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RFID Works Like a Charm at The Tech

Visitors to Silicon Valley’s Tech Museum of Innovation are using an RFID tag attached to a bracelet to create Web sites based on their experiences.
By Mary Catherine O’Connor
Jun 27, 2005Someday, The Tech Museum of Innovation might develop an exhibit that explores RFID’s impact on the world. But for now, this San Jose, Calif., museum is using RFID tags to extend and enhance its visitors’ experiences. The museum, commonly referred to as The Tech, was established in 1990 and has since become a popular Silicon Valley attraction for families and technology junkies alike, receiving 400,000 visits each year. Judging by the positive response from The Tech’s attendees, the tags are a success.

The museum has permanent exhibits devoted to the use of technology in earth science, health science and communications, as well as an exhibit detailing the accomplishments of Silicon Valley innovators. A health science exhibit called "Genetics: Technology With a Twist" opened in March 2004, and with it The Tech launched its TechTag program, which provides visitors with an RFID tag they can use to gather information for later viewing on personalized Web pages. The tags are also used to determine the language of the content displayed at the exhibits that users visit while in the museum.

The Tech Museum of Innovation isssues RFID tags to its visitors.

Distractions from other museum-goers, or a shortage of time, can prevent visitors from learning as much about a given topic as they’d like. In fact, a study at the Science Museum of Minnesota showed that a typical visitor to a hands-on science museum spends an average of only about 30 seconds at a single exhibit.

By using RFID to create personalized informational Web pages automatically, visitors are spared from either having to look up a topic later on the Web or carry literature with them from the museum. After their visit, when they are back at home or school, visitors can use the Internet to log on to my.thetech.org and key in a 16-character ID printed on their Tag. This allows them to access their personal page.

A number of museums in the United States and abroad are using or planning to use RFID-embedded smart cards or badges toward similar ends. At least one, Denmark’s Museum of Natural History, puts readers, or interrogators, in visitors’ hands in the form of a PDA, with tags embedded in the exhibits (see Museum Puts Tags on Stuffed Birds). But as far as Greg Brown, VP of operations and technology at The Tech, is aware, his museum is the first to use RFID wristbands. The Tech thinks this form factor makes the most sense for use in a hands-on museum, where visitors are often physically interacting with exhibits. Brown explains that museum research shows that visitors who are given something to carry in a museum do not interact with exhibits nearly as much as those not holding anything. "We're a hands-on museum, and one of our mantras is 'we have plans for those hands,'" he says.

The wristband is more like a charm bracelet. It consists of a black elastic string that holds a TechTag, a three-inch-long, one-inch-wide flexible plastic card that hangs off the string like a charm. An RFID tag encoded with a unique 16-character ID code is taped to the charm. The ID code is printed above the tag, which consists of a skinny, blue-green aluminum foil antenna, in the center of which sits a barely discernable integrated circuit chip—Hitachi’s μ-Chip (or mu-Chip). The 0.4mm-square μ-chip, the smallest RFID chip made to date, operates at 2.45 GHz and does not comply with any international standards. That makes it most applicable to closed-loop systems such as The Tech’s application.

Users are never required to provide an e-mail address or any information other than their 16-character ID to access their Web pages. (However, if users lose their TechTags and forget their ID codes, they won’t be able to access their Web pages again.) As a result, no privacy concerns have been raised over the use of the tags, according to Brown. In fact, many visitors, who tend to be fans of new technology, have reacted positively to them. "The technology is a good match for the personality [of the visitors]," says Brown. "People really want to know more about how it works."

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