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Prototype Mobile Shopping Assistant Uses RFID to Tip 'n Tell

To access product information, consumers and sales associates can bring an RFID-enabled PDA or cell phone near an item, then tap the device's screen to request additional details.
By Rhea Wessel
The system works much like the smart mirror deployed by a Metro Group-owned store (see Metro Group's Galeria Kaufhof Launches UHF Item-Level Pilot), but it is mobile. Its designers hope that eventually, when large numbers of commercial cell phones are outfitted with RFID interrogators, each person's mobile phone may be employed as a mobile shopping assistant.

Partners in the team include Harman-Becker, a manufacturer of radios, navigation devices and other automotive components. The company helped the university researchers test the system in an in-store scenario of shopping for electronic devices. Harman-Becker is interested in the application as a way of differentiating itself from the competition, since navigation devices have become prevalent with many standardized features. Another partner is Empolis, a subsidiary of media giant Bertelsmann. Empolis cooperated on the team with its knowledge-management software, a basis for the database that was developed.

Finally, Furtwangen and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), as well as the Auto-ID Lab St. Gallen, which ETH Zurich co-runs with the University of St. Gallen, assisted the University of Furtwangen in integrating Accada and the Tip 'n Tell system.

In 2007, the team finished the development of a second prototype and tested it in cooperation with Harman-Becker. In an earlier version of the prototype, the PDA reader relied on a wireless pen that was moved close to an article's RFID tag for reading. The tag's ID was transmitted from the pen to the PDA via Bluetooth, then on to the database via Wi-Fi. However, the team determined it was not "natural" to utilize two devices—a PDA and a pen. Therefore, they developed a second prototype—an HP iPAQ PDA with an RFID reader module from Socket Mobile and related RFID-enabling software. The reader module can interrogate many types of common passive 13.56 MHz tags, including those complying with the ISO 15693 standard, and can be inserted in the iPAQ's flash drive.

In the future, Kowatsch says, the mobile shopping assistant will be able to access the database via a mobile network as part of a service offered by a telecom operator. "We received a lot of interest when we demonstrated the system at a recent trade show," he states. "The first step to wider implementation will be the use of the mobile shopping assistant by sales clerks on the sales floor. The system gives clerks lots of useful additional information, and it doesn't take long to learn how to operate it."

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