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New York City Marathon Offers Enhanced RFID-enabled Apps

Spectators and runners will be able to view participants' precise locations at all times, thanks to applications that combine data from RFID readers deployed along the racecourse with information from the GPS functionality of the runners' smartphones.
By Claire Swedberg
Jul 25, 2011Leveraging the increasing prevalence of smartphones and other electronics, as well as an existing infrastructure of RFID technology, organizers of the ING New York City Marathon will offer new services at this year's event, being held on Nov. 6, 2011, that will employ both radio frequency identification and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies, in order to bring spectators closer to the runners they've come to watch. Thanks to RFID readers installed along the racecourse, tags on the participants' bibs, and GPS functionality in runners' smartphones, visitors will be able to see exactly where each runner is located throughout the entire race, and view data about the run.

To make this possible, the race's organizer, New York Road Runners (NYRR), is teaming with MapMyFitness, located in Austin, Texas, which provides the MapMyRun server software to combine information from the existing RFID system provided by ChronoTrack Systems—in place since 2009—with GPS data provided by participants' and spectators' phones. By combining the two technologies, the marathon can provide an application designed by MapMyFitness and sold to users of Apple iPhone and Android smartphones. This app will allow runners to view their own progress during the race, and also enable friends, family members and others to ascertain not only a particular runner's track location at any given time during the race, but also where that participant is located in relation to the spectators. Attendees can also view pictures and videos of the course at the points passed by that participant.

The marathon has used RFID technology during its past two races, for tracking the specific moment that runners pass particular points along the course (see UHF Solution Tracks 42,000 Runners at the New York City Marathon). Each of the race's approximately 46,000 runners receives a bib upon arriving for the event. The bib includes a built-in ChronoTrack B-Tag containing an EPC Gen 2 passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID inlay that transmits a unique ID number to approximately 85 Impinj RFID readers stationed along the racecourse, as well as at entrances and exits to the race area. Impinj manufactured the chip and designed the tag antenna.

In previous years, NYRR provided a ChronoTrack D-Tag, which could be attached to a runner's shoelaces. For a number of reasons, the organization opted this year for the B-Tag, designed to be embedded in the bib worn on a runner's chest. In this eay, says Kenneth Winell, the organization's VP, the tag provides a more accurate account of the time at which each runner passes the finish line. What's more, he adds, runners find the B-Tag easier to attach, and it creates less environmental impact, since it is recyclable and is smaller than the D-tag.

According to Robin Thurston, MapMyFitness' CEO and founder, each time that a runner passes through one of the read points set up along the course, that individual's ID number is read and then forwarded to MapMyFitness' cloud-based server. This server then provides information regarding that runner's location and time on its MapMyRun Web site.

In 2010, NYRR built additional functionality into the system, in order to enhance the experience for runners, as well as for their friends and families. For example, the technology was also used last year to provide personalized messages on an LED screen (see ASICS Uses RFID to Inspire Marathon Runners). That solution, known as Support Your Marathoner, was provided by ASICS, a manufacturer of running shoes and clothing. This year, ASICS will provide the same solution.

For the upcoming race on Nov. 6, each runner can opt to purchase an app for his or her smartphone, allowing that participant to stay in closer touch with spectators while the race takes place. If a runner does not carry a smartphone during the event, the system will utilize updates from the RFID reads taken each time that individual passes over a reader antenna, to provide information and images to the smartphones of his or her fans. For participants who do carry a smartphone, the system takes advantage of that phone's GPS functionality, to display the runner's exact track location at all times, as well as his or her location in relation to that of the spectator.

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