Six months ago I became a cyborg
Implanting a microchip into my hand was a weird experience that ultimately didn’t change my life at all.
Implanting an NFC chip into my hand didn’t end up being a life changing experience, and I’m glad about that.
I’ve spent my entire adult life as a gadget obsessive. I kept my PC up to date to play the latest games, I had a pre-iPhone Windows Mobile smartphone, use Nexus devices purely to get the latest Android updates a few weeks earlier, and was a day one adopter of the Xbox One so that I could turn my TV on using my voice.
It’s no surprise to people who know me well that I adopted NFC aggressively as soon as readers became available in smartphones. I loved the possibilities of the technology, and my dreams were filled with a world where I never needed to carry a wallet or keys again.
Years later that world still doesn’t exist. Living in London I’ve been able to be cashless for a few years, and I switch between Kickstarted slim wallets every few months. Ditching those accessories for a wonderful contactless world has eluded me. I can’t yet put my Oyster card in my phone, my credit cards in my phone, or my work access pass.
Near Field Communication
Near Field Communication (NFC) is a variant of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). It’s a set of standards, allowing manufacturers to make RFID chips and readers and guarantee compatibility. Specifically it’s very short range. The range is so small it typically only works over a couple of millimetres. Although uses of the technology are often called “contactless”, contact is pretty much required for NFC devices.
An NFC chip consists of a few things:
- A unique ID that is (at least in theory) uncopyable from chip to chip.
- A few hundred bytes of data that are both readable and writable.
- An antenna that allows communication and, in the presence of a reader, powers the chip for the duration of the transfer.
For under ten pounds on Amazon I found a pack of ten NFC stickers. These little flat chips could be placed on any surface I liked, and read by my smartphone. I went about sticking them all over my flat, and used an app called Trigger to set up actions on my phone.
When I touch the smartphone (often a specific point on the phone, since the range needs to be so small) to the sticker, it prompts Trigger to start doing things. These can even be context aware.
I put one on the doorframe of my front door. If I touch it in the morning, it assumes I’m leaving the house to go to work and turns off my wifi. If I touch it in the evening, it turns it back on. So far so good, but nothing I couldn’t accomplish with geo-fencing.
I put one on my kitchen counter. When I put my phone down on it, the phone will connect to my bluetooth speaker and start playing music. It’s great when I demonstrate to friends, but in reality most of the time I’d like to choose the music, rather than it just start playing from where I left off.
There’s a sticker on the back of my TV remote. When I touch my phone to it, the Smartglass app will be launched, giving me remote control features for my Xbox. I could just as easily put the app on my phone’s homescreen.
Why I wanted NFC as an implant
Eventually I decided NFC is most useful for triggering actions if I have it with me all the time. The appeal of a trigger that doesn’t need you to start your phone is clearly broad, just look at the success of the Pressy kickstarter to see how many people like the idea.
I started researching NFC-enabled door locks. If I can use it to get into my building at work, why can’t I use it to get into my home?
I invested in the NFC Ring kickstarter. Like many surprisingly successful crowdfunded projects, it was incredibly delayed. In the time I spent waiting for it I felt like a little kid, impatient for Christmas. I knew I was getting this new toy and I just wanted to play with it. I justified to myself every day in my head all the things I’d do with NFC if I always had a chip with me to act as a trigger on demand.
Then I came across Amal Graafstra, and his website Dangerous Things. Amal is a pioneer in the implantable NFC space. He has worked hard at popularising the concept, and his website lists use cases, finds implantation specialists, and sells equipment.
I was in. Forget rings, I’ve never really worn jewellery anyway. If I want to always have it with me without having to carry another thing around with me, this was the ticket.
Was it scary? Too goddamn right it was.
Amal suggested that piercing studios were the places to go. Having never had a piercing before, I sought the advice of a friend of mine. She suggested Cold Steel in Camden. I called them and asked if they were happy to do this, and the chap I spoke to reassured me he’d done it before.
I didn’t even notice the needle breaking the skin.
That week on Saturday morning I headed up to Camden. I had two tattoos done first, then headed to Cold Steel. I had printed out incredibly detailed instructions from Dangerous Things, and gave the piercer the pre-loaded sterile syringe, the hygiene kit and the instructions.
He admitted that his previous experience injecting microchips was on himself, and showed me his chip under the skin. It needs to be implanted in a specific place on the back of the hand, in the fleshy part between the thumb and the finger. Although the chip is made of bio-safe glass, it’s not indestructible, so that spot provides plenty of protection.
