The history of subway systems is one long string of attempts to improve the way riders pay fares. First there were tickets, then tokens. Magnetic swipe cards sped things up in their day, and tap-in payment cards came along to make things faster still. And now, in Moscow, all you need to open the gate is a little piece of jewelry.
No, the Russian capital isn’t installing pawnshops in lieu of ticket booths. It’s actually experimenting with wearable alternatives to payment cards. Since the end of October, help desks at two key metro stations have sold rubber bracelets embedded with microchips as part of a pilot project, bracelets that can be topped up with funds, and touched in and out with just like a standard metro payment card. For dressier people who fear a rubber band might clash with their outfit, Moscow has an alternative: 500 black ceramic rings, in large and small sizes, that will let you through a ticket barrier with a mere tap of the knuckle. Moscow’s Twitter feed shared some images of the rings early last month.
The idea is so ingenious it seems impossible that no one has thought of it before. There is, after all, no reason why a microchip for payment information has to be embedded in a card.
In truth, this has been thought of before: Startup projects suggesting just this type of innovation have been knocking around for at least two years. In fact, the concept is so simple that ordinary passengers have jumped ahead of transit authorities and designers to make their own makeshift versions. In the early days of London’s Oyster Card, one popular hack was to cut out the microchip and stick it to a watch. Last year, a London design student took this further by installing the chip into false fingernails.
Like Moscow’s new rings and bracelets, these watch and body hacks had the great advantage of removing the need to take a payment card in and out of a wallet—something that, depending on the thickness of the wallet in question, can still be necessary on some public transit systems. As such, they’re a great leap forward.