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Marking immaterials

Earlier in our involvement with Touch, Timo and I held a workshop with Alex Jarvis (currently at and Mark Williams (now at Venture Three) to explore notation for RFID and the actions hidden in the readers.

One of my favourites that emerged from the day was this one.


It shows how far we were reaching for metaphorical handles – around which to characterise the technology, relying on the verbs associated with the result of the interaction: to Pay, to Open, to Delete etc.

Physically the systems are very different and are more frequently represented by their envelope packaging, like the Oyster card. Branded systems have chosen to use characters, my favourite is the Suica Penguin.


During the visualisation work, the cross sections in the readable volumes that emerged began to feel very strong visually. They capture an essential nature in the technology which is difficult to unearth with symbols based on metaphors.

Timo and I experimented with forms which have an almost typographic nature ranging to a more strictly geometric shape.


We settled on this most geometric version. It would be terrific to see this picked up and used as a symbol for the technology in public.


A CC licensed pdf of the ‘geometric’ can be found in the Touch vaults.

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.


Last week Timo and I finished filming and editing Nearness. Earlier in the year BERG was commissioned by AHO/Touch to produce a series of explorations into designerly applications for RFID (more to come on what that means). Over the coming weeks BERG will be sharing the results of the work here and on the Touch blog.

The film Nearness explores interacting without touching. With RFID it’s proximity that matters, and actual contact isn’t necessary. Much of Timo’s work in the Touch project addresses the fictions and speculations in the technology. Here we play with the problems of invisibility and the magic of being close.

The work refers fondly to the Fischli and Weiss The Way Things Go film and its controversial offspring The Honda ‘Cog’ commercial. There are of course any number of awesome feats of domestic engineering on YouTube. Japanese culture has taken the form to its heart. My favourite examples are the bumpers in the kids science show Pythagora Switch. Here’s a clip.

Our twist is that the paired objects do not hit or knock, they touch without touching.

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