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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
Results and Future Plans
Since the TechTag program launched last year, 113,000 visitors have taken a TechTag (they are offered free to all visitors), and 14 percent of those visitors have logged on to their Web pages at least once—a percentage that is twice as high as The Tech was expecting. Of that group, 5 percent have returned to the museum with their TechTags and used them at new exhibits, and/or have returned to the same exhibits (thereby overwriting what was already on their Web pages linked to those particular exhibits).

Four percent of the TechTag users are Spanish-speakers. Brown says he hopes to add additional language options. The museum also plans on issuing group tags for school trips. This would allow visitng students to locate other members of their class in the museum at any time. In addition, it expects to devise a way of linking the TechTags with ticketing so that the tags could be used for admission to parts of the museum requiring an additional fee, such as the IMAX theater. These initiatives are part of the second phase of deployment, set to begin soon.

The Exploratorium plans to help deploy the eXspot RFID system at museums around the country.

Brown says The Tech’s board of directors, which includes executives with Silicon Valley technology companies, is enthusiastic about the TechTag program and wants to expand it. He hopes to grow the core group of RFID companies that underwrite its TechTag efforts in order to remain current with new advances in RFID technology and connect with the industry players involved in creating new applications. Brown says The Tech also provides value to the sponsors and other companies it works with. "We're a great beta site for ideas to be tested with real people," he says.

Other Museums
The Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum in San Francisco, has tested eXspot, an RFID system similar to The Tech’s. The museum has completed researching and developing its RFID application, which it designed in collaboration with Intel Labs and the University of Washington, with funding from the National Science Foundation. It hopes to deploy the system in the museum permanently, but first needs to find ongoing funding for the project. More importantly, it needs to resolve some networking infrastructure problems within the museum that hampered its testing of the technology.

The museum’s physical layout and other issues made it impractical to install cabling and other hardware necessary to network the readers. Therefore, eXspot’s developers opted to network themover Wi-Fi. However, multiple tests of the RFID system were stymied by problems with the wireless links. As a result, little data was generated.

Instead of bracelets, 13.56 MHz RFID smart cards will be offered to visitors, free of charge, which they can carry with them to various exhibits, building out a personalized Web page as they present the cards to readers at various exhibits. Like The TechTag system, many of the eXspot readers will link to digital photos of the visitors interacting with exhibits. For example, an eXspot reader linked to an infrared camera can post infrared images (based on body heat) to the visitors’ Web pages.

Before they begin using their cards, however, museum-goers will need to register them by presenting them to a reader at a kiosk, then typing in an e-mail address. When they later log into the eXspot site to view their page, they'll need to provide both that e-mail address and the nine-character ID printed on the smart card.

Sherry Hsi, eXspot’s project leader, says she is writing a grant proposal to help fund the project, but corporate underwriting in the form of hardware donations is the type of support the project needs most direly. Most of the grants available for this type of project, she explains, would not cover all of the costs.

The Exploratorium also hopes to help deploy eXspot at other museums around the country so visitors can use the cards to expand their Web pages by adding information and images from their visits to other museums.

In Florida, The Miami Museum of Science and Planetarium is devising a system to track the movements of visitors, who would be given badges containing a 915 MHz RFID tag. The system is designed to assess traffic flow and identify which exhibits are underattended. The badges would also benefit visitors by triggering multimedia events linked to specific exhibits.

The museum piloted the system last year, but its deployment hinges on the success of a grant application. The museum expects to know whether the grant will be awarded soon.

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