Smart wallets watch your money by talking to your bank account

MIT Media Lab's Information Ecology group developed three prototype high-tech wallets that automatically connect to your bank account and make it easier or more difficult to spend money based upon your balance. MIT team member John Kestner explains what each of the "proverbial wallets" does and how they work.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Have you ever spent money when you shouldn't have? We've all been there. MIT researcher John Kestner thinks wallets should reflect our bank account in a much more personal way.

As part of MIT Media Lab's Information Ecology group, Kestner and his team developed three prototype high-tech wallets that automatically connect to your bank account. One of the wallets swells and shrinks depending on the balance in your account. I wouldn't want my wallet to look slim when it comes time to pay the dinner bill!

SmartPlanet asked Kestner about the idea of the smart wallets to see if the prototypes would ever make it out of the lab and into our pockets:

SmartPlanet: Does the smart wallet actually work? Have you used it? The concept is great, but the video makes it seem a little awkward to carry around right?

JK: The wallets do work. They're pretty durable. I can sit on them.

But they are prototypes, and are a little too finicky for daily use right now. The Peacock wallet's bulk is impractical for a real product, but the other two are as compact as any wallet.

SmartPlanet: What motivated you to develop this? Do you think that people need to be physically aware of their bank accounts? How does that help them manage their budgets? Why is this important, especially during the holiday shopping season?

JK: Like everyone else, information overload is a problem in my life. The Information Ecology research group at the MIT Media Lab, of which I'm a part, develops new technology and interfaces to deal with problems like this.

I got bored with screen-based interfaces, so I challenged myself to play with the non-visual senses. We've got five senses, yet we focus mostly on one of them!

Touch is useful for financial information because it keeps it private, and hopefully triggers a more visceral, intimate connection. We're already used to tuning out visual distractions.

I want to convey information in the background, so that instead of processing exact numbers, I just have a feeling that I shouldn't be spending money right now. It can be as natural as knowing that I need a jacket because I can feel the cold wind on my skin.

SmartPlanet: How does it work, exactly? What parts did you have to put into the wallet to get it to respond to what is in a person's bank account?

JK: The real smarts are in your cellphone. The wallets reduce cost and complexity by letting an app on your phone get information from your bank. Using Bluetooth, the phone sends commands to the wallet, like "buzz a negative pattern for two seconds." Then there's a different actuator in each one to provide the physical feedback: a vibrating motor, a servo and a resistive hinge.

SmartPlanet: What fascinates you about how people spend money?

JK: Anything that Dan Ariely writes about it. Whether concerning money or other things, the space between how we make decisions, and how we think we make decisions, is a fruitful field for designers.

SmartPlanet: Do you think people will actually use something this? Won't wallets kind of disappear with all the talk of companies like Square and other companies trying to make digital wallets? I mean, you're trying to make the original wallet smarter, but don't you think there's a chance wallets won't exist in the future?

JK: I make use of the warm associations that we have with these existing objects. But I'm not as attached to a particular object as to the stability of the physical world. When my cellphone can be as lovable and dependable as my old leather wallet, I'll consider replacing it.

No doubt some descendant of Square will get there. But I hope it doesn't make us sacrifice control for convenience.

SmartPlanet: What book or movie have you last read or watched?

JK: The latest Harry Potter flick. To quote Arthur C. Clarke, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

By that measure, J.K. Rowling produces some very inspiring science fiction.

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