A Digital Life for Physical Objects

A Digital Life for Physical Objects

“Whatever happened to RFID?” somebody asked me recently. Interesting question, we had just used our Oyster cards to enter the London Underground. Millions of public transport passengers all over the globe do the same, all without thinking. We call it Oyster card in London, ORCA in Washington, OV kaart in The Netherlands, call it what you like, most passengers use it without thinking. And that is the beauty of it, RFID tags invisibly give everyday objects added functionality, linking the physical with the digital. Executed well, it provides the perfect unobtrusive ‘means’ to and ‘end’, the perfect building blocks for creating an intentional experience in the real world.

So where is it? In essence, RFID is just a clever little chip with and antenna and unique ID number invisibly integrated in an object. Up until now, the main applications of RFID have been either commercial and/or security driven:

  • RFID cards for public transport increase passenger throughput whilst also reducing the number of staff.
  • RFID on drugs packaging enables traceability (drug pedigree) and makes counterfeiting more difficult.
  • Biometric passports with RFID chips contain not only a passenger’s ID but also additional biometric data increases passenger throughput as well as security.
  • RFID tags in bankcards such as Barclaycards in the UK enable quick transactions without the need to enter a PIN code, Just swipe and pay, it couldn’t be easier.
  • Etc…

In all of these cases the business stakeholders justified the investment in RFID on the basis of a financial return. The enhanced user experience is an added bonus. This explains, for instance why we still do not see RFID tags in supermarkets. RFID would enable the scenario where a shopper can just take items out of a store with little or no need to queue at the till. For this, every item would need to be tagged. RFID tags cost only a few cents but this can quickly add up making it too expensive for a supermarket to implement. 

Will we ever see them? Up to now, RFID was the predominant technology for adding digital functionality to physical objects, often requiring a bespoke infrastructure. However, this is changing rapidly. Readers are added to more and more smartphones in the form of Near Field Communication (NFC), which, in essence is nothing more than an RFID reader and tag in one. Ultra low power Bluetooth LE enables numerous smart devices to monitor, for instance, room temperature, a person’s activity, a person’s belongings within her proximity, indoor location etc. 

The emerging choice of technologies supporting what we could call ‘proximity interaction’ is rapidly fuelling a debate as to which one will emerge victorious – RFID,  NFC, Bluetooth LE or any of the other proximity technologies. Apple still refuses to add NFC to its line of iPhones. Instead, it supports iBeacons arguing that these Bluetooth based beacons can facilitate the same interactions as NFC and more. And that is exactly the point, the line between which technology can support what is blurring. In fact, you could argue whether you have to choose at all as more and more Android phones can support both out of the box. 

Given the rapid abundance of enabling technologies, now is the time to stop thinking about what an individual technology could enable and start designing for intentional experiences involving real life objects – existing and new. At a minimum, objects in a person’s vicinity can trigger an action on a personal device. At its best, these objects are part of a natural language, used by users without thinking and resulting in experiences that exceed expectations. New tech enables exciting new experience design opportunities, but which tech enables what is practically irrelevant. Making proximatity technology an invisible enabler of an intentional experience is where the real challenges are! Literally.

Leo Poll is Director of Akendi UK.  A firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design, to learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit www.akendi.com.

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