‘Nearness’ goes further

Since the launch three weeks ago, our film Nearness has been seen almost 100,000 times, and favourited by over 500 people. Thanks for all the feedback and commentary!

Creativity contacted us for a “Behind the Work” feature where Jack Schulze goes deeper into the film:

RFID is a complex and fairly abstract technology to grasp. We have to be careful in how we communicate with it. There are many leaps of imagination and understanding required to grasp it and hold a useful model of how it works and what is happening, let alone see how it maps usefully and elegantly into the world around us. The familiarity of the chain reaction form, means the audience quickly grasps that the normal kinetic transfer of force in the sequence is replaced by invisible forces that work very closely together. Like invisible digital breaths between objects. Because the form was familiar, our hope was the concept of nearness without touching would be clearly understood.”

Shots Magazine asked us to write about new design futures with rfid chips. Here we went a bit further into our film production process in general:

“There has been constant refinement of the production techniques not only to convey designed objects and their surroundings evocatively, but also the invisible layers of interchange and interaction that are increasingly both digital and physical. It turns out that contemporary cinematic techniques such as motion tracking, match moving and the integration of video with 3D motion graphics are ideal tools for visualising, prototyping and communicating about ubiquitous technology.”

And—in a twist that I find particularly satisfying—the UK newspaper Metro wrote about the film, calling it a ‘fun glimpse at a future where you control machines by waving your mobile at them, and everything goes ‘beep’ as you walk by.’

Since Metro is distributed mainly on public transport, it’s lovely to think of their 1.3 million readers all clutching their Oyster cards while reading about the film.

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Making radio tangible

Next week we’re launching some new work that explores the spatial aspects of RFID. So before we publish that, here is a quick summary of existing work on radio, sensors and space that I’ve been compiling for a while.

The ‘Radiogenic’

Dunne & Raby introduce the idea of ‘Hertzian space’ in Design Noir and Hertzian Tales where they describe a landscape of electronic products creating a “new, invisible but physical environment”.

In Tunable cities they map the radio signals from domestic equipment such as babycoms and begin to examine the “role of electronic products in the aesthetic inhabitation of a rapidly dematerialising, ubiquitous and intelligent environment.” Here there are visualisations of radio fields as bright red spaces overlaid on the streets of Chiswick, London.

Although their work specifically avoided issues around making the invisible visible or visualising radio, it explored the “links between the material and the immaterial that lead to new aesthetic possibilities for life in an electromagnetic environment”.

“It might seem strange to write about radio, a long-established medium, when discussion today centres on cyberspace, virtual reality, networks, smart materials and other electronic tehcnologies. But radio, meaning part of the electromagnetic spectrum is fundamental to electronics. Objects not only “dematerialise” into software in response to minituarisation and replacement by services but literally dematerialise into radiation. All electronic products are hybrids of radiation and matter. [...] Whereas cyberspace is a metaphor that spatialises what happens in computers distributed around the world, radio space is actual and physical, even though our senses detect only a tiny part of it.”

As Matt Jones points out, they go on to coin the term “radiogenic” to describe objects that:

“function as unwitting interfaces between the abstract space of electromagnetism and the material cultures of everyday life, revealing unexpected points of contact between them.”


The Faraday chair offers a slightly more nuanced ‘visualisation’ of the boundaries of electromagnetic waves through a physical object. These works operate by visualising and making tangible the boundaries between electromagnetic phenomena, and as such, serve to highlight and create discourse around the issue of radio in emerging products and systems

Celebrating the magic of remote action

The language used to describe RFID interaction includes closeness, touch, proximity and pointing but there are few explorations of the way that RFID systems shape the gestural and tangible aspects of this interaction. Within Human Computer Interaction (HCI) there is some discussion of the spatial aspects of sensor technologies. For instance Ailisto et al (2003) discuss the ways that RFID creates contactless interactions on mobile phones: “Physical selection may be based on proximity or pointing. In the case of proximity, the selection is activated by bringing the activating device, e.g. a smart phone, close to the target device.”.

