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The ghost in the field

basic field mapping animation

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.

parallel and perpendicular mapping

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.

49 Comments and Trackbacks

  • 1. howard said on 12 October 2009...

    awesome
    making the invisible yet physical visible – love it and scary as we think about the miasma of frequencies and info flows we wade thru everyday – for better or worse

    also do check
    http://semiconductorfilms.com/root/Magnetic_Movie/Magnetic.htm

    i think you will love their work and there is an obvious connection between what they have done in their art film and what you all are doing

  • 2. jabberer said on 12 October 2009...

    brilliant, berg!

    recalling my conversation with a radio engineer who was trying to explain how mobile phone signal would bend around things, it would be great to be able to see how electro-magnetic fields ‘interact’ with human bodies…

  • 3. Pat Burns said on 12 October 2009...

    terrific! could you demonstrate RF properties of different technologies in different environments? For example – see the presentation on DASH7 vs. ZigBee at http://dash7.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=21&Itemid=20 showing how different technologies behave very differently depending on their physical environment. interested to know …

  • 4. John Charles Steinmuller said on 12 October 2009...

    thanks… a great explanation of what one cannot see… would it possible to post your video in our blog? it would serve others to see how well you explain the technology… please respond .. I am the marketing guy helping Matrix Product Development with thier social media marketing… John

  • 5. Davide said on 13 October 2009...

    nice image immersive work. very deep.
    Always wondering how the megnetic/radio visualisation of waves would act in everyday world. nice. d

  • 6. Steve said on 13 October 2009...

    Would it be possible to get info on how the LED was connected and made to light up?

  • 7. JG said on 14 October 2009...

    Antenna CAD programs pretty much create the same kinds of data and visualization. This is just an empirical equivalence.

  • 8. Cait said on 16 October 2009...

    What I love about this film, guys, is that it is absolutely something to show my little girl, who of course, is constantly asking “why?”. And that sense of searching, and curiosity permates the film and the research.

    The visualisation of the edges of the tag’s influence endows this rather practical functional man made object with a mystical sense of presence above and beyond its physical self.

    Really lovely and fascinating stuff – feels like the beginning of something!

  • 9. Matt Jones said on 18 October 2009...

    Thanks Cait – nicely sums up our general approach to things!

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    [...] Immaterials: The Ghost in the Field es una pequeña película de Timo Arnall del Proyecto Touch, que muestra cómo son los campos electromagnéticos que rodean a los los chips RFID que hay en objetos cotidianos, como tarjetas de pago, etiquetas de productos, llaves electrónicas y otros. Es curioso que los campos sean en cierto modo planos y cambien de forma según sea su posición e inclinación. [...]

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