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This Beautiful Copper Coin Could Transform How We Spend Money

The way we pay is flawed. One of the best industrial design firms in Silicon Valley wants to redesign it.

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It hurts to spend cash. Literally. And in a way, that’s a good thing. Because we’re living in a time where most people have less than $1,000 in their bank accounts, and almost $5,000 in credit card debt. Yet it’s unfair to simply blame the middle class’s financial woes on some lack of self-control, because in the age of smartphone payments, Amazon's Subscribe & Save, and good old credit card swipes, who earnestly considers their monthly budget every time they buy a coffee?

Scrip is a provocative solution to a world full of easy electronic payments. A concept by NewDealDesign (NDD)—a design firm known both for working on major products like Google's late Project Ara, Fitbit, and Lytro, as well as feasible sci-fi tech like swappable tattoos that live under your skin. It’s a digitally connected, mechanical brass coin that you load with money like a MetroCard. And as you go about your day, paying for things via wireless NFC connections (like Apple Pay), it offers braille-like tactile feedback so that you recognize how much you’re spending.

"It’s a digital-physical, or a physical-digital object that’s enabling transactions akin to cash," explains NDD founder Gadi Amit. "This project was almost a paradoxical effort to approach interaction design from the perspective of, let’s do something inefficient that people really do have to pay attention to, that’s quite literally trying to stimulate the pain receptors in your body."

The Scrip itself is a beautiful copper object, designed to look as precious as any currency, and weighing in at a solid ounce (about one-fifth of your iPhone, but heavier than most change or jewelry). Its aesthetic was inspired by Japan’s Tokugawa coinage, which was oval in shape and stamped with relatively complex texturing. Whereas most coins really rest in your palm, this Scrip is designed to be grasped more like a deli ticket.

For an interactive, electronic device, these ergonomics were key. Because in theory, you approach an NFC payment station with the Scrip. The station beams over the money you owe, which is displayed. Then, the Scrip’s braille-inspired surface, powered by actuators, begins stamping out virtual currency in giant numbers that you can both see and feel (a feat that NDD says they could pull off in real production, since braille computer displays do it successfully already). Say you owe $26. A $20 will appear. You swipe the Scrip toward the payment station. Then a $5 will appear. You swipe that. And then a $1. The oval shape allows you to hold the Scrip in one hand, which provides a directionality necessary for this swipe gesture.

"It’s meant to mimic the act of peeling off the bills," says NDD lead experience designer, Jaeha Yoo. Or, I imagine, flicking away your life savings of pokéballs just to buy a bodega sandwich.

In prototypes, NDD has even experimented with using integrated gyroscopes and motors, to produce simulated weight, making it feel like your Scrip was lighter or heavier based upon how much money was left in your account. "It’s speculative if that can be achieved," says Yoo. "We tried playing with hacked things to create the effect, and it worked, but it was extremely crude."

Maybe that quibble about gyroscopes seems like NDD is splitting hairs on a device that’s a concept anyway. But the firm did design the Scrip with confidence that it could actually be built. And given that more than $700 million goes into printing U.S. currency each year, with the right subsidies in place—the banking industry could help!—with enough will, there could be a way to foot much of the bill. But admittedly, getting government support on something that's potentially breakable and hackable, and, any way you cut it, far more expensive to produce than a debit card is likely impossible.

But what makes this concept great isn’t just the industrial design, or all the psychology that’s baked into the idea. It’s the project’s core intent.

Silicon Valley tends to view our spending both naively and impersonally. To Amazon, the family checking account is just one data point of millions, in need of the right subscription, voice, or button-tapping service to increase the autonomous spending of currency we often don’t actually have. And when our accounts bottom out, and statistically speaking, they will, we’re cushioned by the banking and credit industry, richly inflated on taxpayer bailouts, providing a tenuous cushion for the mere price of 20% APR.

Sure, in a utopian society where we all drive $100,000 Teslas and sip on cold-pressed Capri Suns (you know, Silicon Valley itself!), mindless, frictionless spending makes a lot of sense—because convenience is our biggest problem. But that’s not the world most of us live in. And if the Valley continues its failure to recognize what life is like for the 99% who don’t sleep in nap pods and eat free gourmet lunches from some Michelin-ranked chef on staff, they’re going to eventually lose 99% of their market.

Ironically, this copper-crafted, mechanical braille wallet—as impossibly precious and ridiculous as it may seem for someone working an hourly wage job—is somehow more in tune with everyday Americans than Apple Pay.

[All Photos: via NDD]

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