RFID gestures

While thinking about radio-field-based interactions and the gestures that they entail I’m reminded of this quote by Adam in Everyware:

“If you really want to know what information processing dissolving in behaviour really looks like, catch the way women swing their handbags across the Octopus readers at the turnstiles of the Mong Kok subway station; there’s nothing in the slightest to suggest that this casual 0.3-second gesture is the site of intense technical intervention.”

Some of the most common RFID gestures that have truly become part of everyday life are in contactless ticketing. Here are some images I took in Seoul, South Korea:

RFID ticket interactions 2

RFID ticket interactions 1

RFID ticket interactions 3

Surprisingly, there is not a lot of work on the spatial or gestural aspects of radio-based interfaces. There is some work towards looking at the spatial aspects of camera-based interactions:

Reeves, S. et al., 2006. The spatial character of sensor technology. In Proceedings of the 6th ACM conference on Designing Interactive systems. University Park, PA, USA: ACM Press, pp. 31-40.

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Tangible Interactions - summer exhibition

06 June, 13.56

This week the the MA interaction design course Tangible Interactions is having its summer exhibition at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design. The students have been focusing on designing interactions with RFID technology. This years exhibition includes games, token-based media, transactions, wayshowing, a story-telling pillow, ‘twittering’ things and more.

The exhibition is a part of AHO Works.

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Early visualisations of cellular networks

I happened to catch the American-centric documentary history of the mobile phone called The Cellphone Revolution yesterday.

27 May, 20.31

The most compelling content was the early visualisations of cellular networks, made by Motorola and AT&T at the time that they were trying to convince the FCC that mobile telephony was important.

27 May, 20.31

It also features rather nice footage and photos of early mobile phone prototypes from Motorola, that displayed many contemporary form factors such as sliders and flip-phones. Worth checking out that full article for a bit of emerging tech/design history.

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Lightweight, parasitic services

Touch and travel is a German pilot scheme (one of many) that is testing NFC for ticketing on public transport. One of the partners in the trial Giesecke and Devrient describe it:

“With the new eTicketing System Touch&Travel from Deutsche Bahn (DB), the mobile phone serves as an electronic ticket on trains, buses, streetcars, subways, etc. The SIM cards inside the phones are provided by Giesecke & Devrient. The Touch&Travel project is initiated by Deutsche Bahn, the German railway, and the mobile operator Vodafone.”

23 May, 13.43

This trial shows one of the ways that NFC changes the infrastructure required for a ticketing or payment service. In this case it is a lightweight, parasitic infrastructure that can fairly cheaply be added to other ticketing methods. The service relies on three elements:

  • Passive NFC tags at stations that contain a unique identifier or geographic information for that location. In this case they are embedded inside what must be a cheap container of aluminium, a printed surface and glass. This doesn’t require power or a network connection, and serves the same function as a large, powered, and networked ticket machine.
  • The mobile phone is the window into the service; it interprets the location/identification data, connects to the ‘cloud’ and provides an interface. This interface could show location, ticket prices, ticket options, time of journey, routes, transaction history, etc. Here there is the opportunity to create a service that offers more utility, value and experience than traditional ticketing.
  • The mobile data network connects the user to the service, in many cases this data connection already exists, and doesn’t require infrastructural development. Of course here there are issues with underground metro systems that don’t offer mobile coverage.

    23 May, 13.43

    More details on the service/interaction design:

  • By waving your NFC mobile handset over the so called Touchpoint before entering the train, located at the platforms, the system registers the beginning of a trip.
  • The ticket is stored on the SIM card inside the mobile phone
  • The conductor checks the ticket by scanning the phone with a portable reader.
  • Having arrived at the destination, the handset is waved over the Touchpoint again. The system registers the end of your trip. The system processes the data and calculates the correct cost for the distance traveled.
  • The passenger is billed once a month

    Of course the service requires that NFC handsets are easily available, or that the service is sold through SIM add-ons for existing mobiles (perhaps as an alternative to a contactless card like Oyster/Suica).

