Once the right price points are achieved, the scope of RFID applications is limited solely by the ingenuity and imagination of the user. Aside from supply chain management, here are some of the most popular applications:

  • Animal identification and tracking: Naturalists use RFID tags to keep track of wild animals, such as deer and wolves, in order to better understand their herd activities. They also tag flocks of birds, such as ducks and geese, and water creatures, such as whales and salmon, for purposes of tracking and monitoring their migratory behavior. RFID devices have been used for years as a means for permanently identifying dogs; before that, dog owners had long used tattoos, permanent ink markings, typically on a dog's ears, which were awkward to apply and also faded over time. In a different context, the Canadian Cattle Identification Agency began using RFID tags as a replacement for barcode tags on cow's ears required to identify a bovine's herd of origin. This technique is used for tracking when a packing plant condemns a carcass.
  • Product tracking: High-frequency RFID or HFID/HighFID tags are used in library book or bookstore tracking, jewelry tracking, pallet tracking, building access control, airline baggage tracking and apparel and pharmaceutical items tracking. In Columbia, "Federación Nacional de Cafeteros" uses an RFID solution to trace their coffee. RFID transponder chips have been implanted in golf balls to allow a lost ball to be found, and to enable a computerized driving range that tracks shots made by a player and gives feedback on distance and accuracy.
  • Musical instrument theft recovery: RFID technology is used to recover thousands of musical instruments that are stolen every year by tagging them and then making available the database of RFID chip IDs to law enforcement. Snagg, a California company specializing in RFID microchips for instruments, has embedded tiny chips in 30,000 Fender guitars already.
  • Lap scoring: Passive and active RFID systems are used in off-road events, such as Endure, and road events, such as Hare and Hounds racing. Riders wear a transponder, usually on their arm. When they complete a lap, they swipe or touch a receiver that is connected to a computer, which logs their lap time.
  • RFID in museums: A visitor entering the museum receives an RFID tag that can be carried on a card or necklace. The RFID system enables the visitor to receive information about the exhibit and take photos to be collected at the gift shop. Later, they can visit their personal webpage on which specific information, such as visit dates, the visited exhibits and developed photographs, can be viewed.
  • Package delivery: Ultra-high frequency ID (UHFID) tags are commonly used commercially in case, pallet and shipping container tracking and truck and trailer tracking in shipping yards.
  • Identification badges: UHFID tags are also widely used in identification badges, replacing earlier magnetic stripe cards. These badges need only be held within 20 feet of the reader to authenticate the holder.
  • Access control: Along these lines, meetings and conventions have installed RFID technology into attendee badges, allowing them to track people at conferences. This provides data that can display what rooms people have entered and exited during the day. Data is available to help organizers improve content and design of the conference. RFID is also being used to improve the lead retrieval process for exhibitors at exhibitions. Some casinos are embedding RFID tags into their chips. This allows the casinos to track the locations of chips on the casino floor, identify counterfeit chips and prevent theft. In addition, casinos can use RFID systems to study the betting behavior of players.

As use of RFID tags proliferated, it was inevitable that eventually someone would reason that if RFID technology can keep track of animals, then why not humans? In 1998, British professor of cybernetics Kevin Warwick implanted a chip in his arm and found no adverse effects. Soon afterward, night clubs in Barcelona, Spain and in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, started employing implantable RFID chip technology to identify their VIP customers, who use it to pay for club admission, drinks and other membership activities.

In October 2004, the FDA approved USA's first RFID chips that could be implanted in humans. The 134-kilohertz RFID chips from VeriChip Corporation incorporate personal medical information that could save lives and limit injuries from errors in medical treatments. In 2004, the FDA also issued a ruling that initiated a final review, which determined that RFID technology could be used to identify patients and/or permit relevant hospital staff to access medical records. Since then, a number of US hospitals have been using RFID systems for workflow and inventory management. The use of RFID to prevent mix-ups between sperm and ova in IVF clinics is also being considered.

As soon as the application turns to tracking and identifying humans, privacy concerns emerge and abound. The Baja Beach nightclub in Barcelona has provoked apprehension about confidentiality of data pertaining to individuals, as they can potentially be tracked wherever they go by an identifier unique to them. Nurses and other hospital staff may be subjected to increased surveillance of their activities or to labor intensification from installing RFID systems in hospitals. Law enforcement officials have proposed to use a strong cryptography-based scheme to generate forensic evidence that two RFID tags were in proximity at the time of scanning. The fear is the practice could lead to abuse by an authoritarian government or otherwise could lead to deprivation of privacy and individual freedom.

At a conference in New York City on July 22, 2006, Reuters reported that two hackers had demonstrated that they could clone the RFID signal from a human-implanted RFID chip, proving that the chip is not hack-proof as was previously believed. Also in 2006, RFID tags were included in new US passports. Currently, around 13 million are produced annually. The chips store the same information that is printed within the passport and contain a digital picture of the owner. After widespread criticism and a clear demonstration that special equipment can read the passports from 10 meters (33 feet) away, the passport design was changed to contain a thin metal lining to make it more difficult for unauthorized readers to "skim" information from the passport when it is closed.

The latest development in RFID technology involves the use of electrochromic displays, potentially the cheapest of all printed digital display technologies. Their low cost makes it possible for them to be sold in high volumes, which means they can be put to use in applications where digital displays are not ordinarily employed. Developed by a company called AJJER (www.ajjer.com), the new RFID displays allow printable electronics to add display capabilities to RFID assemblies that eventually will be attached to hundreds of billions of products. The US company is developing ultra-low power electrochromic displays and indicators that operate at less than 2.4 volts and within a range of one or two meters. The printed displays consist of three layers, including the conductive layers, and are non-emissive, which allows them to be read easily in bright light and at wide viewing angles.

In 2003, Marks & Spencer in the UK sold a Valentine's Day gift card with a screen-printed electrochromic display that helped to merchandise the card. More recent developments by AJJER include a printed RF label with an electrochromic display that changes when held near an RF interrogator, potentially useful as an anti-counterfeiting feature or as a marketing tool.

Once the technology is made available to wholesalers and retailers, a few of the many possible electrochromic tag applications would include:

  • RFID inventory tags that display product expiration date and sale status
  • Logistical tracking that indicates what product in a set was read by the scanner
  • Displayed dollar balances for gift cards to enhance the consumer experience
  • Smart tags that display product authentication following secure network verifications
  • Event tickets with multiple activations
  • Diagnostic services that display medical recommendations, status of wound or dressing
  • Promotions and lotteries for instant winners
  • Brand protection and anti-counterfeiting displays for tens of billions of high-value admission tickets, pharmaceuticals and food products

The printable displays are ingeniously priced. All electrochromatic displays use an electrolyte "ink•bCrLf that the printer applies to a substrate (paper, foil, etc.). The "ink•bCrLf is made with a novel formulation of special chemicals and nano-particles. AJJER tunes its ink to match the persistence requirements of the display, whereupon they are licensed to "toll companies•bCrLf that sell the inks to customers. Then the company collects a revenue/royalty stream from the toll companies to which they have contractually agreed.

 

As it usually is with emerging technologies, those who can anticipate both the intended and unintended consequences of the new RFID paradigm will best be able to profit from them. Those who cannot will be left to bob in the bits and bytes of RFID's electronic wake - along with the flotsam and jetsam of old, fragmented technologies and antiquated business models.

Arthur Gingrande [arthur@imergeconsult.com], ICP, is co-founder and partner of IMERGE Consulting, a document-centric management consulting firm. Mr. Gingrande is a nationally recognized expert in document recognition technology.