It's near the end of the day when you discover that you left a folder containing payroll information for your DC's temp workers in one of the many meetings you attended. You may have no choice but to retrace your steps and look for it, but if you worked at the University of Washington's Center for Computer Science and Engineering, you'd have another alternative: you could track down your missing stuff immediately with RFID technology.
Earlier this month, UW launched what's known as the RFID Ecosystem Project. As part of the project, which is one of the largest people- and item-tracking experiments on record, 50 volunteers from among the 400 or so people who use the building regularly began wearing RFID tags on their clothing and other belongings. About 200 antennas have been installed in the facility to read the tags.
The pilot program represents the next step in social networking— wirelessly monitoring people and things in a closed environment. RFID vendor ThingMagic has been experimenting with a similar system, though on a much smaller scale, at its Cambridge, Mass., headquarters.
At UW, RFID tags record the location of the volunteers every five seconds throughout much of the six-story building. The information is saved to a database and published to Web pages. Participants can control who may see their data, delete any data, or opt out of the study without penalty.
The RFID Ecosystem Project aims to provide a glimpse into a world that many technology experts believe is just over the horizon, according to project leader Magda Balazinska, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering.
"Our goal is to ask what benefits can we get out of this technology and how can we protect people's privacy at the same time," said Balazinska in a press release. "We want to get a handle on the issues that would crop up if these systems become a reality."
Researchers will use the system to monitor both positive and negative trends—such as keeping track of everything from where you lost your laptop charger to where your friends are meeting for coffee— and the potential loss of privacy by sharing such information. Just imagine how the technology could be used to track picking performance within a distribution center.
The pilot study will incorporate two new studentdeveloped features that aim to exploit the system's potential benefits. One invention is a tool that records a person's movements in Google Calendar. Study participants can set the system to instantaneously publish activities, such as arrival at work, meetings, or lunch breaks, on their Web calendars. Another tool, dubbed "friend finder," sends instant alerts to participants' e-mail addresses or cell phones telling them when friends are in certain places.
"It's a perfect memory system that records all your personal interactions throughout the day," said Evan Welbourne, a UW doctoral student in computer science and engineering and one of those wearing RFID tags. "You can go back a day later, a month later, and see, 'What did I do that day?' or, 'Who have I spent my time with lately?'"
In another sign that RFID technology is closer to going mainstream, research firm Gartner predicts that the industry will grow at a 30-percent clip this year. The Stamford, Conn.-based company forecasts that total worldwide revenue will hit $1.2 billion in 2008—a significant increase over last year's $917 million. Gartner's forecast calls for worldwide RFID revenue to reach $3.5 billion by 2012. (Gartner does not include RFID cards and transport applications like toll cards in its forecast.)
"The market for RFID technologies has begun to transition from being compliance-oriented to being revenue-generating and innovative," said Chad Eschinger, research director at Gartner, in a press release. "Much of the initial adoption of RFID was driven by mandates from the U.S. Department of Defense and Wal-Mart, where compliance with a retailer directive rather than business competitiveness was often the underlying driver," he added. "Early adopters faced tight profit margins and pressed technology providers for lower hardware costs. Fortunately for the market, this trend has waned and innovation rather than cost is becoming a key driver for adoption."
Gartner maintains that the forced adoption of RFID initially led to faster uptake than would otherwise have occurred. This was followed by a delay in sales and in further adoption. Since then, Eschinger says, new applications and standards have helped to rejuvenate demand as companies have realized that the value of RFID lies in the business process innovation, not the technology.