This is Scrip, a copper gadget that enables digital payments. It has small, raised squares and flashing LED digits on its surface. It looks a bit like a coin, but it’s the size and shape of a Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie. To pay for things with Scrip, you visit a specially enabled ATM and load money onto it, like you would with a prepaid subway card. As you buy things, by syncing Scrip with NFC-enabled “cash register” machines, the texture of the gadget’s surface changes, and those light-up numbers tick downwards.
Scrip isn’t real—it’s a design concept—but is still holds value. It’s designed to explore how we might interact more meaningfully with our digital currency. “Everybody hates cash—the system is trying to kill cash,” says Gadi Amit, president of New Deal Design, the Silicon Valley studio behind Scrip. (Amit’s firm also designed the Fitbit, the Lytro camera, and Google’s experimental Project Ara phone.) “It always fails. But we still figured that there’s a need for something new, something connected to the digital world, but that is akin to cash.”
That’s because cash, anachronistic as it seems, has its benefits. Amit points to research that suggests people assign more value to items that they purchase with cash. Another study found that kids buy healthier lunches from school cafeterias when they use cash. “Humans are still visceral, tactile animals,” Amit says. Plastic debit cards can create a smoke screen between people and their finances. With cash, you can feel with your fingers just how much money you have—or haven’t—got on hand.
Scrip is designed to imitate cash’s tangible benefits. For instance, when it comes time to make a payment, the electromechanical pins that comprise Scrip’s surface leap to attention, generating patterns that denote the denominations you’ll use to ante up. Swipe your thumb across each denomination, and Scrip will “transfer” that much money from your bank account. For example, if a vendor charges you $26, thumb the Scrip to shell out a “20,” a “5,” and then a “1.”
New Deal Design also wants Scrip to gyrate when you add cash.“If you think of a Vegas slot machine, the psychological reward of getting $20 in nickels is a more incredible feeling than if they print out a $20,” says Jaeha Yoo, who heads up user experience at New Deal Design. “If we can create that accumulating feeling of things being added to your device—even if it’s just a slight feeling of being pushed down—it’s one of these jackpot-y moments.”
If all this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because researchers at MIT Media Lab tried something similar a few years ago, with a line of wallets that used tactile cues to instill in users a “financial sixth sense.” These so-called Proverbial Wallets would swell or shrink in synchrony with your bank balance, vibrate to signal deposits and withdrawals, or become more difficult to open as your savings dwindled. Like Scrip, they offered something your credit card, Apple Pay, and Venmo cannot: a physical connection with your digital currency.
But Proverbial Wallets posed a moral dilemma when it came to cost—something John Kestner, one of the designers who worked on the project, says concerns him about a blue-sky concept like Scrip. “I would ask how much this thing costs” he says. “Can someone sell it for $100 with a straight face saying it’s going to save you money? That was the problem I found with the Proverbial Wallet.” And even if a payment device seems like a worthwhile investment up front, at what point is it just another gadget that clutters our pockets, drawers, and lives? A better approach, Kestner says, might be for designers to harness existing technologies—like Apple’s Taptic Engine—to foster tangible connections between people and their finances.
In any case, he agrees with Amit that the topic deserves attention. Most new payment services strive to reduce friction between the user and the transaction. Square, Apple Pay, Venmo—these services are designed to make parting with your money easier. But that’s not always good for the user who’s spending. “They’re losing that tangible connection to money,” Amit says. Scrip—or a device like it—could help people get it back.