Mayo Nissen

Design, etc

Farevalue (Project Perry)

The simple intervention of adding an e-paper display to the standard RFID-based stored-value transit card allows passengers to see balances remaining, preventing frustration, delay and hassle. This project was done at Urbanscale, in 2011.

A Touch Metrocard being used to enter the NYC subway, and updating the remaining value on the card

With the type of RFID transit cards in use in the world's major cities today there's no self-evident way of knowing how much value remains on a given card. You have to tap the card on a dedicated reader or a full blown ticket machine to learn whether or not you have enough fare to get on the bus or the subway, and the readers are never where you need them to be. And this leads to issues, both for you as a rider and for the transit system at large. Most aggravating is that situation many of us have been unlucky enough to experience, at some point: you're already moving through the turnstile, in anticipation of bus or train (and maybe you can even see it, about to depart without you) when you're brought up short by insufficient fare or an expired card. This is bad in three ways. First, it's simply awkward and embarrassing. Nobody likes to inconvenience others, especially when those others are impatient big-city commuters, crushed up close behind you. It might cause you to miss that bus or train, whether or not you can afford to miss it. And at peak hours, it can materially impact that station's throughput, and the system's ability to get you in, where you need to go, and out, as quickly as possible.

But what if you had a way to know how much remained on your card before you hit the turnstile, and it didn't require tapping on a reader? This is what Farevalue does, by laminating an e-paper display onto the card; the same flow of current through the radio-frequency antenna that energizes the card's logic also updates the display. And since e-ink is “non-volatile” ‐ the display only draws power during a change of state ‐ the new value ought to be legible for weeks or even months thereafter.

A Touch Metrocard being used to enter the NYC subway, and updating the remaining value on the card
An exploded view of a Farevalue card, showing the e-paper display, logic, and branded surface layer laminated together.

Because we were based in New York and wanted to present the concept in the context of the city we called home, we had to not only envision the core of the idea (a e-paper display laminated on an RFID card), but the entire use of an RFID stored value card for New York. Although Korea's Upass had been around since 1996 and Hong Kong's Octopus was launched in 1997 after 3 years of trials, New York City's Subway had only shifted from tokens to magnetic stripe Metrocards in 1992 (which had become the only way to access the subway only in 2003!). Between 2006 and 2010, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ran a series of trials and pilots with Mastercard and Visa, but an at-scale rollout of touch access to the subway remained an indefinitely near-future idea for New Yorkers. We wanted to make the context of the subway, and the foundational idea of using an RFID card to access it, as as mundane and normal as possible, so we created assets that entirely mimicked and extended the visual language of the subway: 3D printed additions to Antenna Design's 1999 MetroCard Vending Machines; A "bolt-on" addition to the turnstiles; iconography and typography that blended into the visual language around them. Most fun were the black and white icon to indicate the use of touch before there was an established visual indicator for contactless chips building on Timo Arnall's work, and creating appropriately garish graphics for the "Touch MetroCard" that look exactly like the exising card designs, gradients and all. Most mind-bending were the vexing angles for the turnstile addition, which we created out of acrylic (an issue that I can't help but noticing challenged the designers of the more recent OMNY system, as well. 1, 2, 3.). My photography skills are better than my rendering or Photoshop skills (and the visual clutter, grime and texture, and lighting of subway stations are something difficult to replicate, anyway), so everything was physical and as-real-as-possible, and photographed in-situ.

I'm still proud of Bruce Sterling's comment that he liked the project's "modest scale and complete specificity," which was precisely what we were aiming for with the various props we created as part of the worldbuilding for this design fiction effort, running ahead of the technical push to turn it into design fact.

A mocked up "Touch Metrocard" being topped up on a modified Metrocard vending machine

This project, initially known as Project Perry, was the first major R&D project we took on at Urbanscale, back in 2011. When we initially proposed the idea, we were told point blank that it was impossible - I believe the phrase we heard more than once was that the idea was "against the laws of physics." Nonetheless, we worked with prototyping partners to create a functional proof of concept - laws of physics be damned - that worked exactly as we had described. This left us with the non-trivial tasks of miniturisation and manufacturing to work through, and some legal and strategic analysis around intellectual property, licensing, and business models to figure out. We got as far as filing for a patent, but later learnt that somebody - possibly Visa or Mastercard, my memory fails me - had applied for one for a similar method at the same time that had not come up in our initial patent search, and we came to the conclusion that they had deeper pockets and more aggressive lawyers than we ever would, so Farevalue was doomed to remain a concept, albeit a very much more plausible one that it had initially seemed. And one that, despite the intervening decade, I would still like to have in my daily life, even as New York City only now inches towards introducing a contactless fare payment system.

The technical proof-of-concept created to prove that the idea was possible.


This work was conducted while at Urbanscale with Adam Greenfield and Jeff Kirsch in 2011, with the support and collaboration of Benedetta Piantella, Justin Downs, Todd Bailey, and Nurri Kim.