TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Tess Vigeland: The weight of your wallet doesn't quite tell you how much you have in the bank. But wouldn't it be nice if it did? A group of MIT Media Lab students got together on a class assignment to create three special wallets, each with its own way of telling you what's happening with your money.
John Kestner came up with the idea and he joins us with some explanation. Welcome to the show.
John Kestner: Hi, thanks for having me.
VIGELAND: So this was all started by a class assignment -- tell us what your assignment was.
KESTNER: The class was called "Tangible Interfaces," and it's really just all about finding new ways to understand digital information. And no pun intended, I had this idea in my back pocket, so this was a great opportunity to explore that idea and build something.
VIGELAND: So how did you come up with your idea, the virtual wallet?
KESTNER: Well, it really just comes at examining my own life and the friction points there.
VIGELAND: When you say a friction point, does that mean money is a friction point for you?
KESTNER: Yeah, definitely. I consider myself a cheapskate overall, but at the same time, since -- like everyone else -- my money has been abstracted into a computer database somewhere, I don't really have a good idea of what's going on, and I want a better idea of what's going on.
VIGELAND: Let's get right to it then and describe for folks what we're talking about here. And I called it a "virtual wallet," but you actually call it a "proverbial wallet."
KESTNER: Right. They called it proverbial wallets, because we have a triptych of 'em, and each one is kind of meant to tell a little fable, maybe a lesson about saving money.
So one of them is called "The Bumblebee" and it has a vibrating motor in it, and it has different little buzzing patterns that are mapped to transactions going through your bank account. The idea here is to tie together your action of making a payment, giving someone a credit card, with the actual consequences. Because when you give someone a credit card, that's not when you actually lose the money, as far as your bank is concerned, right? That's how you do something like overdraft, for example. You are not in sync with your digital money. And so it has different patterns, depending on whether it's money coming into your account or money leaving.
VIGELAND: So you call it a bumblebee, because it basically kind of buzzes your posterior? At the appropriate time?
VIGELAND: What is then the purpose of that? Is that essentially to make you more aware of how often there is money going in and out of your accounts during the day?
KESTNER: Yeah, and it's not just how often but when. The idea is that this kind of gets down at a visceral level, in the same way that I'm not necessarily keeping score as I am handing out dollar bills or getting them back, but just by having them go through my fingers, I kind of have this unspoken sense of it.
VIGELAND: All right, and wallet #2?
KESTNER: Wallet #2 is I think the most perfect one, because it is the most wallet-like. It's called "The Mother Bear." It has a hinge that can resist when you open it.
VIGELAND: I want one of those.
KESTNER: That's what everyone says. So the idea is you might map this to some monthly budget goal that you have, and towards the end of the month, you'll find it getting a little harder to open. It's just supposed to inform you a little bit that, "Do I really need this thing that I want to buy?" So this kind of jumps over all the hoops you gotta go through to check your bank statement, and you don't have to think about the idea in the first place -- it pushes the information to you.
VIGELAND: And wallet #3?
KESTNER: Wallet #3 is probably the artsiest. It's called "The Peacock" and it simply gets thinner or fatter with your overall money situation.
VIGELAND: So this is where you want your wallet to be really fat?
KESTNER: Yeah. You know, this is another one of those visual jokes that if you have a fat wallet, people know how you're doing. But of course, that's not so true anymore now that we all just have credit cards and debit cards.
VIGELAND: Right, we don't have those wads of bills in there.
VIGELAND: Given that you chose money and the wallet for your class project, what does that tell us about your finances?
VIGELAND: Which one would most befit you?
KESTNER: Definitely the hinge.
VIGELAND: The Mother Bear.
KESTNER: Yeah. I do like setting goals for myself and trying to meet them, but I need a much tighter feedback loop. And that's the nice thing about this. I don't have to go running back to a computer or logging anything into a checkbook -- does anyone balance checkbooks anymore?
VIGELAND: Good question.
KESTNER: But I mean, it's a good thing to do. It kind of creates a sense of mindfulness. It's good to have this exercise of knowing how much money you have all the time. But it's one of those things that once we let computers take care of it for us, we lose a handle on all of it.
VIGELAND: John Kestner is a grad student at the MIT Media Lab, and we've been talking about his new creations -- what did we call them? They're not virtual wallets, they're proverbial wallets. Well, thanks so much, it's been awfully fun talking to you.
KESTNER: Thank you, I enjoyed talking with you as well.
Vigeland: Want one? You'll have to wait because these are prototypes.