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RSA Laboratories

RFID, a Vision of the Future

The term, "RFID", in its broadest sense, can refer not just to next-generation barcodes, but to a compact class of wireless computing devices. There is a broad spectrum of radio-frequency technologies, including more highly functional (and expensive) technologies such as Bluetooth®, mobile phones, and WiFi®. The future holds applications of RFID that go far beyond mere bar-coding. A ubiquitously RFID-tagged and networked world offers a transformational extension of the World Wide Web. It will become not just a World Wide Web of data, but also an World Wide Web of things.

View of an RFID-enabled Future, the Near Term

In the EPCGlobal vision, an RFID tag does not need to provide information storage (so as to permit inexpensive chip manufacture). Rather, the unique identifier of a tag serves as a pointer to an associated database entry. In a highly networked environment, a backend system can essentially provide unlimited record-keeping for an RFID tag. You can think of an RFID tag as a physical URL of sorts; the data for the tag is kept in cyberspace. (Indeed, EPCGlobal standards support an infrastructure for RFID-data lookup analogous to the one for URL lookup.)

In the near term, RFID will serve as a supply chain management tool. It will replace manual processes for tracking supplies in warehouses and at loading docks. As a crate passes by, a networked RFID portal on a loading dock can transmit information about it to a backend system. This facilitates automated creation of shipping manifests and other data, whose generation currently involves some degree of manual labor. In principle, speedy data generation by RFID means that information about, say, a crate of oranges, can reach a destination even before the oranges are loaded onto the truck. In this near-term view, RFID is a form of automation support for the supply chain management systems of today.

For businesses and consumers alike, RFID promises cost savings, more rapid delivery of goods, and enhanced quality control.

RFID for the Consumer in the Future

The world will be very different once readers and RFID tags are everywhere. In an RFID-enhanced future, the benefits would accrue not just to businesses, but also to consumers. Here are some examples:

  • Easy item returns: You might be able to return RFID-tagged items of apparel without a store receipt. The unique identifier in the tag would reference a database record with the time of purchase and the original price – and even credit card information, if desired.
  • Detailed information about customer returns would help stores refine their inventory selections. If all of the items from a particular lot are returned for defects, for instance, the retailer with an RFID-enabled infrastructure could easily trace the factory of origin.
  • Smart appliances: Your washing machine could choose its cycle setting based on tag information in the items to be washed. Your “smart” refrigerator could take inventory automatically, alerting you to expired or recalled foodstuffs, creating shopping lists automatically, and even searching the Internet to find recipes you can prepare with the items in the refrigerator. Your closet could alert you to what clothing it contains and what is out for cleaning – and search the Internet for fashion advice.
  • Personalization: You might carry an RFID tag that stores (or references) personalization data. When you walk up to a clothing rack in a shop, LEDs might flash on the hangers with items in your size and preferred colors.
  • Easy shopping: You could purchase or rent items by simply walking out of a shop with them. The RFID payment device in your pocket and the RFID tags in the items you carry would allow payment to be made automatically.

Some Technical Realities

Many of the futuristic visions of item-level RFID tagging fall flat before the realities. To begin with, reader signals are reflected off metal, making RFID-tag reading difficult in the presence of metal objects. Tagging items such as soda cans with RFID is difficult. There is a much bigger problem, though: Most of the many miles of shelving in retail stores today are metal!

Thanks to their relatively long read range—sometimes as much as tens of feet—UHF (ultra-high frequency) tags are likely to see the most widespread use as part of the EPCGlobal standard. Here too, there is a problem: The reader signal for such tags is subject to absorption by water. Because human beings consist primarily of water, many tags will be virtually unreadable near the human body. This is good for privacy, as it means that your RFID-tagged sweater will be difficult to read when you're wearing it. What does it mean for automated checkout, however, when your shopping cart contains bottled liquids, and what does it mean for theft-control systems?

While often beneficial, the potentially long range of RFID tags can sometimes introduce unexpected problems. NCR Corp.® has run RFID-automated checkout pilots for supermarket scenarios in which shopping carts pass by an RFID reader to tally goods inside. They found that without due care, a shopper could end up paying for the groceries of the person behind her!

Researchers are looking for ways to address the many and subtle technical challenges that RFID introduces. For example, one company is marketing a system for tagging metal pipes using dangling active, i.e., battery-powered tags. But as with many technologies, it is important to keep in mind the large gaps between the vision and the reality.