Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Everyday RFID

My first experience with RFID in New Zealand was when I was issued my university ID card - you know, the one that gets you into buildings and lets you check out library books - and I promptly put it in my wallet and forgot about it.

My second encounter with RFID was purchasing a Snapper card for public transit. Recently introduced in Auckland and currently used by one third of Wellington's population, Snapper works just like an Oyster or Octopus card - what's with all these sea creature names, anyway? - that cost me $10 to buy and charges me 25 cents every time I top it up or "feed" it at one of many local Snapper merchants (unless I want to pay online by credit card, for which there is currently no charge). Alternatively, the $25 Snapper Reader plugs into your USB port and is marketed as a way for households to "feed schools of Snappers."

Using Snapper for transit is interesting - especially when you see the "how to" video posted on Go Wellington's public transit Snapper page. I can't embed the video here, so you'll have to follow the link yourselves, but here's an icon and partial text transcription to familiarise you with the interaction designed for "tagging on" and "tagging off":

How to tag on correctly
Place your Snapper flat to the reader
Hold card flat and still
Wait for the green circle

How not to tag on
Don't swipe too fast
Or make quick movements

Remember to tag off
Hold your card flat and still to the reader
And wait for green circle

So basically, the rule is that whether you're coming or going, be sure to touch the reader and don't move until you get the green circle. First, this is interesting when you remember that these types of cards are actually contactless - they can be read up to several centimetres and don't require any touching at all. Second, this is interesting because people seem to want to move the card around so much that they have to be repeatedly told not to. Why do you think that is? Is there really no technological solution that would prevent us from having to adapt or change our behaviour? (Should there be?)

Now let's consider the "tag on" - "tag off" system.Clearly it's necessary to calculate the length of a trip, but I'd love to see the technical process made much more transparent and intelligible than in this description:

Q: Why do I need to tag off?
The Snapper system uses GPS (Global Positioning System), to record which stop you get on the bus and where you get off. This information is used to calculate the correct discounted fare for the journey. If you don't tag off the system assumes that you travelled to the end of the line. The tag off penalty for both GO Wellington and Valley Flyer is the full cash fare. So if you don't tag off your fare is calculated to the end of the line, and you do not receive the 20% discount.

And what happens when cards/readers/people fail?

Q: My card just gives me a red cross not a green circle. What is wrong?
The Snapper may not have sufficient value stored on it to pay for the fare. If you have plenty of value on your card, then it may be that the bus reader has not read your card clearly. Remove your card from the reader and give it five clear seconds before trying again. Remember to hold it flat and still against the reader and wait for the green circle. Then you are good to go.

So I get the red cross about a third of the time I use my card which suggests I don't get close enough to the reader or am totally inept at standing still. I am also unable to carry my Snapper card and my university access card in the same wallet because it breaks the system and I get a fail warning. This reminds me that I don't think it will be very long before I have several RFID cards that will apparently require several different wallets - and that will enable me to move as gracefully as a crash of rhinos. Of course, Snapper have already thought of this and offer local secondary schools the opportunity to embed Snapper tags in their student IDs. But really, is one card/fob that rules them all the only answer?

Incidentally, Snapper isn't limited to buses - taxis will start accepting Snapper payment in March, beginning with the Total Mobility scheme, "a subsidised taxi service for the 7500 people in the Wellington region who, because of a disability, cannot use regular bus or train services." And like Octopus or Suica cards, I can also use my Snapper card to pay for items at Snapper merchants (which are mostly dairies or convenience stores). And now that smart card (RFID-enabled) transit is becoming more widespread or normal, it's the added ability to purchase things via RFID that interests me.

For example, I want to understand if or how it's any different from the introduction of Interac in Canada or Eftpos in New Zealand - both of which arguably replaced cash years ago? And I wonder what we stand to lose in our never-ending quest for convenience?

Take the $40 Snapper USB
"The Snapper USB allows you to feed directly from your credit card and still does everything that a regular Red Snapper does. You can still feed your Snapper USB at any Snapper Retailer, just like a regular Red Snapper and it can be age-enabled so that if you're at school you'll automatically get a child discount on the bus. Attach your Snapper USB to your key ring, mobile phone, handbag, or wallet for easy access any time."

or the new I Snapper NZ key tag, which was recently renamed the Snapper Sprat in a public contest. If I can use my existing Snapper card in all the same ways, why would I purchase one of these products? Have they been designed for people who don't use public transit and want something smaller and sexier?

I also noticed that Snapper CEO Miki Szikszai commented on Timo and Jack's Immaterials video, saying that they "would love to see if you could map our devices in this way." This got me thinking about how smart and aesthetically-pleasing videos could be exactly what I want to help customers understand how Snapper uses RFID and GPS - and what is at stake socially and culturally (eg. privacy vs. anonimity, traceability vs. surveillance) if this is the path we choose to follow.

Now I think it's time to introduce myself to the Snapper folks and see what they're up to. Stay tuned?

