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Did IBM Exaggerate About RFID?

Posted By RFID Journal, 10.02.2013

Do you think RFID will ever get to the point of use demonstrated in the company's commercials?

—Name withheld

———

As I recall, there were two IBM commercials that focused on radio frequency identification. One featured a shady-looking guy stuffing items into his coat, as though he were stealing them. We saw shots of this man from a black-and-white surveillance camera, and people staring at him as if he were a criminal. As he walked out of the store, a security guard stopped him and said, "Excuse me, sir. You forgot your receipt," and he smiled in thanks (see The Future Market). While RFID is never mentioned, clearly the only way to identify the goods under the man's coat would be via radio frequency identification.

Another commercial featured a truck coming to a screeching stop in front of a woman sitting at a desk on an isolated road. (I guess the driver, who had to have seen her a mile away, thought she was a mirage.) Anyway, the driver asked the woman what she was doing in the road, and she explained that she was from the help desk, and that he was lost: He was on the road to Fresno, when he should have been en route Albuquerque. "How did you know we were lost?" the driver asked. "The boxes told me," the woman said. "RFID radio tags on the cargo. Helps track shipments" (see IBM Truck Ad).

Do I think we will ever see help-desk managers sitting on isolate roads? No, of course not—but I do think that one day, all cases and pallets, as well as many items, will carry RFID tags and be integrated with GPS tracking systems, providing a real-time view of where all inventory is located at any given time. I don't think that world is too far away—perhaps only 10 to 15 more years. It is difficult to predict the exact timing, since adoption initially moves along slowly, and then reaches a critical mass and progresses very quickly from that point forward. It's not easy to anticipate when that will occur.

The in-store application is a little more tricky. To be able to just walk out of a store carrying goods, you would need to have tags on everything—even a 25-cent pack of gum. It is difficult to see how that would be feasible without a breakthrough in printed electronics. Even if a trillion tags were consumed, the price of silicon-based RFID chips would not fall far enough, I don't think, to reach 1-cent tags. And a tag on a pack of gum might be too small for a store to be able to read it as a customer simply pushed a cart through an RFID reader portal—or, in the case of the commercial, walked out with the items inside his coat.

That said, there is no doubt in my mind that one day, almost everything will have an RFID tag in or on it. Tracking items by hand is way too inefficient.

—Mark Roberti, Founder and Editor, RFID Journal

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