Exploring 'Immaterials': Mediating Design's Invisible Materials

By Arnall, Timo | International Journal of Design, August 2014 | Go to article overview

Exploring 'Immaterials': Mediating Design's Invisible Materials


Arnall, Timo, International Journal of Design


Introduction

This article emerged from five years of design practice and research in a project called Touch that investigated a technology called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) through exploratory interaction and product design approaches. The project involved a team of trans-disciplinary designers, technologists and researchers.

RFID was chosen as the subject of the research because it sits at a confluence of multiple contexts, practices, and discourses. The technology is already widely used for ticketing, access control, security, and payment. The diversity of RFID tags from London, Seoul, Helsinki, Berlin, and Oslo can be seen in Figure 1. If you have a travel card, library card, or work in a large office, it's likely you have an RFID tag in your pocket or purse right now. In industrial and marketing perspectives, RFID seems ripe with new opportunities for 'frictionless' transactions, and the control and monitoring of objects and flows (Fleisch & Dierkes, 2003). However, as we shall see, the technology is also heavily contested by those who are concerned by the effects of such systems on privacy, and by popular media that embellishes technical possibilities and implications for dramatic effect.

[Figure omitted, see PDF]

Figure 1. Various RFID tags collected by the author.

Technically, an RFID system consists of a reader that induces a current into the antenna of a small, cheap, battery-less tag, establishing a wireless connection and transferring a small amount of data. RFID tags contain data, such as a unique identifying number, so they can allow objects to be identified at a distance. Both RFID tags and readers can be embedded invisibly in objects, products, fabrics or beneath physical surfaces. This invisibility is a desirable yet problematic quality of RFID systems. RFID is popular in Human Computer Interaction (HCI), interaction design, and ubiquitous computing research, where it can be used to make cheap, robust, and invisible interfaces out of ordinary, everyday objects. However, these qualities also make the technology deeply unpopular to groups concerned about the privacy implications of unknown, invisible tracking of personal information (Albrecht & McIntyre, 2005). In this way RFID is a microcosm of a larger debate about 'invisible computing,' where the "most profound technologies are those that disappear" (Weiser, 1991, p. 1), but where the questions of agency, control, and trust in these invisible interfaces are yet to be resolved (Ratto, 2007).

The Touch project was an opportunity for the team as designers and researchers to participate, negotiate, and intervene in matters of concern to the team, and to support the ongoing discussion of emerging RFID technology. By drawing on our assembled knowledge of approaches and techniques, from diverse disciplines such as animation, filmmaking, electronics, industrial, interaction, graphic design, and communication design, we were able to explore and articulate new perspectives on RFID. This ranged from explorations of technical components (such as the deconstruction of RFID tags shown in Figure 2), to designing products and prototypes using RFID interfaces, to creating visualisations, animations, and films about the material phenomena of RFID interactions. Through these dynamics of making and reflection, we revealed previously hidden aspects of the technology, and articulated these perspectives through creative, communicative, and narrative means. This mixture of methods and outcomes supported important discussions of RFID both in and beyond the disciplinary boundaries of engineering and interaction design.

[Figure omitted, see PDF]

Figure 2. Exploring the technical material of RFID: an RFID tag is being taken apart on this workbench in our design studio. The looped wire antenna as well as the tiny memory chip resting on the finger are shown.

Outline and Key Questions

In contrast to many other design research projects that focus on the use, function, or application of technologies, or on the qualities and meanings of designed objects, this research instead argues for discursive approaches that focus on materials and mediations in design. …

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