Roland Piquepaille writes about Innovative Uses of RFID Tags:

When your newspapers write something about RFID tags, it’s almost always about Wal-Mart or how these tags are threatening our privacy. But they often miss the important innovations brought by this technology. For example, in Florida, RFID drives highway traffic reports on more than 200 miles of toll roads. Or take DHL, which is tracking fashion with RFID tags on more than 70 million garments in its French distribution center. Elsewhere, in Texas, 28,000 students test an e-tagging system which promises better security for them. And what about RFID tags which could prevent surgical errors and have just been approved in the U.S last week? So, what do you think? Are these innovations promising a better future for us or not?

Read more…

RFID cell phones take shape at Nokia

For instance, retailers could put RFID-embedded “touch phone here” signs on store shelves to send a coupon to the phone, or put the same signs at checkout stands to instantly transfer personal information stored on the phone in order to complete a warranty, Nokia Director Gerhard Romen said.

At the CTIA Wireless IT & Entertainment trade show here, Nokia was demonstrating an early prototype built in collaboration with VeriSign, which is proposing a central repository for RFID data that companies can use to relay information about inventory and deliveries to customers and suppliers. The prototype was based on Nokia’s 5140 model, with an RFID reader contained in a shell attached to the phone.

“It’s still very early yet,” Romen said Sunday when asked when RFID phones may become commercially available.

Mike Langberg of the SJ Mercury News:

I’m rolling up my sleeve, ready to get injected with the VeriChip. That’s the device cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration earlier this month as the first implantable electronic identification tag linked to a person’s medical profile…

VeriChip is not new technology. Applied Digital of Delray Beach, Fla., which developed the product, has sold 30 million virtually identical injectable ID chips for pets and livestock in the past 15 years. Thousands of lost dogs and cats without external ID tags have been reunited with their owners because the pets had ID chips that were scanned at animal shelters.

VeriChip is very simple. A glass capsule about the size of a grain of rice, the VeriChip contains only a basic microchip programmed with a 16-digit ID number and an antenna. When the VeriChip is hit with radio waves from a scanner, the chip responds by broadcasting its ID number. There are no batteries in the VeriChip, and it works for a lifetime…

We need basic protections, similar to what’s already in place for other technologies ranging from home phone lines to financial records. I’d humbly suggest federal laws covering five points:

1. Getting an implanted ID chip should always be voluntary, without coercion. No one should ever, ever be forced to get an ID chip. What’s more, schools, businesses and government should be banned from offers that pressure people — prisoners, for example, couldn’t be promised time off their sentences, and insurance carriers couldn’t offer lower rates.

2. There has to be an “off” switch. Implanted chips must either have the capability to be permanently turned off, or be removed. The VeriChip can’t be deactivated, but can be removed in a minor outpatient procedure. Deactivation or removal should be available on demand, no questions asked, and should be free; the fee for inserting a chip should include a reserve fund to pay for removals.

3. Scanners can’t be hidden. The scanners that read implanted ID chips can be built into walls, door frames or even highway signs. There needs to be a universal symbol showing the location of ID scanners, and that symbol must be shown wherever a scanner is present.

4. Individuals must be in control. Chip recipients need full disclosure and absolute veto power over what information goes into computer databases tied to their ID number, and who has access to that information. Again, schools, business and government couldn’t use coercion — such as an employer who sets up scanners within a company building, then insists as a condition of employment that workers allow scanning of implanted chips to track their movement.

5. Government can’t snoop with a court order. Law enforcement agencies would need to convince a judge of their legitimate interest in looking at your ID database in the same way they need court orders today to look at phone or bank records.

The New York Times > Technology > Identity Badge Worn Under Skin Approved for Use in Health Care:

Real privacy concerns have emerged. “At the point you place the chip beneath the skin, you’re saying you will not have the ability to remove the ID tracking device,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest advocacy group in Washington. “I think, increasingly, if this takes off – and it’s still not clear that it will – the real social debate begins around prisoners and parolees, and perhaps even visitors to the U.S. That’s where the interest in being able to identify and track people is.”

Indeed, the debate over civil liberties and privacy has made discussing any practical benefits of a technology like VeriChip harder.

“The fact that we’re engaged in such a deep, fundamental privacy debate really does complicate the prospect for this kind of technology,” said Clyde Wayne Crews Jr., director of technology studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a regulatory research group in Washington. “We haven’t even sorted out the appropriateness of a RFID tag that goes on a pallet of tomatoes,” Mr. Crews said, “much less one that can go under a person’s skin.”

