Magic: to see something that makes you question everything.
I like to tell people that I’m a magician, or at least I’d like to think so. I’m actually a software engineer at Blue Bite; I work on our Android apps, and handle some of the research and development projects. My job is to build systems that interact with physical objects, and to provide great experiences for people.
A lot of our R&D revolves around RFID applications. To give you a snapshot: RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, is the technology in our EZ Pass sets, the anti-fraud systems in retail products, and the ID cards we use to get into buildings. Blue Bite has been on a mission to enable retail products (think: sneakers, clothes, bags, etc.) to become “smart” by embedding RFID chips in them. And to make this an end-to-end product is an experience provided when interacting with these “smart objects.”
This is my brief for The Shoe Mirror.
Imagine: you bring a pair of shoes up to a mirror and the mirror animates, showing you information about those shoes. What sizes are in stock? What colors are available? Were they made by a Fair Trade manufacturer? Anything you need to know, and just like that, we’ve made magic. If done right, one product can raise a person’s expectations of everything around them.
It all sounds fantastic. But there remains a question: how do we make it happen?
I’ll tell you.
First, we need a one-way mirror, a display, some sort of computer, and a way to identify these RFID chips. The first two are easy to find, but we still have to figure out what computer would be right for this use case. Can we fit a computer behind a thin display and a mirror? Of course — it’s 2016! So, after much R&D, we chose a Raspberry Pi like computer board but with better graphical capabilities, as to not hinder visual experiences.
This tiny computer is about the size of a credit card. However, despite its size, it’s not something to underestimate. You can surf the web, write blog posts, and even run apps on it. So I wrote an app for it that would eventually be the early beginnings of The Shoe Mirror.
Next, we need to read RFID chips. How does one go about doing that? Well, first you need a RFID reader module that connects to a computer, whose function is to do the reading. But it’s not as simple as merely obtaining this piece and — bang! — it starts reading the chips. You see, in order to get that information, you need to do a little setup. Warning: this next paragraph is a mouthful.
First we hook up the tiny computer (debian based linux) to the RFID reader module using UART serial ports. Then we need to power and prepare the RFID module to begin constantly polling for RFID chips in its read range (4 inches). Once powered, the RFID module will send out radio waves at very specific frequencies toward an RFID chip. Surrounding the RFID chip are metal coils that catch these radio waves and induce an electrical current that provides enough energy to power the chip. During the momentary power surge, the chip reads its own memory and then relays that back to the original device using a similar process. And by the way, that memory looks like this:
(If you’re wondering what that means, it says, “Stand back. I’m going to try science.”)
I’m sorry about all that, but as something that I had never done before, it was a huge technical hurdle for me that I am proud to have overcome. I spent weeks reading documentation, forum posts, and code trying to get this up and running. At last, all of my work came to fruition and we had a bare bones version of The Shoe Mirror. Immediately, everyone in the office started churning out application ideas. The energy was palpable; it was as if we were on the brink of discovery.
In layman’s terms, all you really need to know is that we can store whatever we’d like into the shoe, and The Shoe Mirror can read the information embedded in it. So despite my long, technical explanation, here is what happens:
1. Read shoe memory.
2. Render the experience for that shoe.
The Shoe Mirror is just a single example. In fact, I find it difficult to sleep at night thinking about all the possibilities. We’re coming closer and closer to living in a world that we’ve read about in futuristic novels, and to what we’ve seen in sci-fi films.
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I often recall the same memory of a magician that performed at one of my childhood birthday parties. He fanned out some cards, I picked one, and somehow he found my card, presented it to me, and said, “Is this your card?”
Life is an expert at informing us of our limitations. However, the moment that a magician pulls out your card, or a mirror knows about your shoes, for a split-second you believe that there might be no limit. It’s these moments that the people at Blue Bite strive for. We don’t just “Bridge the Physical & Digital Worlds” — we make magic.