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Aquarium Puts RFID on Its Ocean Floor

Shedd Aquarium uses RFID-tagged ocean-floor objects, along with a remote-controlled claw with an RFID interrogator, to help children identify shells and rocks.
By Claire Swedberg
Aug 17, 2009When Chicago's Shedd Aquarium began planning its interactive children's section, known as the Oceanarium, project members didn't want to install a large amount of technology. They felt the targeted age group—children between ages two and seven—did not need to press buttons or utilize robotics, because such technology tends to break when used by that age group. But the project team did want a system that would help kids understand the ocean in an interesting and interactive way.

"We wanted the kind of technology that would be easy to use," says Tynetta Qaiyim, the aquarium's project manager and director of exhibits programs, "but would require gross motor skills" (which are still developing in young children).

When the claw picks up an object, it reads the tag's unique ID number. Software then instructs the display of animated data specific to that item on the submarine's screen.

The project team members—many of whom had never heard of radio frequency identification—eventually came up with the idea for an exhibit that includes a submarine the children can enter in order to pretend they're under the sea. There, they would use a joystick to remotely control an arm with a claw at the end of it, to pick up objects off a simulated ocean floor. If an object was picked up, a screen in the submarine would display information regarding that item. The question was how to identify the object so that the correct information could be displayed. The answer, the team found after some investigation, was RFID.

"We were sitting around the table, brainstorming, and we knew it was possible," Qaiyim says. The project team spoke with several RFID vendors and purchased a TagSense 13.56 MHz RFID interrogator and SimpleTechnology tags, as well as Zinc 3.0 software to manage data from the reader.

The team embedded several tags in a number of objects, such as clams, other shells and rocks, which had been fabricated in-house out of plaster. They attached the reader to the front of the claw, and built a protective frame around it. Initially, Qaiyim says, the read rate was disappointing. More often than not, the claw reader did not interrogate the tags despite being centimeters away from a tagged object.

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