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2010-12-08 // // Technology // Protective Fields

Trust and technology are inextricably linked, though common society tends to view them as antithetical to one another. We may not trust the various technologies that populate our quotidian environments, but nevertheless we find ourselves unable to conduct our lives without them. In my research, I have examined the role that sensory input plays in the initiation and development of trust; the metaphysical instinct towards trust is enacted through visual and tactile explorations. Could this explain why we find it difficult to trust something we cannot see or feel?

Radio frequency identification, or RFID, is a technology that is rapidly becoming ubiquitous. Its most commonly recognized implementation is in the form of contactless smart cards used in urban transportation systems, but it can also be employed in tracking, payment, identification, and, more recently, entertainment. Essentially, the technology involves contactless communication between two objects: one radiates an electromagnetic field, and the other modulates the frequency of this field, transferring information back to the first object. Although the conceptual definition may be simple, the actual materialization of this process is inarguably foreign to the average user.

Our inability to really know and experience such abstract notions as ambient waves of energy leads to mistrust and confusion. How big are these fields? What are they shaped like? Are they secure? Is it healthy for us to constantly be subject to their influence? Human doubts in the technological underpinnings of contemporary life can even manifest themselves in bodily form. For example, electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a term used to describe a range of physiological symptoms including pain, fatigue, and headache that sufferers claim to experience as the result of radiation.

While all evidence indicates that these symptoms are psychosomatic (in other words, that they are caused by neurotic factors rather than biological ones), the fact remains that individuals experience adverse effects of this widespread mistrust. Furthermore, social systems suffer from lack of confidence in security. Privacy concerns multiply as RFID chips are integrated into mobile phones, credit cards, passports, and even human implants. When €200 can buy you the tools to steal someone’s identity from their passport without even touching them, the problematic intangibility of the electromagnetic fields presents itself.

countries using RFID-enabled e-passports

model of e-passport and RFID field

prototype of e-passport holder in natural leather

My design work focuses on the territory of intangibility, materiality, and protection as they relate to technology. How can our physical interaction with invisible fields and smart objects be modified to restore trust and intimate awareness to new products? From two- and three-dimensional visualizations of the electromagnetic fields surrounding our everyday objects – bank cards, mobile phones, passports, etc. – I have explored the idea of containers that make invisibile fields tangible, that transform something dubious into something trustworthy.

model of smartphone and RFID field

prototype of smartphone case in polyurethane

My work co-opts the containers we have for everyday objects to make their invisible fields tangible. They become part of the physical extent of the objects, delimited by wrapping and enclosure. Yet these containers also offer protection for the digital data that surrounds the objects. By restricting the proximity of strangers, they make RFID safe.

prototype of smartcard container in snakeskin