In the Touch project we have experimented with the spatial aspects of RFID interaction, developing a tacit design knowledge of the technology over time. At an early RFID hacking workshop with BERG/Schulze & Webb we experimented with playful interactions that involved “the magic of remote action” where invisible interactions triggered events in the world.

Magic invisibility

This is something we went on to explore in much more detail in the film Nearness, where the relationship between proximity and physical interaction is explored in detail.

In projects like the Graphic language for touch we have begun to find ways of representing invisible radio as a tangible design material in a functional setting.

And in her project the Bubbles of Radio (that emerged from our Fields and Seams brief) Ingeborg Marie Dehs Thomas imagined and visualised many fictional representations of radio fields including Bluetooth and RFID. These drawings provide a playful starting point for the discussion of our relationship to radio fields and the possibilities they open up for interaction.

Exploring and experiencing waves

The political, social and phenomenological aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum are a recurring theme within contemporary media art practice. For instance the exhibition Waves at RIXC tuned in to artistic engagements with the electro-magnetic spectrum and suggested that “artists should take control of the very principles and materiality of the ‘network waves’.”

A common practice is to translate radio space into an audible, sonic experience. In projects like ætherspace, Aeriology, Electroprobes and in many RFID projects some kind of probe that senses radio and offers audible output is held or attached to the body. The experience is then about being mobile, moving through and probing the world to discover how the lanscape and patterns of radio changes through space.

Then there are a number of visual, interactive visualisation projects such as the Wifi camera, the sightseeing telescope that reveals open wifi networks in urban space and the Free Network Visible Network project. In most cases the visual representations of the radio waves are merged and overlaid into optical or video backgrounds of the physical world, in a kind of ‘augmented reality’ genre.

wifi 2

In Edge Town by Ben Hooker and Shona Kitchen visual approaches are used to explore the ways in which we can “design interfaces with the flows of electronic data that run through our cities so that they can be experienced as an enriching complement to other, more ‘earthly’ phenomena.” Their garden-like visualisations represent the desire to turn these invisible flows into something more tangible. In another architectural approach, Pedro Sepulveda-Sandoval proposes the demarcation of public areas that are free of mobile phone signals, using the visual language of yellow/black warning tape.

Artists Ruth Jarman & Joe Gerhardt visualised many kinds of fields in Magnetic Movie, where the fields are seen animated as crackling, pulsing and swirling waves that uncomfortably inhabit physical spaces. This animation reinforced by a strong soundtrack that crackles in time with the motion is one of the most engaging and compelling visualisations of radio fields that we have seen.

Spatial and seamful sensors

For engineers and scientists, accurately modelling and visualising invisible radio fields, and engaging in antenna measurement is a difficult task, if not almost a ‘black art’. Using specialist robotic equipment and slowly measuring the intensity of radio signals at various points in space, it is possible to build up a three dimensional map of a radio field. There are also specialist 3D simulation tools that create models of radio fields and their interactions with physical material. These tools are mainly used to optimise the design of radio antennae, probe and problem-solve radio interference problems in electronic equipment and to assess safety issues with human exposure to radio systems.

In a paper called The spatial character of sensor technology Reeves et al (2006) describe the importance of understanding seams and spatiality in sensor-based systems. Although they concentrate on ‘torch-based’ interactions, their concerns are relevant for other sensor technologies:

“We are primarily concerned with the way in which seams between devices create a particular spatial character for the location in which they are deployed. This spatial character of seams derives from the use of spatially-embedded sensor technologies (e.g., GPS, Wifi, etc.) which are particularly prevalent in ubiquitous computing. Sensor technology plays a fundamental part in the creation of seams, and thus the character of the space in which such technology is deployed. The main issue, then, is how interactive and ubiquitous system design may appropriately address this essential spatiality.”