CNET: “IBM said Monday that it intends to spend $250 million on developing RFID, and a related technology known as sensor networks, over the next five years. HP is pouring $150 million into the technology, the company said in a dueling announcement.”

Most likely the money IBM and HP are pouring in are essentially the cost of consultants in their services divisions training to understand RFID technologies, but this still points to the trend that “RFID is projected to fuel a buying frenzy, with companies stocking up on the required equipment, including RFID tags, readers, computer servers and new software. U.S. retailers will spend nearly $1.3 billion on RFID projects annually by 2008, according to market researcher IDC.”

More evidence of the steamroller in action — but still, precious little to say of what the killer apps may be except to remind us that the status quo may be pretty awful to begin with. Here’s the state-of-the-art: “If there’s a discrepancy–the quantity shipped is less than the quantity ordered, for example–the system will automatically push an E-mail alert to the customer.” Sigh.

RFID Tops To-Do List In Consumer Goods
By Beth Bacheldor and Larry Greenemeier, Information Week

Consumer-goods companies this year once again embrace an innovative technology, though for now their time and attention are focused on the mechanics of implementation rather than the higher art of finessing it. Sixty percent of the consumer-goods companies on this year’s InformationWeek 500 list are developing or testing radio-frequency identification tags. The technology’s promise has caught the imagination of large companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which is requiring its top 100 suppliers to affix RFID tags on all the cases and pallets of goods they ship to the retailer by January. Target Corp., the U.S. Department of Defense, and others have similar mandates, hoping that RFID will help them track products as they move through the supply chain, providing up-to-the minute inventory details, triggering automatic replenishment, and ultimately generating more sales.

Imperial Sugar Co., with sales of $1.1 billion in 2003, already has begun the arduous task of planning to use RFID in its distribution centers so that it can meet customers’ requirements. But the company’s aggressive stance has more to do with VP and CIO George Muller’s belief that RFID offers a way to outsmart competitors. “With RFID, the people that get there first will have a competitive advantage,” Muller says. “And they’ll be able to take costs out of their supply chains sooner.”

…Muller has bigger designs that would take advantage of the fact that IT is a core competency of Imperial Sugar. He’d someday like to co-develop and co-market an RFID system with a third-party service provider that could hook into any back-office ERP system and provide visibility into any company’s flow of inventory. “This is late-breaking news that I haven’t really discussed with management,” Muller says. “We can generate a nice revenue stream with some very attractive margins.” Extra revenue would be welcome in the sugar industry, where, Muller says, margins are only about 3% to 3.5%. Plus, “this would give our IT employees an opportunity to expand their horizons,” he says. “That could be a lot of fun.”

The biggest challenge regarding RFID is to comply with business partners’ requirements without breaking the bank, says Jeryl Wolfe, CIO and VP of global business solutions for McCormick & Co. Inc., which makes spices and sauces. “The technology isn’t mature, not even close,” he says. Whereas cost-effective use of RFID is predicated on the 5-cent tag, decent tags aren’t available today for less than 20 cents. “The costs get scary as they scale,” he says. McCormick also is a second-tier Wal-Mart supplier with a January 2006 RFID deadline.

RFID implementation cost estimates vary wildly, and much of it depends on how many tags will be required and whether the use of scanners and other associated tools will extend beyond the point that goods are loaded on trucks and moved to retailers. In a Forrester Research study earlier this year, which included interviews with 10 of Wal-Mart’s top 100 suppliers as well as 25 tag and reader manufacturers, the research firm estimated that Wal-Mart’s mandate could cost a supplier $9.1 million in startup and maintenance fees for one year.

…Imperial Sugar’s IT team has just implemented a custom collaboration tool that lets it more effectively communicate order and delivery information with its customers. It’s integrated with Imperial Sugar’s PeopleSoft supply-chain apps and compares supply-chain data against a number of predefined rules. If there’s a discrepancy–the quantity shipped is less than the quantity ordered, for example–the system will automatically push an E-mail alert to the customer. “We’re using push technology to people that need to know so we can provide better customer support,” Clemmons says.

