It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon in Soho. I am at a cafe, waiting to interview a guy called Lee Porte. We have never met before, but I immediately recognise him. Lee immediately strikes you as as the archetypical geek – long hair, big beard, Mr. Robot T-shirt, an extremely nice guy. He also has a RFID chip implanted in his hand. While this might sound scary and futuristic to some, it seems incredibly normal to him. And it’s the reason I wanted to meet him.
A few weeks prior to our meeting, I attended the FutureFoundation conference Trending 2017 and RFID implants were one of the ‘beyond human’ topics discussed. A short Twitter conversation later, and I got myself an interview with Lee.
Our conversation on that rainy Tuesday afternoon for me, demystified what you might call ‘biohacking’ – a movement that identifies with transhumanist and biopunk ideologies. Implanted RFID chips are not completely new, but the movement is still in its infancy. I wanted to share some of the insights with you, which Lee kindly agreed to. In case you ever wondered how and why to get ‘chipped up’, here’s a quick overview.
“I love playing with cutting edge technology and it doesn’t get more cutting edge than this.”
1) It’s simpler than you think
While you could implant it yourself, it’s easier being done by a piercing studio, or as Lee points out, a friendly vet (it’s pretty much the same thing as getting your cat chipped). It takes about 30 seconds, neatly sitting in the flesh between your thumb and index finger. Apparently you don’t even feel it being in there. It certainly can’t be seen from the outside.
Armed with an XMP tag writer on your phone, you can then easily read and write on your chip via your phone’s NFC. For example, you can write your contact details on there, and use your RFID chip as a business card with your next handshake. While exchanging business cards sounds like an interesting use case, it doesn’t quite convince me yet to chip up my hand. Lee and I discuss if this niche movement might ever become mainstream.
2) You need a killer app
For Lee, working as a system admin at a big data company gives him unique access to certain systems that allow him to experiment with his RFID chip. He programmed it to use as a key to unlock the office doors, which according to him leads to some interesting reactions from visitors who see him magically open doors, Jedi-style.
Replacing door keys certainly is a very practical application. He is still trying to convince his other half to get a chip so that they can get rid of their standard door lock. Apparently she’s not that keen yet, which might be the case with the majority of people. But this may quickly change, the more applications could be written into your hand.
According to Lee, anything you can add a unique identifier against, you can use with your RFID chip. Technically your Oyster card could be replaced but it is down to TFL to give you access to it, which they currently don’t. If a major player like TFL came on board, Lee reckons this could really kick off. Who wouldn’t want an Oyster card they can’t lose?
Contactless payment is another obvious one and technically there’s no reason why you couldn’t link your credit card to your RFID-chipped-hand, allowing you to pay your restaurant bill at your next dinner. While this might freak out your date and waiters alike, we shouldn’t forget that paying with your mobile phone seemed far off a few years ago as well. Technological change and socially accepted behaviour go hand in hand, so to say.
I am getting really intrigued now. This suddenly sounds like a much more viable option. A simple procedure, and you get keys, a credit card and your Oyster card that you can’t lose any more. A killer app for the forgetful.
3) It’s not just about utility
While I am a very practical person, for some people, utility might not be the main draw. Like tattoos and piercings, body modification is becoming more acceptable and for some people this is purely about aesthetic reasons.
‘Firefly tattoos’ are little implants that contain Tritium, a radioactive gas that glows. Again, you can get this stuff via Cyberise.me. It has no functional value, but it is “really quite cool”, as Lee points out. He is considering using them as glowing eyes, as part of a larger tattoo design.
Apparently some people just like the idea of implanting magnets under their skin as well. I can see the appeal of playing Magneto for a day, but any more than this and it might become quite frustrating every time you empty your dishwasher.
4) We are just getting started
Whether it is considered useful or beautiful, the biohacking movement is just getting started. Flexible NFC chips are tested in beta at the moment, giving you a much bigger antenna area which makes it easier to tag, but come also with a bigger operational procedure.
There are obviously other developments beyond RFID chips. Brain computer interfaces seem to be the ultimate goal, getting closer to the Matrix. In the meantime, companies like Grindhouse Wetware, an open source biotechnology startup company based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are leading the charge. ‘As a dedicated team working towards a common goal – augmenting humanity using safe, affordable, open source technology’ they believe “that with imagination and drive, any of us can feel and touch EMF fields, explore its contours, sense the temperature of objects across a room, navigate a room using a sonar sense, or even connect the body to the Internet – right now. It is that dream above all that drives us to create.”
One of their projects is Circadia, an implantable device that can read biomechanical data and transmit via bluetooth. It can also display messages, warnings, or texts from your Android phone via LEDs through your skin.
This all still seems like sci-fi to me but the conversation with Lee has grounded my view of this futuristic movement in practical reality. And while I can see scenarios of brands experimenting in this space, it might be a bit too early to include any of this stuff into your Marketing plan just yet. Lee suggested biohacked brand ambassadors at events. Sounds like an interesting idea, but as I am not yet convinced to chip up myself, I might not recommend that in my next client meeting.
As I quickly head back through the rain, fiddling with my key card to get back into the office, I wish I could open that door with a quick hand gesture.
Author: Achim Schauerte, Strategy Director BBH London