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Touch Project Explores RFID-enabled Consumer Applications

A Nordic research project aims to help both designers and the general public get a handle on the technology by making it more tangible, and by adding it to consumer products.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
The Touch project is unique in its approach to merging the study of RFID with that of industrial and graphic design. "There are a few places teaching interaction design that do similar work," Arnall states, "in particular, Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, in London, that focuses very much on creating visions of emerging technologies. But in terms of research and design, we have a unique position around the design with RFID, as it has kind of slipped under the radar of a lot of design institutions, as either being too mundane or too technical."

Two different Touch video-based projects explore RFID's visual and spatial footprints. The projects are intended to demystify the technology, as well as help people understand its abilities and limitations. In one film, called Immaterials, the read ranges of various RFID interrogators are visualized by using an LED light, long-exposure photography and animation. In the other, entitled Nearness, the researchers set up and recorded a series of chain reactions relying on NFC-compliant RFID readers and tags to trigger each action.

Arnall says the films address the invisibility of RFID—which he believes is the technology's characteristic that has generated negative reactions among consumers who believe RFID applications may compromise their privacy—by making radio waves more tangible. "We have discovered that [this concern] stems mainly from the problem of invisibility," he says, "both in the physical sense, that we can't see the radio waves, but also invisibility, in the sense that RFID systems like the Oyster card are generating enormous amounts of data that are outside of our view or control."

The Touch project—which received approximately 7 million Norwegian krone (US$1.3 million) in funding from the Research Council of Norway's communication and technology research arm, as well as from business partners and the Oslo School of Architecture and Design—is wrapping up this fall. But Arnall believes that papers based on the various projects it has supported will be published in a wide range of journals, on technology-focused Web sites and at conferences for some time to come. "One of the interesting things about doing cross-disciplinary work," he says, "is that our publications end up in a lot of different places, from technology publications to design research journals, to human-computer-interaction and ubiquitous computing conferences."

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