RFID for art, theatre and gaming. Initial research.

RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) is all around us and some people, like the authors of  Spychips fear the implications for our privacy. You can even buy an RFID proof wallet to prevent the chips we all carry on credit and work ID cards being scanned by criminal skimmers. 

Leaving such technofear aside, I see it as a wonderful tool in the creation of interactive artworks, pervasive drama and social games. Rather than prevent RFID penetration of a wallet, six students at Simon Fraser University in Canada have designed The Ladybag which uses the technology to tell the busy lady about town if she's forgotten her keys or mobile.

I am currently funded by Towards Pervasive Media at Nottingham University with some EPSRC Feasibility money to test the use of RFID in storytelling. I'm making a test reader unit at the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol with Tim Kindberg writing the software and Hazel Grian writing the content. Our first test game, My Big Break will go live in February.

Giving people attending an event RFID tags and having multiple readers that trigger multiple possible bits of media will allow us to create very powerful database driven theatre or games. I have been digging around to find out about RFID and here are the results of my initial research. I'd like to work together with other social game and theatre makers to develop and share RFID tools.


Above: Medical Alert (RF)ID Bracelet by Doria Fan



The beautiful wooden Skål is a media player designed for the home that lets you interact with digital media using physical objects. You place objects in a wooden bowl to play back related media on the TV. Skål, the makers claim,  makes media playful.

Meghan Trainor is an artist and doctoral student at the University of Washington's Center for Digital Art and Experimental Media (DXARTS) who has made many inspiring RFID triggered artworks.

The project that really got me thinking about the story telling possibilities was Fortnight by Proto-type Theatre. Each player was given a tag and invited to go to interesting locations where a swipe of the tag triggered sound or video and also an SMS to the phone. They were very successful in submerging the potential clunkiness of swiping into interesting physical objects and spaces. 

In her blog Regine Debatty offers a round up of some amazing RFID projects including unravelling the wire in the tag antenna and weaving beautiful objects like the Medical Alert (RF)ID Bracelet above, by Doria Fan.

Also of great interest is the Mediamatic Social RFID Hacker Camp in Amsterdam in 2008.


How antennas work

Above: An image from some visually beautiful research by Timo Arnall and Jack Schulze and others into how fields form around RFID antennae. Watch their video here.


DIY projects

A small close proximity RFID stand alone kit can be put together for the cost of a netbook (about £250) and a reader (about £30). RFID cards or buttons cost about £1 each at low volumes. You can build your own RFID reader using ID 2, 12 or 20 modules. These can be combined with a Sparkfun board to give a USB output or an arduino. Note that they only read EM4001 tags. The output you get from a reader is the 12 digit unique code of the card. Sparkfun have a video that demos the modules and read range. 

The tiny Wavetrend RX300 reader detects and decodes RFID signals from Wavetrend’s range of active RFID tags. It has an on-board antenna and can operate in rugged conditions at ranges up to 15m. Note that you need active tags which are bigger and more expensive. Also note that most distance claims are over stated. These cost about £50


High End

RFID is mainly used in stock management and there are some amazing RFID readers and antennae. High end readers can put data onto the card if it is RW. An example of a top range reader is the XR480 (approx £1700 + VAT) which can have 8 antennae connected. Antennas for these kinds of readers cost several hundred pounds.

The Intermec IF61 RFID Reader costs over $3000 but has a processor built in.

My Fave

The best solution for doing long proximity reading that I have found so far is the ThingMagic Astra with built in antenna and wifi. (£1200 ex VAT). This claims read range up to 30 feet for Generation 2 UHF RFID tags. These can take many forms and are not over expensive. 

Better still, the Astra is built out of the Mercury5e module that can be bought separately for about $500 and has an API which can integrate with many common programming languages. 


The Future

I've seen the future and it is RFID. There's even a scientist at Reading University called Dr. Mark Gasson that has an RFID chip under his skin encoded with a virus so that he can wreak revenge on the world for a tragic childhood incident where both his parents were killed in a street robbery. Or something. I made the bit up about the parents, but the rest is true.

I've seen the future and its NFC. RFID is as over as vinyl. Near field communication is coming to a smart phone near you very soon. The forthcoming Blackberry Dakota is said to have it. Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced in Nov 20101 that future Android handsets will support NFC. Naturally Apple are on the boat too, hinting it will be on iPhone5. Why? NFC will allow for contact free payments. Phone as bank card. Brilliant, practical, but it will be down to us creative types to turn it into a playing games, telling stories or simply making wonderful things happen.


Let's get to it...

This blog was moved in January 2016 from it's original location on vonviral.ning.com where it had received 1355 views.

Rik Lander

Rik Lander makes interactive and participatory narratives. Website

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