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MIT students create Smart Wallet

Dec 8, 2010 5:51pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Cambridge, Mass.) - It's that time of year big-hearted gift shoppers all across New England are struggling to avoid overspending. But now an MIT Media Lab scholar has invented a possible solution: A family of wireless-enabled wallets that can send you direct feedback on just how rich or poor you are at this moment, right as you're going to open your wallet to buy something with card or cash.

John Kestner's project is a kind of whimsical answer to this problem: In an era when more and more of us do all our financial transactions online or electronically, how can technology replicate the old-fashioned feel of dollars going in and out of your wallet? Or coins going in and out of your pocket.

"The problem that I have myself, and I'm sure a lot of people have this, is just being able to keep a handle on my finances,'' Kestner said.

One solution he came up with is the "mama Bear" wallet with a hinge in the middle. Depending on where you are relative to a monthly ceiling on spending you've set for yourself, "it gets easier or harder to open, depending on how close you are to hitting your monthly budget,'' Kestner explained.

Another sends a pulse of signals to your wallet as online credits and debits are flowing in and out of your bank account, like a weekly paycheck or utility auto-debit. For fun, the signal for money coming is in the pattern of the bugle "charge" call. Money going out is in the cadence of "shave and a haircut, two bits" -- or to some New Englanders, "ham on the hambone, pea soup."

Explained Kestner, "We use credit cards where it doesn't matter how much we spend, you still make that same swiping motion, so you don't kind of feel this tangibly, the pain of the money being removed from you.''

John's part of a research group that's working on various ways to make the flood of information we read, see, or hear become something more tactile. One example is an Internet-enabled hat he calls "my ears are burning." In addition to the internet connection, it has tiny heaters inside. When the wearer is being "poked" on Facebook, or mentioned in a Twitter tweet, the heaters will literally warm up the wearer's ears -- a 21st century version of the old saying that your ears burn when someone somewhere is talking about you. Another colleague built an elaborate device that changes your morning toothpaste based on the weather forecast. If it is going to be a warm day, a toothpaste dispenser gives you cinnamon-flavored toothpaste. But the colder it's going to be, the more peppermint flavor is mixed in -- and on a brutal winter morning, you get all peppermint.

 
Today, John Kestner's wallet would cost around $100 too make -- too expensive, realistically, if your goal is just saving money. The real intelligence and most complex technology in this system is getting the online banking information through your smartphone. All the wallet has to do is have a Bluetooth-activated buzzer that pulses in the phone -- or makes the Mama Bear hinge tougher to open -- based on a short-range Bluetooth message being sent to the wallet from that phone. He's working to find ways to reduce the price and look for other ways to deploy the technology.

At the end of the day, it's a great grad-school project that's generating lots of buzz. And when we asked some shoppers in Boston's Back Bay what they think, many said, they see the appeal of a wallet that gives you frequent, physical fiscal feedback.

"That's great,'' said Ethan Goodrich of Newburyport, who's sticking to a maximum $100-a-person budget for nine family members he'll buy gifts for. "You don't overdraw your account.''

And Chinnyere McPherson of Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, who works in retail and says she often blows through her budget for gifts for family members and friends, said, "It sounds like a good idea, because sometimes when you think you're saving, you're spending more because you see the 'sale' sign" in the store."

Just imagine, though, if you could literally feel all the dollars about to leave your wallet.

With videographer Brian Butler and supervising field producer David Jacobs
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