This image is a photographic mapping of the readable volume of a radio field from an RFID reader. The black component in the image is an RFID reader, similar to the component inside the yellow part of the oyster card reader. The camera has been fixed in its position and the reader photographed. Using a tag connected to an LED we paint in the edges of the readable volume with a long exposure and animate them to show the form.
Following Nearness, the chain reaction film, is Immaterials: The ghost in the field, our next film with Timo Arnall at the Touch project. There are 4 billion RFID tags in the world. They may soon outnumber the people. Readers and tags are increasingly embedded in the things and environments in which we live. How do readers see tags? When we imagine RFID and their invisible radio fields, what should we see? Immaterials explains the experiments we have performed to see RFID as it sees itself.
There is a power to be found in understanding everything from systems, to APIs, to components, to data, through to their enveloping materials (such as plastics and metals) as substrates to interfere with, bend and test. Through this we form complete wholes that make a common cultural sense to people, as products. The common category that contains services, APIs, plastics, componentry and their manufacturing processes is their behaviours and their consistencies, their immateriality.
We need to richly understand the behaviour and nature of the tag interaction with readers. Timo summarises:
It is incredible how often RFID is seen as a long-range ‘detector’ or how little relevant information is contained in technical data-sheets. When this information is the primary material that we are working with as designers, this is highly problematic. By doing these kind of experiments we can re-frame the technology according to our experience of it, and generate our own material knowledge.
There is a sequence in the video where I briefly discuss the directionality of tags. Most tags (and therefore their antenna) are flat. They have a direction. The shape of the readable volume changes according to the antennas orientation to the reader. The following image shows two volumes. The first visualised with green LEDs shows the readable volume from interactions between a reader and a tag parallel to it; the second, visualised with red LEDs, shows the volume produced by the same tag held perpendicular. Two very distinctive and different shapes can clearly be seen.
It is not the radio field produced by the reader itself we are looking at. That is much, much larger. The images show the volume in which the energy in the space surrounding the reader is inducing a current large enough to wake and run the RFID chip at the end of the antenna in the tag. The readable volume can be mapped around a tag or inside the field produced by a reader component, but it only exists between the two.
Having produced these visualisations, I now find myself mapping imaginary shapes to the radio enabled objects around me. I see the yellow Oyster readers with plumes of LED fluoro-green fungal blossoms hanging over them – and my Oyster card jumping between them, like a digital bee cross-pollenating with data as I travel the city.
We work with traditional materials and fabrication for our product and industrial design, but the exciting contemporary products of our age are more than the sum of their materials, those poorly bound knots of plastic and silicon in our hands and homes.
Matt Jones described what we do as ‘Post Industrial Design.’ Perfect! Where once industrial design was concerned with radii, form, and finish, we now deal in behaviours, experience, shifting context, and time.
The products we design now are made with new stuffs. Service layers, video, animation, subscription models, customisation, interface, software, behaviours, places, radio, data, APIs and connectivity are amongst the immaterials for modern products.
Immaterials are the new substrates for opportunity and risk in product design.
Next week, Immaterials: Unravelling the antennae.