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The RFID crystal ball: Will the chips eventually talk to us, too?

Wisconsin Technology Network/David Niles | November 3 2005

Milwaukee, Wis. - It's a warm summer Saturday night. You and your friends decide to watch a Milwaukee Brewers game at Miller Park, buying the cheap tickets for seats in the upper deck. But there's a small crowd at the game, so you decide to move down to the more expensive seats.

None of the people who paid good money for those better seats is concerned about your presence, because you end up paying the extra price, too, thanks to a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip embedded in your ticket. The RFID chip sends a signal to the ticket office, which in turn debits your bank account for the ticket premium.

That's not the scene now at Miller Park or at any sports venue. But it could be, depending on how far society is willing to engage in RFID technology, says Milwaukee futurist David Zach.

"It could even be a situation in which you don't even have a ticket; you just show up and walk in," says Zach, who includes the future of RFID among the topics for his international speaking engagements. "The technology would allow your presence to be recognized; it would even know where you sat the last time you were there. And if you decided to move to more expensive seats, it would automatically debit your account for the extra cost."

The market already has been breached. All 2.9 million tickets to the 2006 World Cup soccer tournament in Germany are embedded with RFID tags. Soccer balls are getting RFID chips, too. This fall's world soccer championship for players under age 17 will have RFID soccer balls, with the signal helping determine whether a ball has gone out of bounds or whether it has been saved by a goalie. In the U.S., some minor-league baseball teams are engaging the technology, selling wristbands that allow cashless sales at food stands. Patrons load monetary value into wristbands via a smart kiosk.

Zach sees widespread uses for RFID technology, well beyond supply chain management and health care security, two applications now dominating current public discussions. And he cautions that there should be greater public debate on how far society is willing to go with the technology, since it has such deep implications for privacy.

RFID, fundamentally, is about communications. Zach envisions that its applications will all support very basic communication needs, in which the simplest things have something to say. For Zach, RFID might as well be called EWTT — "everything wants to talk."

"And I mean everything," says Zach of his "everything wants to talk" approach. "The challenge then becomes: What would it say and to whom would it say it."

Take a washing machine for example. "Your clothing wants to say, `Clean me. Don't put me in with the reds. Iron me. Find me,'" Zach posits. "You could even have a washing machine that wouldn't operate if you mixed incompatible colors. Or you could have an appliance that wouldn't function for certain family members."

The list of things that will "talk" goes on and on: mufflers that say, "I have a leak," a beer glass that will tell the bartender "he's had enough," a refrigerator that tells the grocery store what foods you need.

RFID is already being used to monitor the whereabouts of health care facility patients. Next year, the clothing maker Lauren Scott California will come out with a line of children's pajamas embedded with RFID tags from SmartWear Technologies. The pajamas are intended to help prevent child abductions.

The security applications of RFID are becoming more popular. But the personal information such systems can require is an element of the growing fears that RFID will further erode privacy.

"This is freaking out people," Zach says. "They fear they are losing their privacy to an even greater degree." There are plenty of organizations and websites devoted to the concerns, some suggesting that RFID will lead to an Orwellian world and others raising the specter that the technology is another sign of the impending end of the world.

The privacy fears must be more deeply addressed, because, while such concerns can be legitimate, the technology offers so much potential for a better organized world, Zach says.

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