The tiny chip that can do just about everything


From Thursday's Globe and Mail

Ten years ago, few imagined how pervasive the Net would be, let alone how it would change commerce, culture and communication. Today it's RFID (radio frequency identification), the tiny communicating chip that you can stick on or in just about anything — like Canada's new e-Passport that we heard about this week. When you look around the world, the initial implementations are curious, sometimes twisted, RFID Rorschach reflections of economic cultures.

Consider that the hottest RFID project going is good ol' American productivity and business process improvement. Chances are if you've heard of RFID it's because of a plan by Wal-Mart and other retailers to use it to replace the venerable bar code. Their idea is to cut inventory and personnel costs by the hundreds of millions of dollars, eradicate theft and improve just-in-time shelf stocking. Wal-Mart, with suppliers like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola (along with smaller companies like Toronto-based firelog manufacturer Conros Corp.), goes live next year.

Further to my point, the second-hottest project is by — you guessed it — the U.S. military, which mandated the use of RFID on equipment in the Iraqi theatre and elsewhere.

These U.S. RFID exemplars are only the beginning. Let's tour.

You point your mobile phone at a poster near a public transit stop. Moments later you're on the bus grooving to Moby's latest. You've bought, paid for and downloaded it to your mobile music device. This Moby mobile music machine is Magic Touch, a brand name of an alliance in a hurry that includes Nokia, Philips and Sony. Their RFID Rorschach is evident: a triad of electronic entertainment firms from edgy Finland (Nokia), the Netherlands (Philips) and Japan (Sony).

Nokia already has a Magic Touch RFID in a wireless handset. It will communicate with suitably equipped posters (like our Moby tune shop), objects (like office door locks), and other devices (for example, to exchange ring tones between phones). The possible uses are limited only by your imagination. Already, a German security firm uses a Magic Touch prototype with sensors at points along its guards' patrol routes. The employee touches his handset to a tag and his boss immediately knows where he is and whether he's on schedule.

Meanwhile in another telling initiative, last week, Mexico's Attorney-General Rafael Macedo de la Concha and 160 federal prosecutors, investigators and other employees were implanted with rice-grain-sized RFID chips for secure access to a new anti-crime information centre. "It's only for access, for security," the minister said. The project is expected to expand quickly; President Vicente Fox and his staff may get chipped in the near future. Some speculate the measure is partly designed to reduce official corruption, Mexico's biggest security problem.

Across the pond at the European Union, government ministers aren't being tagged (yet?). But its bureaucrats are into the RFID act. They've mandated that all dogs, cats and ferrets travelling into and between EU member countries must have embedded tags by 2012 (in the interim they must bear either a tag or a special tattoo). Makes sense: anyone who's been to a Paris restaurant knows how much the French, at least, adore their dogs and ferrets.

Meanwhile, nearby at the Barcelona Baja Beach Club, in an RFID Rorschach of a different sort, VIP customers have embedded chips under their skin so staff can treat them with the fawning respect they deserve, and they can buy bebidas without bumbling. RFID: The oh so invisible pass card for chic bathers in skimpy suits.

No slackers in RFID Rorschach, the Japanese also use the tool to track humans. Alarmed at a series of violent crimes involving children, next month a school in western Japan will introduce RFID cards that let parents keep tabs on their kids all day. Pupils scan their cards across readers at the school entrance and then the time and location are recorded and sent via e-mail or phone to their homes. Kids also scan on their way out, so parents will know what time to expect them. Many Japanese pupils play sports long after school and then spend several hours at private crammer schools. Ten-year-olds often travel on public transport late at night.

Telling as all this may be, you are probably wondering about an RFID thingy for a Report on Business reader's Rorschach. You know, the type — like you, maybe — who's in the global virtual community that spends half its leisure time hunting for lost golf balls in the rough. I've found it. Radar Golf (based in Roseville, Calif.) has embedded RFID chips inside golf balls. It offers a kit including balls and handheld tracker for $150 (U.S.). Slice into the woods, grab the tracker off your bag, point, find, and retrieve in moments as your ball beams its location straight to you. Only problem is, Radar's having trouble selling the idea to a golf ball industry whose $1.5-billion business model needs the average weekend duffer to lose four balls per game. Pitiful amateur though I am, I don't need Radar Golf; this summer I play the lush wide fairways of Bigwin Island on Ontario's Lake of Bays. Who needs e-anything when you get to do that?

David Ticoll's new book is The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business, written with Don Tapscott.


Informant: Kim Godfrey


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Juli 2004

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