    I wonder how a service that relies so heavily on an ad-hoc infrastructure will be accountable to failure and who holds responsibility and the problem-solving ability for errors and misunderstandings?

    Thinking also about the parasitic; might multiple services compete with each other for approachable station space? In a de-regulated environment (I’m thinking of the UK here) who you touch might define what service you get…

Posted in Payments, Service design, Ticketing, Visual design | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Magnetic Movie

In the same vein as the Bubbles of Radio work from last year, Magnetic Movie is a film that explores visible and audible manifestations of radio fields. The film is by Ruth Jarman & Joe Gerhardt of Semiconductor and commissioned by Animate Projects that remains on the forefront of “exploring the relationship between art and animation”.

“Natural magnetic fields are revealed as chaotic, ever-changing geometries… Are we observing a series of scientific experiments, the universe in flux, or a documentary of a fictional world?” The stills don’t do the pulsing, crackling, moving visuals justice, I highly recommend that you go and watch the film.

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Thoughts on Nokia’s NFC developments

On April 15th Nokia announced the 6212 ‘classic’ phone that incorporates Near Field Communication technology. This phone is the fourth NFC-capable phone from Nokia in as many years and it is the first NFC device that supports 3G data connections.

This is a simple ‘classic’ or ‘candybar’ design like the earliest NFC models. Nokia has a history of basing its NFC devices on existing models (see the 5140 from 2004, the 3220 from 2005, and 6131 from 2007). The 6212 looks like it is based on the 3120 classic (announced in February 2008) with the addition of an NFC module and a slightly simplified physical design. Compared with the most recent NFC phone, the 6131, the 6212 is slightly smaller and lighter with a smaller display at the same resolution. More notes on the design details below.

The demo

This interview with Jeremy Belostock—Nokia’s NFC Sales & Marketing Director—has a number of cutaways that show some of the new NFC features in action.

There is a discussion about the path towards the mass market: whether to focus on user acceptance or building infrastructural ‘ecosystems’. NFC is discussed as being immediately suitable for developed markets where there is infrastructure already in place (such as RFID ticketing and credit card systems such as Oyster and Visa Wave). Although emerging markets are interesting, there is a particular emphasises on Western Europe and Asia in NFC transport and payment, because of the immediate benefits in these areas. The interview ends with a brief (and rather odd) discussion of the environmental benefits of NFC. I’m not sure replacing a stack of plastic cards with a mobile phone is necessarily an improvement towards sustainability (most of my credit and debit cards outlast my mobile phones by a factor of 2 or 3).

Interaction design notes

Nokia is attempting to focus on features such as sharing content through touch-interactions and using tags as a way of controlling phone functions. Nokia seems to call these emerging interactions “tapping and sharing”. In the demo we see:

  • Tag access to the system functions: we see a tag setting an alarm
  • Tag access to files on the system: we see loading and playing of music files
  • Peer to peer exchange of content: we see the ‘sharing’ of files

    The specifications also note that it’s possible to “share business cards, bookmarks, calendar notes, images, profiles, and more” so there is clearly a deeper integration between the Series 40 system and the NFC functions here than with earlier devices (we called for this in 2005 when we had the first look at the 3220). What is not shown is the before/after interactions that are required to set up these sharing actions. How do I set up the transfer? What happens if we simply touch phones together? What are the default events? Where and how are these actions phrased within the menu system? Without seeing these we cannot yet assess the quality of these new NFC interactions.

    Touch-based interactions are super-simple, orders of magnitude less button clicks and less security hassles than a technology like Bluetooth. This simplicity stems from the physical proximity required when interacting with tiny RFID fields. The demo shows NFC pairing between two devices working in various physical ways: two phones are tapped side to side, face to face and face to back. Previously these interactions were imagined to work back to back but since RFID works through electromagnetic induction, which creates a field that encompasses both sides of the antenna, other physical gestures are possible.

