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RFID Works Like a Charm at The Tech

Visitors to Silicon Valley’s Tech Museum of Innovation are using an RFID tag attached to a bracelet to create Web sites based on their experiences.
By Mary Catherine O’Connor
The museum currently has about 40 TechTag stations and is adding more all the time. Each station is comprised of signage and a TechTag logo instructing each visitor where to place the TechTag so it will be in range of the RFID reader's antenna. Sometimes, these instructions appear on a touchscreen monitor, as well. Visitors know their tag has been read when a light built into the exhibit blinks, or when they hear a tone.

When a TechTag is first used, its user is asked to choose English or Spanish as a preferred language. If he or she picks Spanish, the Web site associated with his or her ID will appear in Spanish, as will any supplemental information provided at the TechTag stations once that ID is read by an interrogator linked to a station. (The printed signage throughout the museum is written in both English and Spanish.)

Visitors to The Tech use RFID-enabled wristbands to create their own Web pages.

Some TechTag stations also include a digital camera that captures an image of the visitor interacting with the exhibit. Visitors see those images later when they use their TechTag ID number to log onto their Web pages. The photos serve as mementos of their experience, or are posted with reminders of the information they learned at specific exhibits.

The Museum Experience
The genetics exhibit is filled with individual stations where visitors can learn about a specific topic, such as gene mutation or gene therapy. At each of the 10 TechTag stations in the genetics exhibit, visitors wave their tags by the readers to collect digital GeneKid cards. Each card is a graphic with a cartoon character correlating to the TechTag station topic, such as genetics and medicine or family gene traits. They’ll later see the GeneKids cards on their personalized Web site and click on the card to learn more about the topic, or see photos of themselves interacting with the station. Kids are encouraged to collect all 10 GeneKid cards, increasing the chances that they will visit all of the TechTag stations in the exhibit.

The TechTags also provide access to some areas visitors would otherwise never see during their visit to the museum. For example, the genetics exhibit includes a section where visitors can insert samples of jellyfish DNA into bacteria in a Petri dish to generate bacteria that glow green. This exercise replicates the methods scientists use in developing medicine such as insulin or growth hormones by inserting human genetic material into bacteria. It takes 24 hours for the glowing bacteria to develop, however, so only visitors who use the TechTag can see the bacteria they grow. Before placing their Petri dish into an incubator, visitors write their name on the dish cover. The Tech’s staff then photographs each day’s worth of dishes, with a top view that shows the name on each dish, and posts it to a page on The Tech’s Web site. The next day, TechTag users can go to the appropriate day’s images, click on the image of their dish and link it to their personal Web page. There’s even a tool that lets them send an electronic postcard containing the image to a friend.

In November, The Tech launched its newest exhibit, NetPl@net, which is filled with Internet-based interactive tools and games. NetPl@net has about 20 TechTag stations. The TechTag-enabled stations in the exhibit include "Internet Arm Wrestling," where participants compete online with people visiting other museums, with each competitor using a wooden arm linked to a sensor. Digital images of the competitors are taken during the contest and linked to their personal Web pages. In the "Where Do You Stand?" station, visitors take an online poll, answering questions such as: "How often do you use the Internet to play online games?" The answers are displayed on a large screen and shown in comparison with answers from all previous participants. Thus, visitors can see that they are, for example, in the 24th percentile of all respondents who play online games weekly. Using the TechTag, visitors will link their results to their site and see where they stand in the poll as more and more people take it. (For an example of a TechTag-generated Web site, go to my.thetech.org and enter this TechTag ID: E004010000D79724. You’ll see links to information gathered from the genetics and NetPl@net exhibits.)

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