely alludes to the larger picture: rfidjournal for instance sees RFID as a glorified barcode in the supply chain. But what about the Colombian use of RFID to track cocaine: there’s your supply chain!

Books and references

Ambient findability Morville. Searching the physical world: looking for a library application to go out and catalogue the planet
Everyware Greenfield. Ubicomp is about the middleware: what is the browser of the ubicomp world? What should you do with ubicomp: what enhances peoples lives, what enhances dignity?
RFID Applications and Security Garfinkel & Rosenberg
Manifesto for Networked objects Bleecker
Shaping things Sterling
Calm, peripheral technology Weiser

What are the important elements of the internet of things?

Primary attributes

The lowest common denominator of the internet of things is a chip with a unique identity. Basically a file with a tag that is findable.

Local positioning systems: located, and histories of location.

Search engines: we’ve got to be able to find objects

Recyclability: have to do something about the end of the supply chain: a bit of economic value in junk. Some have negative economic value.

Secondary attributes

Virtual models of objects: the computer model is the first description of the physical thing. Immaterial instantiations of a material thing: 3D computer models at the start of the supply chain. At the end of the supply chain the practice of the object is still available: the history of the object is still available beyond it’s physical form.

Rapid prototyping of objects: fabjects. Solid plastic and metal objects from virtual models are now possible.

The future of RFID?

We could have an RFID boom and bust. Once we have printable RFID ink, sprayable tags made from organic semiconductors without silicon, this thing is going to be huge, and we cannot police ink!

Ubicomp will not actually be about ‘smart’ objects: not about ubiquitous, intelligent computing but about ubiqitous tagging: the dumbest, cheapest, walmart fodder: it’s about the everyday. Not about getting your fridge to talk to your cooker. There more of it there is in the landfill the more it needs tags. This is the war of the landfill!

What is the job at hand?

There is some overlap between the ‘web 2.0’ social phenomenon and internet of things (IOT), this is the most exciting time on the net since the invention of the browser. IOT is perhaps web 5.0…

The Web 2.0 meme map from Tim O’reilly helped the idea of web 2.0 to pass into general parlance, it became a web nexus of social practices. Overall it was very ambiguous, not disambiguating, and described more of an attitude than a technology.

We need an Internet of Things meme map: The IOT theory object, we need great THEORY ENGINEERING: What are the champions, heroes, ideas, corporate strategic bullshit in this space. We need to include ideas of small objects loosely joined: geolocation, storage, bandwidth, information architecture, interaction design, participation, reality augmentation, standardisation, customer self service, user positioning, etc.

The Internet of Things cannot grow from anything other than the internet itself: created with linked ideas: linked objects will form and thrive on the internet: the objects will come from the exact technical substructure that created web 2.0. RFID has reached the level of popular mechanics, and people looking at the map should feel like they could take it all home and whip some together.

RFID for artists

Artists have a seven year window of opportunity. RFID at the moment is basically magic: the classic force of technology art. This might be a more interesting immediate use of RFID than the classic bohemian kick-back of protest: I’ve got RFIDs too. Until people get used to it.

Artists should use the term ‘Arphid’: to distinguish practice from the haze of millions of blogs and RFID as barcodes in searches. This would help to define and establish an alternative community or practice.

Interesting arphid artists / people

Meghan Trainor: With Hidden Numbers
Mary Hodder: itags
Ulla-Maaria Mutanen
Yellow Arrow
xbox Blogjects
Urban Eyes
Arphield recordings: tracking oyster cards
Katherine Albrecht

The issue of privacy

Of course corporations are tracking and tagging: Google is tracking and tagging everything you search and mail. Amazon tracks and tags: look at the ‘page you made’! Every argument made against RFID now was made more eloquently against computers in the ‘60s.

Verichip is trying to push the contradicions: releasing implantable chips for immigrants. These are ‘Warholian’ stunts, ‘Yes Men’ style interventions.

Ubicomp is extremely potent. There is a lot of interest in geo-locative stuff at the same time: lots of journalists working in the same space. ‘Sometime it’s steam-engine time’.


Is it possible to tell that something is authentic just through an RFID tag?

There will be intense effort to break RFID. It is the ideal hacker technology. With such limited physical means it’s very hard to stop hacking and vandalism. The IOT has every internet problem, plus a million more. Because they are THINGS! Crashing will be a whole lot worse. A large surreptitious tracking community may emerge with the intention to take down and crash the system: it’s possible. There are a million ways to hack an arphid, plenty of opportunities to wreck the technology.

Is the Achilles heel of this technology the hackability?

The Achilles heel is not the technology, but the ‘spook aspect’ in public opinion: moral panic. But the more people that understand RFIDs the less it will be possible for Walmart and Darpa to use it for nefarious purposes.

