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To Reduce Waste, Smug Customers Use RFID Coffee Mugs

The reusable plastic mugs contain a passive high-frequency tag enabling consumers to pay for beverages and earn discounts, as well as avoid the consumption of disposable paper cups and plastic lids.
By Claire Swedberg
Jun 23, 2010In the interest of going green, customers at a handful of coffee houses are buying their beverages with reusable mugs known as Smugs (or Smart Mugs) with RFID chips embedded inside, thereby reducing not only the number of paper cups in landfills, but presumably the time they spend paying for drinks as well. The system was conceived and developed by Chris Hallberg when he was a coffee-drinking student at Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wisc. He has since graduated, and now works in El Salvador developing nebulizers that can operate without electricity (nebulizers are used to transform liquid medication in a mist that can be inhaled into the lungs), thanks to funding from a research grant. Hallberg is also assisting the Ministry of Transportation in the city of San Salvador to develop an RFID-based prepaid transit card for city buses.

In 2008, while attending bioengineering classes, Hallberg envisioned an RFID-enabled coffee cup that customers could use to pay for beverages, by simply loading an account with funds and tapping the cup against a reader wired to a server containing data related to that account. He took the idea to several local coffee shops, eventually gaining the interest of Stone Creek Coffee. Hallberg began working with Stone Creek's owner, Eric Resch, to develop a solution that would succeed in a typical coffee shop.

At a Revive coffee shop's drive-through window, store manager Lauren Somers processes the order of a Smug customer.
"We developed a prototype on my kitchen table," Hallberg says, noting that the goal was to make the system as simple as possible. Although he had considered designing a reader specifically for the application—one that could connect directly to the Internet and be used at a standalone kiosk—he and Resch instead opted for an off-the-shelf reader that can plug directly into a computer or point-of-sale (POS) terminal and send tag-related information to the store's back-end system, using software developed by Hallberg.

After Hallberg graduated in May 2009, he completed the system, which was then adopted in four coffee shops across the country: Revive Coffee, in Spokane, Wash.; Cedarburg Coffee Roastery, in two Milwaukee-area locations; and Coffee Shops, in Waterboro, Me. Stone Creek is not yet utilizing the system, because it is incompatible with its own POS system. However, he says, it plans to adopt a newer Internet-based version of the system next fall.

The Smug system employs a high-frequency (HF) 13.56 MHz circular RFID tag with a Mifare chip that can store a unique ID number linked to a customer's account in the store's software. The tag, approximately one and a half inches in diameter, is placed inside a double-walled travel mug, with a clear outer wall so that the tag, with a printed store logo and a printed ID number on the front, remains visible. Vision USA is manufacturing the mug, and is embedding the tag between the cup's inner and outer walls.

Customers can purchase the Smug at a participating coffee shop, where they can load money (typically $20 or $30) into an account. Data related to that account is stored on the shop's back-end system, and includes the amount of the deposit and balance, as well as the consumer's name and contact information. An RFID reader with an integrated antenna is typically mounted to the wall, wired to the store's computer-based POS system. When the Smug is moved to within a few centimeters of the reader, the device captures its tag's unique ID number and forwards that information to the back-end system.

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