RFID that Could Forever Change How We Shop
Tue, 10/26/2004 - 11:40am
I have to give a lot of credit to the inventive and innovative minds in our industry. The stuff they come up with, and what they integrate it with never ceases to amaze me ... I love the 21st Century.
In this column I've dissected a lot of technologies and applications over the years. I enjoy doing that. Some have faded away into history, others have found homes in specialized industries, and others have become ubiquitous and commonplace. I'm not really going anywhere with this, just wanted to use it to stage the subject of this month's column.
Well, I just came across another one of those awesome RF applications that adds another layer of convenience to our normally hectic lives. It's a derivation of RFID, and another application that shows just how technology can be metamorphsized by creative minds. But it doesn't surprise me that this has evolved.
For years, RFID was low tech, mostly one to a few bits of data, and mostly one way. But of late, RFID is coming into it's own and anyone who blows it off as low-budget, low-tech tracking technology is in for a surprise. And I'm not alone in that philosophy.
Leave it to the Europeans to define the bleeding edge. While at European Microwave Week in Amsterdam, I heard that Phillips has found a whole new use for RFID. Their concept is to put an RFID reader in mobile phones.
Now, this has a boatload of implications to many to talk about in this short space, but these can certainly wet one's appetite.
First of all, the phone's display can be used to show a tag's contents. simply by holding their phone up against it. Once the code is extracted, the phone would look it up on the Web and display the information it had retrieved on the screen (there's that Internet again).
Imagine what this means for shopping...now, everyone in the store will be scanning merchandise, just like the stockers! But wait ... there's more. Because this is Web savvy, some bright content developer will come up with an application that does comparison-shopping for you. The tag's data is sent to say, www.cheapskate.com, which runs a quick comparison search. In a moment, back comes a message that tells you Office XP is $30 cheaper at Dirt Cheap Software, down the street.
Or, you are waiting in the supermarket checkout line, idly reading an ad for Liposuction and you notice an arrow pointing to a small square that says place phone here. You press your mobile on the spot, and an RFID tag behind it gives up its code, which directs the phone to the web site.
Suddenly, the results of a successful liposuction session (the before and after comparison) are on your phones screen. Like what you see? Press a button and you have an appointment at the local liposuction/Grease Monkey where you can loose a few pounds and get your oil changed at the same time. You can even send them your credit card number and skip the paperwork.
Ok, so you're not in need of liposuction and an oil change. But maybe you know someone who is. You can store the tag data and pass it on to your friend by touching phones. And, you get a referral rebate sent right to your phone if your friend goes for the procedure.
I'm being a bit tong-in-cheek about this, but Philips is serious about it. So far, it has set up partnerships with Visa to handle the payments (just say no to AMEX), and Universal to sell it's DVDs via this method. And, it is even negotiating with a major mobile-phone company to start getting these RFID-enabled phones into the hands of customers.
Well, like so many of these integrated technology schemes, it may be a tempting vision. But will it work? It could the technology is real. The phones are the enabler, tags are getting much cheap and more intelligent, the readers consume little power, and only when being used, and it's really cool! And outside of liposuction and oil changes, there is a plethora of possibilities. And this has all the ingredient for a lot of people to make money at it.
However, on the downside, reality is that it will take a lot of money to put this infrastructure in place it needs to gain critical mass. Phone users are not going to pay extra just for an RFID reader. And the carriers won't subsidize this unless they either get a kickback from the retailers or see a significant increase in airtime revenue.
But the real issue is the vast amount of data that would be demanded by RFID mobile-phone users. It is estimated that retailer Wal-Mart will generate more than seven terabytes of data a day when its RFID project gets underway. Current systems are just not scaled for that sort of a data deluge.
Furthermore, all this data has to be kept clean, live, virus-free and secure (for credit card transactions). It will, at least in the beginning involve a lot of expensive human intervention - a significant consideration.
On the other had, the potential for revenue is staggering. It could, quite conceivably, be the way we transact in the future. And, wouldn't it be poetic justice to if the retail industry actually paid to put this weapon in the hands of its customers.