NEW YORK (MainStreet) – With credit cards enabling many Americans to accrue massive amounts of debt and several companies aiming to bring mobile phone payments to the masses, it’s easier than ever to overspend these days. Now, one group of designers and engineers is trying to make that more difficult.
A group at the MIT Media Lab, led by designer John Kestner, has developed three high-tech wallets intended to help users track expenses and keep spending under control. Dubbed “The Proverbial Wallet,” the project adds a physical dimension to an increasingly virtual process through a wireless connection to your bank account.
First there’s the “Peacock,” which inflates or deflates based on how much money is in the linked account. So called because “your assets will be on display to attract potential mates,” the wallet gets fatter when you have more money – just like it used to be when people actually used cash.
Second, there’s the “Bumblebee,” which vibrates every time your bank processes a transaction, thereby encouraging “a conscious connection between handing over your credit card and your hard-earned money being harvested from the bank.” The vibrations are more intense for bigger withdrawals – think of it as shock therapy to wean you off your spending addiction.
And finally there’s the “Mother Bear,” which contains a hinge that makes it increasingly difficult to open the wallet as you approach your budget limit. Don’t worry about being locked out of your wallet in an emergency, though. “People won’t use a product that won’t let you do something,” says Kestner. “At full strength you can feel it fighting, but it’s still possible to open it.”
Of course, there are already plenty of free personal budgeting sites like Mint.com that track your expenses and alert you when you go over budget, and many can even be downloaded as free applications on your smartphone. But Kestner says that information is easier to absorb when it comes from a dedicated device – in this case, the wallet.
“One comment I get is, ‘Why not just put this function into your cell phone?’” he says. “[On your phone] you have to go to each one of these [applications] and you have to think about it… Smartphones have their uses, but any good user interface designer will tell you that modes complicate things.”
More importantly, though, putting that information in the form of immediate physical sensations – the intensity of a vibration, the difficulty in opening your wallet – communicates the “pain” of spending in a way that looking at a balance sheet at the end of the month never can. In an era when counting out and handing over a stack of bills has been replaced with the quick swipe of a plastic card, getting that physical feedback is an important reminder that the money you just spent is real.
For now the wallets are still prototypes, and Kestner says that actually putting them into production will depend on their ability to solve technical problems and cost issues. At the moment the parts cost around $100 per wallet, and he’s not willing to sell it for more than $50-$60. That, of course, would defeat the whole purpose of the project.
“It would be ironic if I charged a lot of money for it,” he jokes.
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