There is also a discussion of the ‘seamful’ character of many ubiquitous technologies.

Chalmers and Galani (2001) describes the ways in which “wireless networks have distinct physical characteristics such as a tendency to be absorbed by metal, water and other conductive materials, and a pattern of coverage that makes for a limited area of usable network connectivity.” They suggest that there may be a method or conceptual process of ‘seamful design’ that builds upon the way that “people accommodate and take advantage of seams and heterogeneity, in and through the process of interaction.”

“We critique the ‘disappearance’ mentioned by Weiser as a goal for ubicomp, and Dourish’s ‘embodied interaction’ approach to HCI, suggesting that these design ideals may be unachievable or incomplete because they underemphasise the interdependence of ‘invisible’ non-rationalising interaction and focused rationalising interaction within ongoing activity.”

There is something in this ‘seamful design’ process that may help us to understand of the way that we deal with the invisible aspects of radio-based interaction, and the ways that mental models are built out of these systems.

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Skål: playing with media

Skål (Norwegian for bowl) is a product that has emerged from the Bowl project. It is a media player designed for the home that acts as the interface between physical objects and related digital media on a television.

This video shows Skål in action. A bowl sits on the living room table and a range of physical objects are used to trigger various kinds of media. For example a physical Moomin character like Little My will play a sequence from the Moomin cartoon where she is featured. Skål can control all kinds of digital media; movie-clips, Youtube channels, Flickr photo streams, home videos and online radio.

The product has been used as a probe to build our understanding of RFID technology in playful and domestic contexts and is the result of extensive enquiry into the area. It differs from other similar products like Touchatag and Mirror by focusing specifically on direct and immediate tangible interaction with rich digital media. In some ways it is similar to the iPhone RFID prototype, and here it reflects on the interchangeability of tags and readers in media interaction: RFID systems are symmetrical and interactions can be built through manipulating the reader (the iPhone) or the objects (Skål).

Skål website

Visit the Skål website for more on the bowl and how it works and Flickr for more images.

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Visual representation of tangible interaction

In the design of the interactive elements of Sniff, Sara had to use visual diagramming as a way of exploring, understanding and prototyping with non-visual feedback such as sound and vibration (haptics).


Sara developed a speech bubble approach to annotating physical objects, so that they look like they are ‘saying’ the audio and haptic feedback.


The representation of sound and vibration uses waveforms, showing amplitude over time. Although this is quite limited, it seems to be a useful shorthand for communicating a small range of tangible feedback.

On this note, I’m getting increasingly interested in the use of speech bubbles in popular media.

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After two years of development, many awards and publications, we have finally given Sara Johanssons’s Sniff the proper communication it deserves.

Sniff is first and foremost a high-quality physical toy dog, that can withstand the rough and tumble of everyday play and activities. But Sniff’s interactive elements add an extra dimension of experience and engagement. Through the use of Radio Frequency IDentification technology Sniff can identify objects that he comes close to, which trigger behaviours that are expressed through sound and vibration. In the Sniff video above you can see three of Sniff’s ‘activities’ in action, in real settings.


Sniff is designed as a companion in daily situations as well as in play and games, alone or together with other children, and including one or more Sniffs. Special attention has been devoted to the design of interaction between sound and vibration. Auditory feedback is important for the sociality of the toy, and makes it possible for a larger number of people to participate in play. Haptic feedback deepens the experience, support hands-on operation and creates a special bond between user and toy.


Sniff is a robust and fully working prototype that has been through several iterations it its physical design, interaction design and technology. This has happened as part of a long evaluation process where it has been tested with many kids and adults.

Book, website and paper

The Sniff website goes further into some of the design and conceptual issues, as well as background material and references.

Sara Johansson presented some of the background and research behind Sniff at The Interaction design and children conference in June 2009. Here is the paper that goes deeper into the design issues particularly issues of abstraction in character and interaction design.