    Discrete interaction points versus a phone surrounded by an interaction \'aura\'

    When the NFC chip is given enough power and when the interaction involves two readers rather than a reader powering a passive tag, phone-to-phone interactions will work in many configurations around the device. Although this seems to be a technical reality, I wonder if it makes sense to visualise and explain NFC in this way? Should there be an active point of connection on the phone that is more like a button rather than an active aura surrounding the entire phone? There is an interesting study to be created here about the user’s mental models formed by these subtly different interaction types. More on touch-interaction affordances later.

    This launch is not just about the NFC phone, but points towards a range of NFC appliances: “pairing with a Bluetooth NFC-enabled device, like the new NFC variant of the Nokia BH-210 headset, happens with just one touch”.

    At first glance this suggests that new Nokia accessories may have embedded NFC tags, but it seems that “the Bluetooth Headset BH-210 sales package includes a pairing tag that has BH-210 address information in it. Pair the device and headset conveniently by tapping the tag with the device.” When suitable Mifare tags are available down to about 10mm in diameter, why not embed the pairing tag inside the device itself? Perhaps the fear is that pranksters could sneak up to unsuspecting bluetooth-headset-wearing businesspeople and pair with their devices through a sneaky swipe…

    Nonetheless, this points in some interesting directions, towards interfaces and control for all sorts of consumer devices. It highlights the possibility of the mobile phone as a ubiquitous controller where it interacts with a multitude of inputs and outputs from games controllers and sensors to printers and screens, and then perhaps a whole host of other devices that require a rich interface but don’t have the physical form or price range to justify one. For more on this see our thoughts on the universal controller and this research paper by Christof Roduner.

    The phone is packaged with three tags, one of which is a ‘tutorial’ tag that teaches the use of NFC with on-screen tutorials. This learning mode seems to include lots of animations where phones and tags are brought into contact with each other, perhaps the least complicated part of NFC interactions. Without seeing it for ourselves its difficult to say, but the tutorials could perhaps be more useful for explaining the possibilities inherent in putting URLs, phone numbers, etc. onto tags.

    Physical design notes

    If we are expected to regularly touch our phones against grubby payment terminals, subway gates and public advertising, the surfaces and materials both on the phone and in the world must encourage this touching action. A robust and rugged shell is essential.

    From the very first mobile phones that could be operated with one hand, Nokia has traditionally been good at creating robust, over-engineered devices that play well in the messy, physical world. The challenge with NFC is to create natural, basic touch interactions through material, ergonomic or other affordances. What are the physical affordances that would encourage—- as Dourish puts it‘interacting in the world, participating in it and acting through it, in the absorbed and unreflective manner of normal experience.’? So beyond ruggedness and a degree of scratch-proofing, what is necessary for these touch-interaction affordances?

    The first consideration is the placement of the reader. The above image is a quick excercise imagining where readers might be placed on various phone models. The 5140 RFID kit and the 3220 NFC shell had a ‘classic’ or ‘candybar’ form that meant that the NFC reader was placed on the lower back of the device. Apparently this was to separate the various radio antennae (GSM, Bluetooth, etc.) from the RFID antenna, but all of our experiments showed that this was confusing to users. The 6131 solved this by placing the NFC reader at the top of the flip-up screen, away from the other antennae at the hinge.

    Somehow the NFC reader in the 6212 is at the top of the device. This is a very good place to have an ‘active area’, it’s outside of the natural hand-grip, and its the part of the phone that most often faces the world, encouraging intuitive pointing and selecting gestures. With this placement the phone becomes a kind of ‘wand’, that perhaps draws on the metaphor of magic in ubiquitous computing. Whatever our thoughts on magic in interaction design, there is no doubt that this gesture is culturally significant and is likely to be a useful model.

