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Wallets add realism to virtual cash

Money is not what it used to be. It doesn't seem to go nearly as far, for one thing. Perhaps even more worryingly, credit and debit cards allow what money we do have to be spent without us feeling the immediate consequences. Thankfully, scientists at the MIT Media Lab have created a set of wallets to help us keep our spending in check.

"We make the same swiping motion whether we're buying a cup of coffee or a large-screen TV -- or even worse, automatic transactions go on without our knowledge at all. Our actions are divorced from the consequences," John Kestner, one of the wallets' creators, explained to me in an e-mail.

"So the wallets bring back some of that physical sensation of money, which gives us a more immediate, visceral sense when we're making purchasing decisions, than remembering to check your bank statement each time."


The team has developed three prototypes of the so-called Proverbial Wallets. Each communicates with your bank account via a Bluetooth connection with your cell phone. "There's an app on the phone which does this as securely as any online transaction," Kestner said.

The Bumblebee wallet buzzes through a vibrating motor whenever your bank processes a transaction. This establishes a connection between handing over a credit card for a purchase and your virtual cash. A buzz in your pocket when you're not actually at the register could be a sign of fraud -- or it could mean an automatic deduction is being taken out.

The Mother Bear model helps keep budget-conscious folks on task. A hinge inside makes it harder and harder to open as money gets tighter and tighter.

For those lucky enough to have a puffed up bank account -- and are proud of it -- the Peacock model may be the best option. "The wallet shrinks and swells to reflect the balance in your accounts. Your assets will be on display to attract potential mates," the team explains on its project Web site.

Of course, as with any gadget designed to save us from ourselves, you've got to spend money to save money. When the technology hits store shelves, expect about a $60 ding to your bank account. If that seems like a lot, be thankful that Kestner feels a bit out of touch with his creative side.

"If I were more of an artist," he said, "I'd enjoy the irony of charging a lot for these."

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John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).