Are we not heading for a world full of mental junk: managing hundreds of bleeping objects?

It’s a question of ‘cognitive loading’ how much do I have to think about this? One of the reasons that environmentalism has failed is it has too much cognitive load: the notion was that we would be mindful of our objects, and pay attention to using them thoughtfully or where they went once we had finished with them. The correct approach is to remove mindfulness from the system. Perhaps spimes could allow us to do something once and never think about it again. Want to move away from a potential obsessive compulsive thing disorder.

From a 20th Century design perspective Spimes would be really problematic: too much upfront configuration, categorisation and control. But on the web we are moving away from a ‘sort then publish’ model to a ‘publish then sort’ model. The cure then for ‘mental junk’ is twofold: a machine that gets rid of the spam, then a community that filters stuff for me. We want to do/make less with more, do more with data.

What would an effective intervention with this technology look like?

RFID is not going away, there’s very little possibility of popular resistance, because it’s being mandated by the Pentagon! A successful intervention might look more like Wikipedia: not sucking encyclopaedia Britannica dry, just a different approach.

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Touch network building

The Touch project is receiving considerable interest and over the next few months it will be represented at many events and workshops. The idea of using RFID beyond the supply chain is gaining significant attention in many different communities. The project is building a strong network and international relationships to help refine it’s detailed research directions.

'High end and low tech'Blogjects workshop17.28IDII


The project was kindly invited to Interaction Design Institute Ivrea by Fabio Sergio who is also doing great work in this area [pdf presentation]. Also in February the first Blogject workshop at LIFT06 was a broad exploration of networked objects, and created many interesting use-cases for early networked objects, many of which can be seen in the report.


In March the project was presented to students in the Adaptive Architecture & Computation course at The Bartlett in London. The students there are exploring tracking of bluetooth devices as a way of generating new architectural forms and concepts, and were interested in the use of mobile technology in urban space.


At the recent workshop How I learned to love RFID at Hartware in Germany, there were great discussions around RFID and it’s implications, with diverse viewpoints from media art, to industrial logistics to anti-rfid activism. For now there are photos, and there will be a write-up here soon.

At the end of May the second Blogject workshop at EPFL is taking place. This workshop will get hands-on to design prototypes of ‘networked artifacts of the future’, using existing objects as a starting point.


At the beginning of June there will be a showcase of our early experiments with touch-based interactions at Reboot in Copenhagen. Reboot promises to be a fascinating event, a convergence of design, technology and social practitioners and researchers.

In the middle of June Aula will be holding an event called Movement in Helsinki. The theme refers to the ‘overlapping of the physical and the virtual, and the social movement-like nature of new technologies’. The speakers are from a diverse background but most interestingly from design and social software.


There are interesting workshops at both Mobile HCI and Ubicomp in September. The first discusses approaches that use a mobile device for interactions with objects in the real world. The second looks at ‘applications and scenarios for early adoption of augmented objects’, specifically looking at interaction design for augmented objects. We are submitting papers to both.


We are planning a workshop at Nordichi 2006 in October, where we will explore concepts and physical forms for touchable networked objects in collaboration with Nicolas Nova and Julian Bleecker. More on this soon.

For those interested in the intentions of the project, have a look at this recent interview about Touch.

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Touch project interview

In December 2005 I was interviewed for Printed and Disposable Electronics News about the Touch project, the future of RFID and on the social implications of NFC. Here is the plain interview, since an online version of the magazine is not available.

1. Explain what the ‘The Touch Project’ is and what it hopes to achieve?

The Touch project looks at the personal and social use of RFID, driven by the growing availability of NFC enabled mobile phones. We see that there is significant potential for user-driven applications of RFID beyond logistics and supply chain management. We envision RFID not just as a replacement for barcodes, but as a technology that could affect our interactions with everyday objects. Simplistic examples of this might be personally marking the physical environment with information or enabling social contact through physical things. Touch intends to look closely at behaviour and activities in everyday life, and to build RFID applications that support, enhance or change those activities in useful, interesting or playful ways.

2. What technology will the project make use of and what advances do you hope to make in the uses of these technologies?

At the moment the project makes use of standard mobile phones from Nokia (the 3220 and 5140) and re-writeable MiFare RFID tags.

Please touch tag

The project doesn’t intend to advance the state of the art in technology, it hopes to develop applications and knowledge around the use of RFID. However, it is likely that the project will uncover latent needs for certain kinds of tags and technologies, for example printable tags in mass-produced stickers or washable tags in clothes. It is also clear that the project will have a voice on user-centred privacy, and this may turn into technological recommendations for the privacy and security of tags.

3. Explain how the project will make use of RFID tags?

The project looks at the ways in which tags can be embedded in everyday objects, spaces and environments. At the moment we are particularly looking at the personal space of the home, as a place to augment things with information.