Update 11/01/10: I added some links above to other smart cards, and here are a few more: myki (Melbourne), SmartRider (Perth), TCard (Sydney). Unlike the Hong Kong, Tokyo and New Zealand cards, the Australian ones (like most others in the world) seem to be exclusively for transit use. I've also made contact with Snapper and am looking forward to a visit with them soon.


Blogger heyotwell said...

Here in Seattle, it's called the ORCA card, so again the animal theme. Though it's actually an acronym for One Regional Card for All, which is depressingly dull.

I also have the problem of wanting to "rub" my card (in my wallet) against the reader, I'm not sure why. Ours have the annoying problem that when a card fails to read, the red X is dispalyed just a tick too long, and it's never ready to re-read by the time I'm rubbing again. The rhythym is wrong for the pace of commuting.

Blogger Anne said...

Yeah, I know what you mean about the rhythm problem. It's awkward. I once spent a full 10-15 seconds trying to get the bloody card read. I'm pretty sure I waved it all over the place too - which really makes me wonder why people do that so much. Luckily, Kiwis are super mellow and didn't mind the wait - but it made me want to scream.

Blogger mister sapin said...

Although I am not sure about its methodology/theoretical framework, this paper "User Perceptions on Mobile Interaction with Visual and RFID Tags" may be interesting for your project.

Blogger antimega said...

The Helsinki system (which may have recently changed, but I don't think so) requires you to hold the card close to the surface and then press one of 4 ruggedised buttons to declare what kind of ticket you want. It's really confusing - more so as they changed what the button numbers meant - but also an almost impossible physical gesture. With practice you could do it one-handed, but it never felt natural.

The check in check out is similar to London. It's because the system here is built on top of a lot of disparate systems and companies. We've just been able to start using pay-as-you-go on London trains - but because of the revenue split, there are odd systems that affect a lot of people, such as having to queue up to get a teller to add a free Oyster Extension Permit to your rfid card before you travel.

Blogger Anne said...

mister sapin - Thanks for the paper link!

Chris - The need to press buttons as well is just brutal! What I find most interesting about the Snapper is that it's not limited to transit, and it invisibly adjusts itself to different uses. Of course, it's this invisibility that I also find most troubling ;)

Blogger Ben said...

In Brisbane we have the "Go Card". It's only for trains and buses. It works for the trains quite well. The main city stations are turnstile controlled so you are compelled to tag on/off. Local suburban stations have readers on plinths that you need to locate and remember to tag on/off. They're sort of slow, again as you've described for the Snapper, so that there is sometimes a line for tagging. I've found that the indicator lights are slower than the actual system and you can tag off after someone else before their indicator light has extinguished.

On the buses it works as you've described for the Snapper, too. Including the occasional errors.

Recharging the value can only be done at AVVM's (Automated Value Vending Machine) which are only (apparently) located at train stations, much to the consternation of bus commuters. The bus network in Brisbane is more extensive than the trains. The AVVMs are among the worst-designed pieces of public hardware I've come across.

Hmm... Maybe Snapper and Go Card (always "Go Card", never simply "Go". Lame.) are running the same system?

Blogger Ben said...

Oh! Question: you say "I am also unable to carry my Snapper card and my university access card in the same wallet because it breaks the system and I get a fail warning."

Do you mean you can't tag on/off by waving your wallet over the Snapper reader? Can you take your card out of your wallet to tag on/off?

I have a similar problem with the Go Card and my uni ID. The Go Card readers fail if I wave my wallet with both cards inside, so I take out my Go Card to tag it. But the readers at Uni, or perhaps the card/chip/reader system seems to be fine with multiple cards and is able to find the correct one.

Blogger Miki Szikszai said...

Hi Anne

Great post - and thanks for your insights on the improvements we can make to language on our website. We're in the process of completely rebuilding our site so we'll take your views on board.

In terms of speed,we've been spending a lot of time working on getting the tag-on / tag-off processes as fast as possible.

As way of background there is a lot that is happening between the reader and the card including checking for sufficient balance, concession eligibility, passes, incomplete journeys and any amounts owing. It takes a few hundred milliseconds to work through all this.

We're optimising the logic, testing new card chipsets and have re-designed the User Experience to speed this all up. we think we have a pretty good improvement in the labs here at Snapper.

I have dropped you an email - we'd love to have you come and check it out. On top of that we can have a look at the University ID card as well

@Ben Snapper uses the T-Money system that runs in Seoul (30 million transactions per day) whereas brisbane uses a system from Cubic. Similar in terms of RF capability but different in terms of modes of use - Snapper can be used for a lot more than just Transport. We get regular use in a range of Retail applications including cafes, convenience stores and movies.


Miki Szikszai

Blogger Trevor said...

I took "One Regional Card for All" as Tolkeinesqe rather than depressingly dull!

Blogger Toby said...

I've never used this type of card, but from reading the descriptions of waving/swiping behaviour I suspect that it's partly because of experience using or watching use of laser bar-code scanners.


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