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Pennzoil Powers Up With RFID and Mario Kart to Promote Product

Hundreds of South By Southwest festival attendees competed in a real-world Mario Kart race, using reads of RFID-enabled go-karts and wristbands to identify participants, post their performances on their social-network accounts and award power-ups.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 25, 2014

This year, Pennzoil released its Platinum line of motor oils featuring PurePlus Technology, which it describes as a revolutionary process that converts natural gas into the first-of-its-kind, high-quality full synthetic base oil. To coincide with its launch, the company sought to use technology in an exciting way to promote its new product. It accomplished that during this year's South By Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival, by means of a motorized race that joined the real world with the digital game of Mario Kart 8. The race featured RFID readers installed on a racetrack, RFID tags mounted on the racing vehicles and a large screen that displayed racers at key points during the competition. By using an RFID wristband, event attendees participating in the race were also able to share recordings of the event with their friends on Facebook and Twitter.

The solution was provided by marketing company JWT Atlanta, with consulting services from RFID firm Fish Technology and software and hardware development company David Whiteman Enterprises (also known as DW Technologies).

When a racer drove over an anti-gravity icon (indicated by an infinity symbol), an Impinj reader installed at the edge of the racecourse identified that go-kart and caused the vehicle to appear upside-down on the video screen.
The race, known as Mario Karting Reimagined—a real-world version of Nintendo's soon-to-be released Mario Kart 8 game (made for the Wii)—accommodated a total of approximately 450 racers during the two days of the festival. RFID readers provided "power-ups" based on the number of times a vehicle's tag was interrogated, while each read event also prompted the automatic displaying of an animation-enhanced version of that individual's racing experience on two large video screens, aimed at entertaining other visitors—one mounted facing the street and shuttle drop-off point at the front of the festival, and another facing the race track's check-in line.

"We were looking for something that would be big, something that would be unexpected from a motor oil company," explains Chris Hayek, Pennzoil's global brand director. To that end, Hayek and his team began working with JWT Atlanta to devise a system that would use RFID technology to allow real-life game play to mimic that of a video game. The system needed to prove that today's technology could bring video games beyond the confines of "spots and dots" on a screen, Hayek explains.

The group envisioned a game in which real go-karts could drive over a track in the same way that the digital vehicles do so in the video game, with participants playing by the same rules and earning points in the same way. "We were familiar with RFID, but not sure how it would work on this scale," says Jeremy Jones, JWT Atlanta's creative director, referring to the need to monitor go-karts on a 1,000-foot-long track—and to do so at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour.

The racetrack's RFID system consisted of 10 Impinj Speedway Revolution readers installed on the sides of the track. Five were represented as Pennzoil icons pasted to the roadway, each providing points over which racers needed to drive in order to boost their speed by 10 miles per hour (from 25 to 35 mph), once they'd passed over five icons. Two other readers were known as Mario icons. When driving over these icons, racers would experience a drop in speed, enabling others to potentially pass them. A single interrogator represented an anti-gravity icon (depicted by an infinity symbol), at which time the racer would appear upside-down on the video screen. Finally, JWT installed two readers, one at each side of the finish line, to detect when each car completed the race.

Upon signing up for the race, each participant picked which character he or she wanted to play (options included Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Bowser) and provided an e-mail address where a video of his or her performance would be sent, as well as that person's Twitter or Facebook account name. That data was stored in software dedicated to the race and provided by JWT. The player was provided with a wristband containing a built-in NXP Semiconductors Icode high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz RFID chip. Staff members read the wristband using a Samsung Galaxy Note 2's built-in Near Field Communication (NFC) RFID reader. The Galaxy Note 2 then forwarded that ID number to the software, where it was linked to the participant's e-mail address or other identifying information.

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