In the near future we will be looking at the ways in which RFID tags can be used as social objects: gifts, business cards, stickers or flyposting in public space.

4. What has been the reponse of industry and the retail markets to the project? Will the new concepts developed aid advertising and marketing in the future?

At the moment there is a lot of interest in NFC in general, we are looking at ways of presenting our research to industry: to encourage it to shift it’s focus from traditional markets (the back-end logistics side) to making useful products for users. We are not interested in aiding the marketing of RFID as a technology, but we are interested in new activities and behaviours around it, that may in turn, make it more visible, useful and acceptable to people.

5. How will the use of NFC help drive innovation in retail, marketing and public services?

In retail the innovations are mainly around usability improvements. The ability to connect the real world to the virtual world: the billing and banking abilities of the telecoms directly to ‘touchable’ physical objects may change the retail experience drastically. This change may uncover new markets around craft objects and short-run items outside of the mass market. In marketing there are clear applications for service discovery: touching a poster or magazine to download a URL or ringtone. In public services it should become easier to report local issues, by easily notifying services about problems in specific locations.

6. What new markets and uses for technology have you uncovered so far during the course of the project?

Games are an interesting area of development, we are thinking about prior examples such as “Pokemon”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pokémon and NeoPets, that are based on real and virtual trading.


We think that RFID based functions will have a large part to play in these socially driven gaming worlds, where physical objects can be swapped and combined in different ways to affect virtual games worlds. We think there are also markets in furniture, industrial and service design, where RFID can provide object history, re-cycling information, located instruction manuals, etc.

7. How has ‘The Touch Project’ changed peoples attitude to technology? Do you think the use of RFID, NFC and interaction with digital services and objects will become as easy for Europeans as it is starting to be in the Far East, particularly Japan?

This has yet to be seen. This is the first time in the popular-history of RFID that it is actually useful for the user or consumer; until now it has been an invasive, corporate technology. NFC tests by Philips in Caen, France have been very positive, and generally the people that are using the phones here have said that it feels very natural to touch tags with the phone, and to interact with information in a more tangible way.


So far we have encountered some physiological and social problems with the technology: for instance it is difficult for people to walk up to posters or stickers on the street and touch them with their phone. This is not ‘normal behaviour’ in public space, at least in Scandinavia. However, given that the technology is being pushed heavily as ‘Wallet phones’ and for ticketing, we expect these kinds of interactions to become more natural and habitual over time.

8. Are people just inherently suspicious of technology or are you finding an open mind set on these things?

Amongst technology-literate users there is a very suspicious attitude towards the technology. The governmental (In Norway, US, etc.) use of RFID in passports and other sensitive places (like Goodyear’s tyres) is quite rightly furthering this negative attitude. We are working with a technology that has huge potential for creative mis-use and we need to be very sensitive to that.


Amongst non-technology-literate users there is a very valuable process of discovery, as the phones open up new possibilities of interactions that were previously hidden. This opens up the controversial technology to discussion in places where it wouldn’t have arisen before.

9. In the design of ‘The Touch Project’ have you looked at the way the Japanese use mobiles,digital and NFC technology?

We are following Japanese developments closely, particularly through Shin’ichi Konomi’s great weblog. Our exploratory research begins in Tokyo and Seoul in 2006. The use of NFC compatible phones is reaching critical mass, with DoCoMo predicting “ten million “wallet phones by March 2006. The use of 2D barcodes or QR codes in magazines, advertising and signage is also great inspiration, it is ‘prior art’ for things that RFID may be applied to.

9. What do you see as the future in these areas of technology? How will our lives change over the next 20 years in terms of interaction with technology?

The big shift that we are seeing right now is a move towards tangible interaction: a move away from the screen and into physical objects and spaces. At the mass-market forefront of this is gaming with Sony’s EyeToy and Nintendo Revolution with gestural control.

NFC public space

RFID and NFC should be the enablers of the move towards tangible interaction within everyday objects. There are enormous cognitive, physiological and social problems with using small screens in our rich, messy world (for example browsing a web page on a busy bus with shopping, text messaging while walking, or browsing in a restaurant). If we can move any of these functions out into the real world: answering the phone by touching a tag, or setting the profile of the phone to silent by putting it in a certain spot, then we have reduced the reliance on the already overloaded screen.

10. Do you think that this type of technology could actually become invasive and be used as a tool to track peoples movements or spy on them?

This depends if we are talking about NFC phones or RFID tags.

The phones will usher in a more secure use of RFID: they can be turned on and off at will, and have more processing power for security and encryption, unlike most contactless ticket/credit cards that feature relatively weak security. One of the interesting potentials in NFC is the ability to read and write your own tags via the mobile phone, which effectively reverses some of the usual notions of RFID as a tracking and surveillance medium.

