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Developers of Real-World Mario Kart Game Seek to Spur Interest in RFID

National Instruments' engineers and interns installed Wavetrend radio frequency identification readers in real go-karts and inserted tags in mushrooms, bananas, stars and other items.
By Claire Swedberg
Jan 17, 2013For one week during the summer of 2011, a group of engineers and student interns at National Instruments played a real-world version of Nintendo's Mario Kart videogame. The engineers' version featured RFID readers in modified go-karts and battery-powered RFID tags inserted into items such as stuffed toy mushrooms or a bunch of bananas that, as in the videogame, either benefited or punished participants racing toward the finish line.

The goal of the Texas group—known as Waterloo Labs—is to provide science and technology education to young people, according to Hunter Smith, Waterloo Labs' project manager. The team of engineers does this, he says, by airing videos of its projects that they hope will trigger excitement in future entrepreneurs. Smith, an engineering specialist at National Instruments, is responsible for bringing a love of the sciences to students in grades kindergarten through 12.

At Austin's Park, Waterloo Labs' engineers and interns compete in a real-life version of the Mario Kart videogame, using vehicles specially modified with RFID readers.

The Waterloo Labs team developed the game over the course of several months within the engineers' own homes, using primarily hardware from National Instruments, and then installed the system at Austin's Park's go-kart racecourse. The deployment included four Wavetrend RX300 readers, one in each kart, as well as 10 Wavetrend TG501 personnel active 433.92 MHz tags that transmitted their unique ID number to the readers. Waterloo Labs also developed its own software system, which resides on a base-station computer at the park. The interrogators transmitted the ID numbers of the tags they read, and the software, based on that data, sent instructions to the go-kart's electronic controls to respond to events—such as increasing the throttle in order to boost speed, or immobilizing one wheel to send the vehicle into a spin.

In June 2011, the group brought in summer interns from several colleges to develop games that could be video-recorded and displayed on YouTube. One of the three games that the interns conceived of, Smith says, was the real-life version of Mario Kart, and the team decided that RFID technology would be the best option to bring the videogame into the real word.

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