Touch Project Explores RFID-enabled Consumer Applications

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

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.


Three years after being launched, the Touch research project, based at the Oslo School of Architecture & Design and funded by the Research Council of Norway, has come up with a number of novel ways to show how radio frequency identification can be used, including an interactive toy dog and a Rube Goldberg-like creation.

According to Timo Arnall, a graphic designer and lecturer who leads the project, Touch’s objectives are largely academic, with three specific areas of concentration: research, innovation and communication. “The basic research,” he explains, “has explored the ways in which [RFID] technology can be used by designers, and the design methods that can be used to help shape and mould it into user-centered applications.”

Embedded in Sniff’s nose is an RFID interrogator that causes the toy to vibrate and play sounds based on the tagged objects it reads.

The innovation comes in as the researchers investigate how design can be employed to visualize the technology, and to help make it understandable and intuitive for users. The fruit of this work, Arnall says, comes through in the prototypes the researchers have developed. Furthermore, the research team is working to, as he puts it, “communicate through and about the technology. We think RFID is particularly interesting because it is so controversial and so hyped. We have attempted to create pragmatic yet culturally resonant visions of RFID that communicate to a wide audience, that can help people to understand and evaluate the technology before it is fully formed.”

None of the projects have morphed into commercial products just yet, but one of them, Arnall says—a plush cotton stuffed toy dog named Sniff—has received a great deal of commercial interest, and may soon receive funding for extended development. Designed by Sara Johansson, who graduated with degrees in interaction and product design from the Oslo School of Architecture and Design, Sniff was designed to help children—particularly, but not exclusively, those with impaired vision—to interact with objects that otherwise might be difficult to identify.

Embedded in the stuffed animal’s nose is an RFID interrogator, manufactured by ID Innovations and wired to a number of different components that are activated based on tag data the reader collects as it is placed in close proximity to tagged objects. The tags contain 125 kHz passive RFID chips that comply with EM Microelectronic‘s EM4001 specifications. These components include a speaker and two vibration motors in different parts of the dog. A microprocessor controls the reader, the vibration motors and a sound card that stores various audio files.

Sniff from Timo Arnall on Vimeo.

Sniff is meant to be a child’s constant companion and aide. The RFID stickers accompanying the stuffed dog can be used to help identify hazards, based on the audio files or vibration patterns associated with the tag attached to a particular source of danger (such as a hot stove). Specific games can also be developed, such as assigning tags with bits of a melody, and then arranging the tagged objects in different patterns so that, when each is touched quickly with the dog’s nose, it generates an audio pattern, or a song that the child knows and likes. The Sniff prototype has won a number of design awards, and has been featured in numerous exhibits. The Touch team has even published a short book about the project.

Another Touch project involves Near Field Communication (NFC) short-range, high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz RFID tags and interrogators. In this case, an NFC reader is attached to an iPhone through its serial port. According to Arnall, researchers have produced prototypes with NFC readers from a number of manufacturers, including SonMicro Electronics and Topptuniste, as well as NFC tags made with NXP Semiconductors‘ Mifare chips. Tagged objects then trigger the phone to play short movies or other media related to the tagged objects.

A third project, known as Skål, utilizes a small wooden bowl with an embedded 125 kHz RFID reader to identify tagged objects placed within it. The interrogator is connected to a television or computer, which plays a specific media file—a home movie, for instance, or a cartoon—based on the ID number encoded to the passive tag attached to the object placed in the bowl. The Skål prototypes are built using the same hardware as that used in Sniff.

In addition, the Touch project has launched its own development platform, Thing IO, that the researchers have used extensively for prototyping services and applications for NFC phones. The research team is currently seeking an initial round of funding, Arnall says, which would enable the platform to be commercialized.

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.”