However, once written, most tags are insecure and we can’t control the leakage of data from them. If the use of NFC leads to us adorning our friends, clothes, objects and artefacts with tags, then there are of course implications for tracking and surveillance. This needs to be taken into account as we design applications and services around it.

Address book jacket

Compared with other pervasive technologies however the implications for RFID are quite low. Of course there are already cases of Skimming of cards in wallets, hacking of Speedpass payment systems and it’s possible to ‘Relay’ a contactless credit card from someone’s pocket to a reader. But in terms of tracking people and surveillance, RFID has physical limitations on reading distance, in that beyond a few metres the signal is reduced to noise. If we compare this with an ordinary mobile phone, which most of the time knows where you are to within about 100 metres, knows what you say both in voice and text messages (with no guarantee of privacy), the privacy issues are somewhat out of proportion.

This is also generating fascinating new counter-markets for things like RFID-proof paper and fabrics. Contactless credit cards for instance need to be sent in the post, and RFID ‘smart cards’ might be held safely within a faraday cage wallet.

11. Obviously these types of technology are to aid in the accumulation of information or dissemination of information but could there be a potential for misuse of such information or fraud?

On a broad level there is a clear danger of that. The thoughtless use of biometric RFID data in passports and other documents will inevitably lead to cases of digital fraud and misuse.

On a narrower level though, I am more concerned about how RFID, GPS and other ‘tracking’ technologies may effect our close social relationships. Much is made of the typical scenario for location based services: the ability to ‘see that my friends are just around the corner’. But the management, reciprocity and deniability of this information needs to be taken into account.

12. What social and communicative uses for this type of technology has ‘The Touch Project’ uncovered so far?

So far we have been looking at augmenting personal objects in the home: the desk, the fridge, the doorframe, the kitchen table, etc. It has so far been possible to test out the use of everyday objects as triggers for phonecalls, SMSes and URLs. We haven’t started looking at the more social and communicative aspects of the technology yet, we are waiting for more phones to reach the market, and the general awareness of the technology to be higher before we conduct larger scale studies.

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More upcoming RFID events

On Monday 8th May the RFID Innovasjonssenter is having it’s opening event in Oslo (See here for more details in Norwegian). The project is centred around logistics and the supply chain, but they mention NFC, so there might be relevant things for Touch.

Then there is the Internet of Things workshop from 9-11 May at Mediamatic in Amsterdam:

“In our RFID workshops we explore the social implications and artistic possibilities of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology. This technology uniquely identifies physically tagged objects, and is expected to prompt an all-round ‘Internet of Things’. Through a fruitful mixture of theory and hands-on experimentation, participants get to turn their ideas into creative RFID prototypes.”

I will be participating in the How I learned to love RFID workshop in Dordmund from the 19-22 May.

Here are some details of the public event (which includes Bruce Sterling):

“A series of lectures brings together approaches and projects that artistically and critically deal with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology – a technology that is significantly being developed and advanced by companies and research institutes in Dortmund. This technology which at first glance seems to be a simple further development of the bar code (well known from the supermarket) is much more powerful that the good old bar code technology. RFID tags are passive radio transmitters, which upon receiving a minor wireless energy impulse are sending back the information stored on their memory. Today, this information can be read already at a distance of six meters – without the process getting noticed. In addition, with its unique identification numbering system, this technology will allow for a precise identification of every object worldwide. What will it be like to live in a world where all the objects constantly will be talking to each other?”

10:00-18:00 CEST, 20 May
HMKV, PHOENIX Halle, Hochofenstraße / Ecke Rombergstraße, Dortmund-Hörde, Germany

Then on 29 - 30 May is the followup to the first Blogject workshop organised by Nicolas Nova and Julian Bleecker at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“The present workshop is therefore a more “hands-on” follow-up. In the form of a two days retreat, its aim is now to design the networked artifact of the future (be it a blogject, a pervasive device, a slogging place, a locative thing, a pre-spime or an everyware). The idea is to have 3-4 groups made up of people with different skills and background to go through usage scenario, prototype implementation and socio-cultural implementation discussion.”

Reboot is from from 1 - 2 June, not directly related to RFID or ubicomp but if it’s anything like last year, will offer an interesting mix of technology, web and social perspectives, much like LIFT06.

“Reboot is a community event for the practical visionaries who are at the intersection of digital technology and change all around us… 2 days. 400 people. A journey into the interconnectedness of creation, participation, values, openness, decentralization, collaboration, complexity, technology, p2p, humanities, connectedness and many more areas.”
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Practical explorations

Interesting meeting with Dori, Maz and others at KHiO today, discussing overlap of themes between Touch and KHiO disciplines like furniture, fashion, communication and space-design.

RFID ideas, problems and opportunities

This is a brief mapping of the things we discussed linked to ideas in the project. Very interesting to explore future directions like this.

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