It would be interesting to consider whether SNMP is an appropriate management technique for these readers. But it still wouldn’t provide a proper event protocol for relaying actual read data — UDP traps could be dropped, but reliable queues could overflow. And there would probably be a need to push filtering rules out to the edges, so the reader could use a policy to coalesce multiple reads or drop unrelated products. Let’s see what these folks have to say…

Technology Review: RFID Relief

many smaller companies that own multiple brands of RFID readers—one at the warehouse doors, another in the product-label printers, and so forth—and use multiple systems for storing product information can’t afford custom software to link them all together. AirGate’s one-size-fits-all software, to be unveiled next spring, acts like a universal translator. It’s the first system that can take data from any RFID reader and present it intelligibly on a simple Web page or dump it into a database program

Interesting opinion/recap piece this morning on a perceived alliance of interest between libertarians and Christian millenariast (‘mark-of-the-beast’) folks to oppose RFID (specifically, when used for humans — no word on the privacy rights of cats and dogs :-)

This piece is supposedly triggered by reading recent reader feedback mail about some RFID apps, including the infamous Spanish nightclub VIP pass for buying drinks and getting into the lounge…

RFID tags: The people say no | Perspectives | CNET by Michael Kanellos, Editor-at-Large

“When our society reaches the point that credit cards can easily be faked, look for a push to implant a chip that will take over our trade institutions,” reader Jeff Phelps wrote.

A large number of letters also asserted that human RFID tags are a demonic tool.

“I can assure you the resistance to this will be very strong from Christians…You will see tens of millions refuse this chip, even when it means great personal suffering will ensue.”

…this is going to be one long, ugly, uphill battle. The issue has united people with fairly strong religious beliefs and libertarian privacy advocates. That doesn’t happen often.

On the other hand, the relationship between consumers and industry isn’t even close to a crisis point. At the turn of the last century, corporate leaders often faced assassination attempts, and striking factory employees sometimes got shot. Try to double-park in front of, or across the street from, an office of J.P. Morgan Chase. Private security officers will immediately shuffle you away, the legacy of a 1920 bombing at the financial institution’s New York offices.

Many wrote to say they fear that the tracking technology will be exploited to monitor our private lives–but that won’t likely happen. Governments and companies won’t have the time or energy to sift through all that data. Even if they do, what will they figure out? That car thieves are among the most loyal consumers of Sunny Delight?

On a gut level, I think that much of the antagonism against the technology is rooted in a general distrust of large institutions. Anyone who has been stuck on hold when phoning for help knows that the standard of customer service continues to plummet.

But in the end, people distrust RFID, I believe, because it forces people to get tagged like a circus bear so that an already overpaid executive can obtain a bonus for cutting costs. If companies want to win the public over to this technology, they are going to have to be the ones jumping through hoops.

It would be really interesting to see the state-of-the-art in actual tagging technology. I have to admit, for being a lab focusing on the Now Economy, I haven’t actually held an RFID tag in my own hot little hands. (There was an InterMEC reader left behind in my cube when I moved in, though :-)

There have been some nice reviews of Alien’s classes, though other manufacturers surely offer similar events. The key would appear to be some learning-by-doing insofar as you learn what materials you can scan through or not, for example.

Alien Technology – RFID Academy

Years of RFID Experience Packed Into Two Days… RFID Academy course fees are $5,000, which includes a Development Kit. Register early: Classes always sell out.

… Participants of RFID Academy have a choice between receiving a 915MHz Passive UHF system or a 2450MHz Battery Assisted Passive (BAP) Microwave Development Kit along with the two-day technical RFID training session.

  • 915MHz Passive Development Kit and Circular Polarized Antenna

  • 2450MHz Long Range Battery Tag w/Temperature Data Logging Option

Of course, for half the price, I suspect that I’d have a lot more fun at Web 2.0.

Last night we stumbled on the Internet UPC Database, a hack that offers a public database of products and their Universal Product Codes. Anyone can submit new codes or search the database of codes. For example, here’s Diet Cherry Coke. Even more interesting is that a Google search for Diet Cherry Coke’s UPC number points you to the item. Which is even more astounding when you realize that the guy launched the service just seven months ago, and already has some extraordinary statistics:

Known Manufacturer Entries: 1058
UPC Entries: 805229
Distributable UPC Entries: 486416 (60.4%)
Unique Mfr ID’s Represented: 44333
Average Items per Mfr ID: 18.2
Total size of database (approx.): 53.5 MB
Update Requests Pending: 139

Too bad there’s no web service interface so we could start doing some interesting hacks…