I explained that I’d never had a piercing before, let alone an implant. He explained that it’d be far less painful than the tattoos I’d just had, but then revealed the size of the needle that a chip can fit through. It was imtimidating, but at least looked sharp.
When he did it the experience was quick and easy. He grabbed the skin on the back of my hand, pressed the needle against it in the right location, then a second later it was done. I didn’t even notice the needle breaking the skin.
Healing and first impressions
I had to avoid gripping anything too firmly for 2–3 weeks. Although the external wound healed in a couple of hours, the internal flesh needed to regrow and seal around the implant, which was nearly a centimetre long as a thin cylinder. Every time I gripped something it would slightly tear that developing seal, so I had to avoid weightlifting etc for a few weeks.
I needed a use case.
As soon as the external wound was sealed, I wanted to test the chip. I couldn’t test it before implantation without breaking the sterile environment of the syringe it was loaded in.
I tapped my phone against it, and it showed up. So far, so good.
Once I confirmed I could read the chip, write data to it, and trigger actions on my phone, I needed a use case.
It’s almost unbelievable that I would go through this without already having one, but I was in such a childlike state that by that point having the implant mattered more than what the implant could do.
I wanted to do some cool stuff, but I couldn’t
I wanted to replace my door locks with NFC locks. There are several on the market, some with good reviews.
But I live in a flat with a shared front door. Not insurmountable, I could get by with carrying a single front door key in my wallet, or work with the neighbours to get a PIN code entry. Then I tried to look at the impact on my insurance. The results weren’t good.
My existing insurance was very clear I needed a British Standard deadbolt. Unsurprisingly not many insurers’ websites included in their FAQs the impact of switching out my locks for NFC ones. So the door lock project went on hold.
I thought about replacing my Oyster card, but it turns out those are encrypted (another part of me is very glad about that!).
My last thought was to use the chip for building access at my place of work. Those systems don’t write data to the chip (that could be copied), but instead log the chip’s unique ID in their system and grant it access.
Before asking facilities, I mimicked having a go. The reader is on the right hand side of the glass gate, and the chip is in the back of my left hand.
If you’re sitting at a desk right now, just have a go at that movement. I’m not sure I’ve ever tried to do something so awkward. I nearly sprained a ligament in my wrist trying it.
So what do I actually do?
Six months on, I’ve settled on a few nice simple use cases.
I use two factor authentication on most of my accounts. The principle of “something you know and something you have” is similar to the idea of chip and PIN. If somebody knows your PIN, they can’t do anything without the card too, which means having actual access to you. If they steal the card, they can’t do anything without the PIN.
I hardly ever have to use the chip.
It’s the same for online accounts. By using a code generator on my phone, I can’t access my accounts without having my phone, and knowing my password. A data breach by an online service is still bad, but even if somebody manages to read my password as I type it in they can’t access my account next time without my phone.
But if I lose my own phone, I’m screwed. Services that offer two factor authentication also provide one-time-use passwords. These expire, but are enough to get me in should I lose my phone. I need a place to store these passwords that nobody can read without my knowledge. It turns out that the tiny storage on the microchip in my hand is perfect for such a task.
Because NFC only works via touching distance, it’s very hard to read data without my knowing it, so I can consider these passwords secure enough for my purposes
I’ve also found that I can cover several different phone triggers by taking into account the context. If I tap my phone to my hand when I’m geo-fenced at work and it’s after 5pm, then I can send a message to my wife with my expected ETA. If I do it after 10pm in my home, then I can put my phone onto silent until the next alarm.
You know what? I hardly ever have to use the chip. I’ve settled into a pattern where for several days in a row I forget that it’s there. I can see it under my skin if I tense my hand, but I can’t feel it or see it under normal circumstances.
I don’t regret it a bit
Sometimes when I think about it I feel like I should regret it. I spent quite a bit of money arranging to have this implanted, I spent many hours of my time thinking about it and testing stuff. For something that I almost never use, it was a huge waste of my personal resources in that sense.
When you also consider that to get it removed I’ll need to visit a doctor with a scalpel, it starts to seem pretty misguided.
I don’t see it that way though. It most commonly affects me as a conversation starter, but it’s a technology that fades into the background. It’s a trend wearables are trying to recreate all the time, and Google Now’s predictive search is helping to drive forwards. I shouldn’t have to worry about my technology, it should just help when necessary. My implantable behaves this way, and I can think about it only when needed, and ignore it the rest of the time.
I can’t wait for more.