Finally there is also a lovely book available to buy. The book is presented as a ‘day in the life of Sniff’ and details many of the interactive, playful concepts that have been designed.

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Responses to ‘Nearness’

The broad response to the short film Nearness has been tremendous. In the two days since it was launched it has received over 55,000 views and has been covered all over the internet.


It is great when a project is not just just well received, but thoroughly understood and appreciated for the underlying reasons it was made. The purpose of making the film was to introduce the ‘magic of proximity’ which is largely left out of the discourse around RFID. The film attempts to communicate the delicate and subtle aspects of a rather obscure technology, so we were pleasantly surprised by the engaged, thoughtful and broad discussions that it has initiated.

Adam Greenfield was one of the first people to pick up on the intertwined concept and aesthetics:

“What really gets me about it is the fusion of technical insight, aesthetic sense, skill in execution and sheer patience it represents. If every made thing in the world were even one-twentieth as carefully thought out as the most offhanded gesture here, we’d all of us be in inestimably better shape.”

While Lisa Smith at Core77 immediately saw the way in which the film explores RFID from a new direction:

“The video very sensitively explores the physical implications of proximity, using RFID for much more than identification.”

Moving Brands responded to the strong legacy of Fischli & Weiss and Honda Cog but saw how:

“Nearness takes the Fischli & Weiss concept further though as it explores how modern day interactive technologies (RFID) with the use of proximity detection make “touching” redundant. It’s an original modern day version of a masterpiece.”

We have always framed the film through a vivid memory of our first viewing of Der Lauf Der Dinge. But a cultural reference that emerged very quickly was Heath Robinson and Rube Goldberg. The Goldberg reference in particular stuck in many discussions, where the relative merits of physical versus virtual interactions were argued out. On Boingboing some commenters disparagingly described Nearness as the “Phantom Menace of Rube Goldbergs”, while another commenter thought the electronic aspect added a contemporary twist:

“The fact that it is entitled “Nearness” and each interface is from indirect interaction elevates this from science project to art for me.”

Guybrush over at Warrenellis.com has an amusing take on RFID chain reactions that manages to take RFID paranoia to new heights:

“Would be funnier with one of the new Barclaycards: swap your card to pay for groceries, see how thieves invisibly get your number, print a cloned card which is then used to access your bank account and to transfer all your money to Russia, where mafia associates can use it right away to pay for a plasma tv on the web which is then delivered to them in a few minutes. Closing shot of smiling Putin-lookalike turning on the tv by remote control.”

There were lots of lovely links from Delicious:

“A nice way to demonstrate near-field communication without getting all swipe-to-pay-for-x” by technekai

“No surprise, but this single page has possibly the highest concentration of awesome on the internet.” by Blaine Cook

“Lovely film of glancing blows, near-misses, wielded fields, touches-without-touching” by Rod McLaren.

And Twitter:

“Now mildly obsessed by non touch thanks to the awesome twist” by macintosh

“Beautiful piece of design and thinking. Like Moustrap for the digital generation.” by TheLeith

“Quite a thought provoking movie, such a rich capture of the nearness concept” by Dries De Roeck

But we’ll leave the final word (for now) to Bruce Sterling:

“Just cut to the chase and give them the Nobel, that’s what I say.”

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One of the essential properties of Near Field Communication is nearness, but this is set against one of the paradoxes of touch-based interaction where, in fact, nothing needs to touch. In a very short film made with BERG, we explore nearness in interactive technologies.

Hat tip towards The way things go, that Honda commercial and Pythagora Switch.

Some photos.

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Design research mediation, layering

Just a quick post to flag up a little discovery: Chen, Pin-maio of the Graduate School of Design, Spatial Media Group in Taipei has posted a great reflection (Google translation) of our Designing with RFID research from last year.

What is especially lovely is the way in which the images from our paper are carefully interpreted and annotated visually with notes and explanations. In many ways it communicates better than the original paper.

And on that note, Nicolas Nova also has a good writeup here.

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