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RFID Brings Messages to Seattle Sidewalks

An RFID system being deployed next week will send marketing and assistive information to users carrying active RFID tags.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
May 26, 2004Think you're already exposed to too much advertising? Then you might want to avoid Seattle's downtown and Pioneer Square areas next week. Awarea, a Seattle-based startup, is deploying six RFID reader stations atop Qwest phone booths near retail stores and cafes. Passersby carrying key fobs with an embedded active RFID tag will trigger the stations to broadcast various audio marketing messages through speakers mounted on the phone booths or above store entrances. The content of the messages is based on the tag holder's preconfigured profile, and the user can press a button on the active tag to get further information or to accept a special offer.

Developed by Seattle-based startup Awarea, the system has been tested for the past year with one active reader installed near a bus stop in Pioneer Square. Pierre Bedard, an operations manager for a Bluetooth software company, was one of the first testers. "My first impression was that this would be annoying for some people," he says, "but it turned out to be a good way to start conversions. At first, when they heard the messages, they would look up and smile. They were very curious about it."

According to Awarea founder Harry Hart, the testers opted in to carry the tags for a couple different reasons. One motivator is a general interest in new technology. The tags are, in Hart's words, "cool, geeky and new." But the testers were also attracted by the notion of receiving special marketing messages—it made them feel special.

Currently, Awarea has established American Express, Columbia Records, Omaha Steaks and Netflix as affiliate advertising partners. As users enter activation zones, they hear messages from these companies with special offers. For instance, Netflix broadcasts a special offer to become a member. If the tag holder presses the button on the tag, the Awarea network will e-mail the special offer to the user's e-mail account. If the user signs up for Netflix through that e-mail, Awarea receives a percentage of the membership fee, according to Hart.

There are currently 130 Seattleites carrying the fobs, dubbed Omni Tags. They've all opted to try out the system and establish personal profiles because they want to hear the messages—which include both advertisements, such as sale or promotion alerts, and service announcements, such as bus schedules. And some of them, because they are blind, have no other means to readily get the information.

When Hart began developing this active RFID system to create public messaging centers, dubbed Omni Zones, an acquaintance asked if the system would work for populations that are blind or deaf. With audio and visual messages, it certainly would, and this realization prompted Hart to begin marketing the application to blind and deaf populations (he is adding video displays to the activation zones to deliver messages to the deaf via sign language).

Tourists also might find the system attractive because it can be used to help direct them to points of interest, and the messages could be transmitted in the tourists' own language. Hart is working with area hotels to make the system available to visitors and incorporate marketing messages catered to their specific needs, such as tours, museum schedules or special exhibits.

The reader stations—large square metal cabinets that sit on top of Qwest phone booths—contain an activation beacon and reader, as well as a network hub that links to the Awarea network through either a Wi-Fi link, if the reader station is within Seattle's free public Wi-Fi network, or through a DSL link.

The activators, readers and tags are designed and manufactured by AXCESS, a Carrollton, Texas-based active RFID systems provider. The key fob is about the size of a domino. The fob's embedded tag has a range of approximately 100 feet and operates at 315 MHz. As someone carrying a tag approaches one of the reader stations, the activator excites the tag, using a 126 kHz signal in order to make the tag transmit its ID to the reader. With the tags now transmitting, the reader picks up the tag's unique ID and routes it through a SQL server, via a wireless link.

Depending on the user's profile, the server will send a WAV audio file through speakers, a QuickTime file to a video monitor, or a text message or audio file to a tag holder's Bluetooth-enabled device (cell phone or PDA). The content of the messaging depends on the location of the reader that picks up the tag's signal. For instance, a blind user who nears a reader by a bus stop will hear which bus lines it serves, as well as their direction of travel and schedule—for example, "The number 5 bus, traveling north on Main Street, arrives here every 20 minutes." That user could also request an e-mail message be sent to, say, his or her guardians, letting them know when he or she enters a specified activation zone.

Hart says he is hoping also to partner with Seattle's mass transit agency to place tags on the buses themselves. Those tags would be linked to bus route information in the Awarea database so that the audio messages could include information about which buses are in the reader's zone at any given time.

In the coming months, more Omni Zones will be added throughout Seattle, and Hart hopes to begin selling or renting the Omni Tags to individuals or groups. The tags can be purchased for $49.95 each or rented for $5.95 per month. Hart says employers could use the system to monitor the attendance of its employees, who would be issued the fobs and asked to carry them to and from work. The system, he adds, could also be used by large groups of visitors or school children. The fobs could be networked together so that a group administrator could keep track of the whereabouts of group members within a single or multiple zones. Or a handful of users might form a buddy group and establish requests to be made aware of their buddy's location when they enter an activation zone—as in, "Hello Bob, your buddy Joe is near the ferry terminal."
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Matt Vandervoort 2005-05-31 09:18:17 AM
Privacy Rights? These are the same tags the US Government was going to chip our passports with. Beware of giving yourself away. There are already too many serveilance cameras and detection devices being used on the public. People walking in and out of stores regularly set off the detection devices designed to stop theft, they don't even stop anymore or pay attention to them. Be careful who you share information with. It may be handy for the visually impaired, but the rest of us should be aware. Sincerely, Ayazon

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