    More practically, the 6212 features a camera lens in roughly the same position as the reader. This combined with the perforated loudspeaker work against the idea of a robust active area. This is clearly a tradeoff, will scratches and grit getting into these delicate areas hinder touch-based interactions, and will keeping the phone pristine in general be a problem? Would a shiny iPhone ever be suitable for touch-based interactions?

    The second consideration is signs and symbols. There was a time when Nokia thought it necessary to indicate the active area of NFC phones with a visual icon, starting with two concentric rings and moving on to the ‘wireless fingerprint’:

    5140i + RFID

    But the 6131 and 6212 have no visible indication whatsoever that they offer any sort of NFC functionality. The clear plastic film that protects the 6131 screen had a diagram of a phone-tag interaction but that of course gets quickly removed.

    My feeling is that there should be clearer markings for the NFC active areas on these phones, even if it is a change in texture, colour or material, it seems like a functional necessity until NFC is properly accepted and understood in the mass market. It’s also a particularly easy thing to do. When music phones have very clearly marked dedicated buttons devoted to specific media functions, why shouldn’t a significant functional and interactional surface be clearly marked on the device?

    A few quick sketches using some of the icons from the graphic language for touch. Whether the possibilities inherent in NFC are indicated through clear affordances or explicit symbology, this is extremely important to get right.

    Other technicalities

    The 6212 has a slightly better higher resolution camera than the 6131. It also offers a second video camera on the display side (why do they still include these, does anyone actually do video calling? Is there a secondary usage that I’m missing, YouTube?)

    The press-release and demos emphasise the new level of integration between NFC and Bluetooth but the specifications don’t list Bluetooth 2.1. Of course it supports the standard contactless communication API (JSR 257) so that 3rd parties like us can develop applications for NFC. We hope that it gives us more leeway than the implementation on the 6131. Includes MIDP 2.1 and a few other Java APIs.

    The phone also supports the Nokia Software Market for application discovery and this might be very useful for distributing consumer-focused NFC applications.

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Three papers on mobile payments

The weblog ‘Putting people first’ links to three interesting papers from CHI 2008 on mobile payments.

From meiwaku to tokushita!

Lessons for digital money design from Japan. Mainwaring, S., March, W., and Maurer, B. 2008. In Proceeding of the Twenty-Sixth Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

“As an example of ubiquitous computing in the here and now, the adoption of digital money is found to be messy and contingent, shot through with cultural and social factors that do not hinder this adoption but rather constitute its specific character. Adoption is strongly tied to Japanese conceptions of the aesthetic and moral virtue of smooth flow and avoidance of commotion, as well as the excitement at winning something for nothing.”

Reminds me of Bell & Dourish’s Yesterday’s tomorrows where ubicomp is ‘highly present, visible, and branded’.

Human-Currency Interaction

Learning from virtual currency use in China. Wang, Y. and Mainwaring, S. D. 2008. In Proceeding of the Twenty-Sixth Annual SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. [PDF]

“Virtual and real currencies can interact in complex ways that promote, extend, and/or interfere with the value and character of game worlds. Bringing money into HCI design heightens existing issues of realness, trust, and fairness, and thus presents new challenges and opportunities for user experience innovation.”

I like the way that money as a constraint within HCI research is seen as a way of strengthening research around realness and trust.


Conducting everyday payments with minimum user involvement. Lehdonvirta, V., Soma, H., Ito, H., Kimura, H., and Nakajima, T. 2008. In CHI ‘08 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. [PDF]

“The aim is to make paying like breathing: something we are only peripherally aware of unless we exert our resources beyond the usual. This idea has powerful implications for business and design.”

Wow, towards true frictionless capitalism.

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Two Touch projects on show at DogA

Two projects from Touch are on show at the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture (DogA) in Oslo for the next month. Sniff and Bowl are part of the Unge Talenter exhibition that runs until 27 April 2008.

Both are interactive and are running at the exhibition for you to try them out.

27 March, 15.30

27 March, 15.19

Sniff is also featured in the DESIGNBOKEN 2008 from the Norwegian Design Council.

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