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Is Video a Threat to RFID?

Amazon Go is using video, which has great potential to work with RFID—but here's why the technology cannot replace radio frequency identification.
By Mark Roberti
Feb 04, 2018

On Jan. 21, The New York Times published an article titled "Inside Amazon Go, a Store of the Future." The 1,800-square-foot convenience store is now open to the public (previously, it was open only to Amazon employees). The Times reporter wrote: "Every time customers grab an item off a shelf, Amazon says the product is automatically put into the shopping cart of their online account. If customers put the item back on the shelf, Amazon removes it from their virtual basket."

How is this possible? The article went on to explain: "The only sign of the technology that makes this possible floats above the store shelves—arrays of small cameras, hundreds of them throughout the store. Amazon won't say much about how the system works, other than that it involves sophisticated computer vision and machine learning software. Translation: Amazon's technology can see and identify every item in the store, without attaching a special chip to every can of soup and bag of trail mix."

The system appears to be tied to Bluetooth on a shopper's phone. A customer would check into the store using a special Amazon Go app. The only way to add items digitally to the shopping cart would be to use locationing technology to link what that customer has pick up (and what is recognized by the cameras overhead) with the person standing in front of the shelf.

This is certainly a big achievement by Amazon, and something that could prove to be revolutionary in retail. But I don't think the technology will ever replace RFID in retail. Rather, the two will be complementary.

There are many questions about the Amazon Go system to which we just don't know the answer. For example, how much does the video technology cost? Look at the photo in the Times' article. There is an awful lot of hardware in the ceiling. I would assume that over time, the technology will improve and fewer cameras will be needed, but what's the cost?

Additionally, we don't know how difficult it is to configure the system to each new store. Can you simply throw cameras in the ceiling and have them compare what they see to still photos uploaded to their memory banks? Or does it take time to "teach" the machine-learning system what the products are and how to handle the chaos that often occurs in stores? This is particularly an issue around the holiday season, when consumers make a mess of the shelves.

USER COMMENTS

Ray Adams 2018-02-08 11:45:20 AM
Great article Mark. After seeing a video about Amazon Go, I was sure that RFID was definitely at work making all of the shopping experience possible. Although it was indicated that cameras were in use, the details of tracking product movement just had to be via RFID. I am really shocked to hear they are not using such a proven and mature technology to support this process. As you indicated, cameras can only see so much. One has to wonder, how much "machine learning" tweaking needs to happen whenever a flaw is discovered.
Ben Wild 2018-02-11 05:41:40 PM
Thanks Mark for the great article. I think with cameras coming down in price and machine learning improving every year, camera only based tracking is definitely a threat to RFID for item level tracking in stores. One way that Amazon is making the problem a bit easier to solve is by basically placing large bar codes on each item so that cameras can see them from a distance. I believe that the only physical advantage that RFID has is that radio works in non line of sight situations where as photons don't. But that can be overcome. For example, a camera system can know how many items are on the shelf by counting the number of items that were placed on the shelf minus the number of items that were removed.

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