This was a tiny project that came out of a very specific need – my tendency to lose Oyster cards. I don’t like getting my wallet out to touch in and out, I change coats and bags with reasonable regularity and the pockets of womens garments are often stupidly designed – I lost three in a week and knew I had to find another way.
A quick google shows you can easily melt down your Oyster in nail varnish remover, which brings so many delightful possibilities for giving it a new form. That chap put his in a magic wand and adds to the life of the city by occasionally dressing as a wizard to touch in and out. More prosaically, people put them on their watches or on a bracelet. As soon as it’s just a chip and a loop of wire you can do anything with it that won’t block the RFID signal.
I chose a felt ball partly because the process of making them means they are always the perfect size to hold in the palm of your hand. It’s a friendly object to keep in your pocket. Plus I had the materials to hand. So I spent a pound on the cheapest nail varnish remover I could find, and tried not to poke it every minute to see if it was delaminating yet. (This was probably the hardest part.)
In a few hours the layers started to come apart and I was able to peel it down to a core, which softened over time. Given that felting involves hot soapy water, I left the final layer of plastic to protect the wires and cut down the card and double-looped the wires into a ball. At this point I also popped out to the tube station to check it still worked as an Oyster card.
Happily, the answer was yes, and I moved on to felting. There are great online tutorials for this, but the basic principle is that you put a little soap on the wool fleece and agitate the fibres until they lock together using the microscopic hooks inherent in sheeps wool. Thus felt starts to form. It’s a bit of a magical process, not unlike the moment in a darkroom when you bathe your photo paper in developer and the image starts to appear.
It took a couple of goes to get a properly tight ball – cracking is a big problem when making this type of shape – but eventually I had a wet ball of felt with an oyster chip inside. As felt dries it becomes tighter and springier, and it becomes a delightful object to hold.
My main fear was that the felt would insulate the chip too much to read, and at first it seemed like that was the case. My first try found that on one side of the felt ball the chip wouldn’t read at all, and on the other side it could detect that there was something there, but couldn’t read what it was. However, there are four ticket machines in my local tube station, of three different types, and it turned out to be only one particular type that couldn’t read it. I occasionally had to give it several goes, but on one side of the ball, there was enough contact to bring up the normal dialogues, add some money onto it, and go for a ride.
I marked the side of the ball that worked in a way that DEFINITELY WASN’T EYES, no sirree, no anthropomorphising of technology here, and went on my way. For the first few weeks I always took a charged backup Oyster card with me in case it didn’t work, but then the inevitable happened and I lost it, and relied on the felt ball for every journey.
So I did some learning by making, which I had expected, but also quite a lot of learning by using, which I hadn’t. I had expected that I’d feel warmer about my public transport experiences because I was journeying with a thing that I had made for myself rather than the mass-produced thing I’d been issued. And yes, that happened, and it got named and developed a certain notoriety among the bus passengers on my commute. It became a thing I’d often toy with like a stressball during difficult meetings, and I always knew where it was because the shape is hard to miss. I’d expected to have to fettle a little, and that I’d learn something about the limits of RFIDs, and both of those expectations were correct.
What I hadn’t expected was to be made to think so much about the risks inherent in not being able to rely on your technology. Some types of RFID reader simply couldn’t pick up the chip properly, and there were some sweaty-palmed moments roaming around different exits trying to find a place I could touch out. Sometimes, Oyster readers aren’t working, and then having something that looks nothing like an Oyster card is useless. Whereas a tube worker can just let everyone pass who flashes their generic Oyster at them, flashing a felt ball does not have the same effect. And eventually, the RFID just went dead one day mid-journey on the tube – apparently it’s a thing they’re prone to.
So from being a normal fare-paying citizen who never thought about the politics of my journey, I entered a new world of having to justify to transport workers that I was a genuine tester of buggy technology, not a fare dodger. And the thing is, my arguments always worked. I didn’t get fined. I didn’t get fined because I’m a white woman who sounds educated and dresses smartly, because I was sincere in my enthusiasm in explaining things, once only because there was a worker on the station who had seen the man dressed as a wizard use his magic wand, and he persuaded the others that this was a thing that could happen. But mainly it was the first reason.
I had interesting conversations with skeptical transport workers about when an Oyster stops being an Oyster. I repeated what I’d read about this not violating the terms of service. I often defused mildly difficult situations by making people laugh. But I kept coming back to the fact that I don’t fit anyone’s preconceptions of a fare dodger, and if I’d been e.g. a teenage boy I’d probably have abandoned it pretty quickly.
This final image is post-brain surgery Li’l Oyster. I don’t know why the RFID suddenly died after five or six months of use, it was never clear. Possibly I didn’t clean the acetone off well enough and it eventually ate through the wires.
I have another card melting in acetone as I type, and Mk II will have a new colour scheme and some updated features, and hopefully take me back out into the world with fewer moments of failure. It’s always going to act as a gentle reminder of the terms on which I travel through my city.
UPDATE: The substance at the core of Oyster cards has been changed, so if you want to do this, you’re going to have to find an old one or a more noxious chemical. My newly purchased oyster card lost a little bit of structure, so it could be rolled up, but I couldn’t get to the wires, and silicon dissolver hasn’t worked either.
It’s also come to light that the reason that the detection distance is so low is the double loop I made with the wires – strength of signal is directly related to the size of that loop. So if I can find a way to dissolve the current card, I’ll be experimenting with different configurations before making a final decision on form.