Cultural Probes were first used in the Presence Project – new media for elderly people, an experimental design-oriented user study in the EU-funded project lead by Bill Gaver. The word “probe” is associated with an automatic recording instrument sent out to capture signals and samples from places where human researchers cannot go. In the Presence project probe packs were designed to gather inspiration and information on local cultures, people, environments and their relationships.

Cultural Probes were used as part of the IMPRINTS research project, the main focus of our research is exploring public responses to future identity management practices and technologies, thus the questions we wanted answered by the cultural probes packs were What is it like to be you? and How do you experience the world? Regarding Identity Management.


The main demographic group targeted was professional women contacted through different women’s associations such as Geek Girl Scotland, women|AHEAD and the Association of University Women. The reason for this particular group is the set of very specific issues they may encounter while managing not just their own identities but some times the identities of people they are responsible for such as children, elderly parents, and sometimes work groups and colleagues.


Each participant received a pack of material to use over a ten-day period at which point they returned the material. The pack contains 5 items, namely:


A disposable camera was repackaged to separate it from its commercial origins and to integrate it with the other probe materials. On the back we listed requests for pictures, such as different TSP’s that they have used and still use for IM to identify or validate who they are. For this activity we gave the participants the option to use their mobile phones to take the pictures and send them to us by email.



The participants had 2 different colour stickers, one colour was used to pin point where they have been over the past year and the other where they would like to go in the near future. The main objective of the map was to encourage participants to think about their travel experiences. They also had the opportunity to tell us if the trips were work related or spent as holidays.



Each pack contained a small diary and pen branded with the logo of the project, and thumbs up/down stickers, they were to record daily interactions with different TSPs of IM. What they use, how they use it, how often they use it. The stickers were used at the end of each interaction to tell us about their experience and give us a brief explanation on what they enjoyed, disliked or were indifferent to the experience and why.



The packs had a simulated plane ticket that incorporated a recording device, where the participants recorded in 20 seconds, what they would like the future of identity management to be.



Five postcards with visual images of a range of different experiences not necessarily related to IM on the front and at the back there are open questions to give us an insight on how the participants feel. They were asked to respond in writing or with drawings. Areas covered included, travel experiences, online shopping, tattoos and implants, social media and mobile phones. Postcards are an attractive, enjoyable medium for asking questions because of their connotations, they evoke memories of holidays and good times shared with family and friends, they are informal and friendly, and the limited space somehow forces short answers that tend to get to the point.



The complete pack of all activities were contained in a tote bag branded with the logo of the project, each bag included a prepaid envelope to be returned upon completion to the research team, and as an incentive participants who returned their completed packs received a limited edition silk scarf with a QR code that could direct people to the project website.



Some of the experiences were clearly reported as positive, enjoyable forms of IM while some others are perceived within a negative context. The possibility of managing their identities ‘on the go’ through the use of mobile devices such as mobile phones and tablets was a positive one.

Online shopping was surprisingly reported as negative when related to IM. The experience of shopping per se is found pleasurable but it changes when it is time to check out the items or services selected. This is linked to what was mentioned before about online identities, paying usually involves having to create a new ID or user name, select a password and then validate everything again giving credit/debit card details and personal information such as address, telephone number, etc. Sometimes it also involves waiting for a welcome email to validate the new ID and it is all this process that is reported to make the online shopping experience a negative one.

Tattoos and implants were reported to be a borderline experience; our participants do not like the idea of any of them as an ID form although they would consider it as a possibility for security and health issues.

Traveling in general terms was reported in a similar way as shopping, there is a perceived sense of security in having to prove so many times they are who they say they are; however the general experience is a negative one.

Loyalty card schemes and mobile phones are mostly seen in a favourable light, this may be thanks to a sense of control on both cases where the process of identification is seen as convenient and rewarding in terms of saving time and or direct benefits.

Experiences reported related to IM interactions

  • Sense of security.
  • Too time consuming and repetitive.


  • The shopping experience is convenient but not pleasurable.
  • Perceived direct benefit.
  •  Allows you control over your info.
  • Makes you feel special.
  • Annoying.
  •  Time consuming.
  • Frustrating.
  • Hard to remember.
  • Forced to have too many.
  • Mostly rejected, the exception being when holding medical information.
  • Mobile phones provide a sense of security, of being unobtrusive & convenient.
  •  Mostly rejected, the exception being when holding medical information.
  •  Mobile phones provide a sense of security, of being unobtrusive & convenient.







Recognizr App/Augmented ID: visualizes the digital identities of people met in real life. With a mobile device and face recognition software it enables the user to discover selected information about the people around. All users control their own augmented appearance by selecting the content and social network links they want show to others




Odour recognition:  Reports are claiming people can be identified by their body odour. This odour is unique, and unaffected by things like dietary habits or washing patterns. Participants were shown a mannequin and asked to think about where they thought an acceptable place to scan somebody would be. An example given was if they were at an airport going through security.

