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RFID Consumer Applications and Benefits

RFID technology has only recently begun to be used in consumer applications, but there are many potential benefits.
By Bob Violino
Jan 16, 2005Radio frequency identification has been around for decades, but it has been too expensive for many consumer applications. That's beginning to change. This article explains the most common existing consumer applications and their benefits and the potential applications as the technology evolves.

One of the first consumer applications of RFID was automated toll collection systems, which were introduced in the late 1980s and caught on in the 1990s. An active transponder is typically placed on a car’s or truck's windshield. When the car reaches the tollbooth, a reader at the booth sends out a signal that wakes up the transponder on the windshield, which then reflects back a unique ID to the reader at the booth. The ID is associated with an account opened by the car owner, who is billed by the toll authority. Consumers spend less time fumbling for change or waiting on lines to pay their toll fee.


ExxonMobile's Speedpass
In the late 1990s, ExxonMobil (then just Mobil) introduced Speedpass, an RFID system that allows drivers who have opened an account to pay for gas automatically. Drivers are given a small, passive 13.56 MHz transponder in a small wand or fob that can be put on a key chain. To pay for gas, they just wave the key fob by a reader built into the gas pump. Seven million people in the United States use the system, and it has increased the number of cars each gas station can serve during rush periods.

MasterCard and Visa are experimenting with RFID to give consumers the convenience of paying for small purchases with a wave of a contactless smart card or key fob. NCR, Verifone and other companies are selling mag-stripe credit card machines with a built-in RFID reader. There is an international standard for secure RFID payments (see A Summary of RFID Standards), but there isn't a single network infrastructure that would allow someone to use one RFID key fob or card to pay for items at any store. It will take time for the major payment processing companies to come agree on one system, which they did with credit cards.

RFID has other consumer applications, besides being a convenient payment system. One is the recovery of lost or stolen items. A company called Snagg in Palo Alto, Calif., has created an electronic registry for musical instruments. It provides an RFID tag that can be affixed to a classic guitar or priceless violin and keeps a record of the serial number in the tag. If the instrument is recovered by the police after being lost or stolen, they can call Snagg, which can look up the rightful owner.

Toy companies are embedding RFID tags in toys to make them interactive. When Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was released in 1999, Hasbro created action figures with embedded RFID tags. When children brought the figures close to a base station, a reader recognized the figure and addressed it by name.

RFID could be used to create smart products that interact with smart appliances. Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products goods company, has created a prototype kitchen of the future in which RFID readers in the pantry read all the tags on products on the shelves. A computer program determines what items can be cooked with what's in the kitchen.

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