The See-It-All Chip

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KEEPING TRACK: With RFID, the family fridge will tell you when the milk is spoiled or you’re out of butter. In the store, your grocer will know all. A tag will help you find Fluffy too

In Arizona a busy mom with kids charges fast food to her American Express by flashing a key fob in front of a plastic box. In London the same technology helps retailer Marks & Spencer track gourmet dinners to prevent spoilage. The U.S. military used it in Iraq to electronically search supplies and keep tabs on hospital patients. In Singapore and Helsinki DHL tested it in anticipation of tracking the 160 million packages it ships annually. And in Arkansas the world's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart, is telling its top 100 suppliers to put it on all cases and pallets by 2005, or else.

The technology behind all these — radio-frequency identification, or RFID — is so old it's almost laughable. In World War II, the British used it to make sure incoming planes were theirs, not Germany's. Today new RFID applications are fueling a quiet business revolution that promises to speed up inventory and payment systems — and change our lives. Soon the family refrigerator may read the RFID tags of its contents, then alert you to fetch another carton of milk, toss an out-of-date product or cut back on cholesterol consumption. In Italy an appliance maker has designed a washer that can read RFID-tagged garments and process them accordingly. "It's going to be huge for industry," predicts futurist Paul Saffo. "RFID will start to arrive in 2004, and it will unfold over a decade, and we will wonder how we ever lived without it."

Radio-frequency identification is, in fact, already pervasive in our lives — used to track everything from pets to prisoners to products. Cars zip through tollbooths thanks to payment systems using RFID. More than 50 million pets worldwide are tagged with RFID chips. At least 20 million livestock have RFID tags to follow them for possible disease breakouts. A museum in Rotterdam uses RFID to guard its Rembrandts and Renoirs. And for the past two years, Oscar-goers have been screened and tracked by RFID.

Now RFID is about to reach ubiquity, bringing its ability to track everything, everywhere, all the time from the factory right into your home. Spooky but incredibly productive, RFID is the basis of 6,000 patents filed for wireless payments, keyless entries, cosmetics mixing, laundry tracking and patient monitoring. Think of it as the me-generation successor to the bar code, a technology that initially had its own Big Brother rap to beat. Bar codes identify a category of products. All Gillette Mach 3 razor blades, for instance, have the same code. With RFID tags, each packet of Mach 3 blades would have its own unique Electronic Product Code (EPC) embedded in a microchip no bigger than a piece of glitter. Projections vary wildly, but analysts say today's $1 billion worth of RFID sales could hit $4 billion by 2008 and $10 billion in a decade.

An RFID reader emits a radio wave to scan the chip via an attached antenna. Unlike bar codes, which have to be scanned one at a time, an RFID reader can theoretically scan every item in a shopping basket, case or pallet — at one glance, at a distance, even in rotten conditions like inside a freezer or in a sandstorm. Place an RFID reader in a series of gateways, and it can follow supplies from assembly line to store shelves and right out the door with the customer.

And that's precisely what freaks privacy advocates like Katherine Albrecht, founder of New Hampshire — based CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering). In Albrecht's nightmare, her grocer scans her credit card — at the bottom of her purse — and tracks her around the store recording her selections. Police come knocking after tracing an RFID-tagged soda can found at a crime scene to her credit card. While RFID certainly has the potential to be the most invasive consumer technology ever, supporters — consumers themselves, after all — are working on safeguards, such as "kill codes" for tags after checkout. "Privacy mavens are going to wring their hands over this, and I'm sympathetic," says Saffo, "but RFID is too good to stop."

Kevin Ashton's obsession with RFID began with a single shade of lipstick. When he launched Oil of Olay's ColorMoist Hazelnut No. 650 at Procter & Gamble in 1997, it was popular — too popular. "Four in 10 stores couldn't keep the item on the shelf," says Ashton, "and we were losing money because of it." He needed to track this item and others through the supply chain so clerks would know when to reorder and replenish the shelves. It took Ashton a year to identify RFID as a technology that would solve his problem and to hook up with two M.I.T. professors who could help him. The profs, Sanjay Sarma and David Brock, had their own obsession: getting a robot to recognize anything, whether a sheep or a car, that crossed its path. That task proved daunting until Sarma had a revelation: "Why don't you just ask the damn thing what it is?" Thus was born the idea for giving each item a 96-bit code, or EPC, to communicate its identity.

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