Face recognition:  Technology company ‘Facebanx’ has developed a new online facial recognition solution that can enable banks, insurance and ID verification companies to reduce fraud and ID theft.

The video I will play shows a man trying to get insurance quotes online. He tries to trick the system by using fake names

Smart tattoo:  In the future, a tattoo could be used to identify people. Your tattoo could be individual to you, but you would need to show it to people. It would either look like traditional tattoos, only displaying the information under a specific light, or be completely invisible.

Vein recognition:  In the future, instead of having cards, paperwork, or even rings, people are designing technology that uses our bodies to identify us.

One way to do this is vein recognition. Each of us has individual vein patterns in our fingertips. Technology has been developed so we can be scanned and identified using our veins. This is said to be reliable, and a replacement for cards, PIN numbers etc.


Amaal microchip:  a video documents a man in Canada who has implanted himself with a microchip so he can open his car and flat without keys

Nightclub microchip:   a film of a nightclub which has been microchipping guests so they can pay for entry and drinks by scanning their arm. They have been implanted with an individual chip linked to their membership.

Alzheimer’s microchips:  a video reports an older couple in the USA, one with Alzheimer’s, who decide to be implanted with a microchip so they can be geographically tracked and identified if they went to hospital. The microchip stores information about their medical information

Authentication pill:  A new way to do tasks like unlocking our phones or logging on to computers has been suggested by taking a pill. This pill has a chip inside it. When you swallow the pill, the acid in your stomach activates it, and it creates a signal inside your body. This signal enables you to authenticate yourself with things like phones, computers, cars, doors.



QR Gravestone:  companies have developed QR tags for gravestones. The technology uses a QR code as a way to convey information about a friend or relative, and present it for others to see, in the form of a blog or Facebook page.

QR artefacts: As well as film clips, participants were presented with objects. One such object was a teapot fitted with a QR code. Based on a scheme being piloted in Oxfam stores, this technology allows donors to attach a QR code to their donated object using a free app on their phone and share the story behind the item for the next owner to discover.

QR scarf:  we have developed a silk scarf with QR codes printed onto it, which can hold information about the wearer of the scarf. The ‘QR code’ is similar to a barcode that can be scanned by a mobile phone. Once scanned, the mobile phone will open a web page. If you scanned the QR code on our scarf, it will direct you to our project website.


PsychicID aftefact:  The card enables a minimal amount of information to be disclosed during authentication for various services e.g. access to a nightclub, visiting the doctor. The aim of the PsychicID card is to reveal only the necessary information in the appropriate situation, yet provide a single card for all circumstances.

Google glasses:  ‘Google Glasses’ work like a smartphone, but are hands-free. The glasses connect to the internet, and use your voice to show information on the glass.

PlaceMe:  Placeme is a mobile phone application that has been described as ‘the smartphone assistant of the future’. It tracks your activities, location and environment, without you logging in or doing anything explicitly.

Google driverless car:  Google have developed driverless cars, which can be driven, apparently quite safely, without human intervention. The ‘driver’ just sits in the seat, but does not need to use any controls or do anything for the vehicle to navigate. Testing is ongoing, and Google are working with car manufacturers so cars could be built commercially.


RFID jewellery:  The jewellery presented to participants consisted of small 3D-printed white rings, all fitted with an RFID tag. In the future this type of jewellery will ideally be made into a genuine wearable item, with the ability to perform a number of tasks. ‘Emergency Medical Aid’ (EMA) jewellery has been designed by a member of our team, and is intended to help paramedics dealing with patients to identify a medical problem quickly by divulging their health information.

Biometric daemon:  A biometric daemon is a fictional device which holds the biometric properties of its owner (how you walk, how you talk). This daemon could be used as a token, instead of things like ID or bank cards, so you can prove your identity without the fear of losing the token. If you lost your daemon, it wouldn’t survive without you, and ‘die’, meaning your personal information wouldn’t be exposed anywhere.



Take this lollipop:  Take this lollipop is an interactive horror film and Facebook app, which brings viewers themselves into the film, through use of pictures and messages from their own Facebook profiles.

Lifelogging:  Life logging is a term to describe a person’s storage of digital information about their life. For example, a person might store all their e-mails, photographs, music, videos etc. on a personal computer. Gordon Bell, who lives in America, has done this for the last decade. He keeps records of where he goes, who he meets, what he says, reads and listens to. 

Quantified self:  As technology has developed and people are able to store lots of information on phones, cameras and computers, people have begun to document every aspect of their lives.

Pizza Order: The pizza order video comes from a futuristic world in which a pizza company holds detailed and personal information about their customers. The film clip portrays a customer calling the pizza delivery company and trying to order food, but is faced with a barrage of information about their health, finances and where they live which impacts on the food they are ‘allowed’ to order







Draw a Secret: prototype software used instead of a password, to help the owner gain access their mobile phone more securely. Each user can pick a personalised background, and then draw a doodle over the image. To gain access to the phone once ‘locked’, the user has to re-draw the doodle to prove they are the owner, and choose the correct background