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RFID Scores Game Show by the Seat of Contestants' Pants

Oh Sit! uses RFID tags and readers from RFID Inc. and PTP to automate scoring in an extreme version of musical chairs.
By Claire Swedberg
After some initial testing, it became clear that an RFID solution for tracking would be unrealistic, says Bill Monk, CBS' electronic supervisor (the CW Network is a joint venture between CBS and Warner Bros. Entertainment). Such a solution would require that passive UHF RFID tags be attached to contestants' ankles, and the producers found that RF interference from lighting and sound systems and other technology in use, as well as the presence of liquid (the obstacle course includes pools of water), made the reads unreliable.

Instead, RFID Inc. and PTP focused on developing the solution for tracking which players sat in which seat, using LF technology that would interrogate the tags only when a contestant actually sat in a chair, bringing the tag within centimeters of the reader's antenna. The next challenge was to prevent the reader cables from becoming tangled in—and inhibiting the movements of—the chairs. To address this problem, the two companies employed a custom-designed slip-ring antenna with a flange through which cables are run, that would allow the chairs to swivel without tugging on a cable.

When an individual sits, the tag in the seat of that person's pants touches the seat of the chair at which the antenna is located, and that tag's ID is transmitted to an RFID Inc. bridge, located on the pedestal on which the seats are installed. The bridge has a Wi-Fi connection to Oh Sit!'s server, where the software links the ID numbers of the tag and the chair and, in that way, updates the contestant's cash reward for the game. Because two players may lunge for the same chair simultaneously, Monk explains, RFID would make it possible to know who arrived first, even if both contestants were just inches from the chair.

After the system was designed, CBS received the chairs, which were found to contain metal. Because the reader antennas could not operate as well when placed on metal, CBS installed foam in the chairs during the final days prior to taping, in order to separate the readers and tags from the metal. In addition, Heurich says, "We custom-tuned the reader capacitance and antenna to compensate for the proximity of metal, yet yield the best possible performance."

Brian Fisher, PTP's president, says that initially, PTP and RFID Inc. had provided CBS with a demo of the solution using a single reader and three tags. With CBS' approval, the companies then developed the entire solution. However, Monk says, there were no rehearsals. CBS had only a very short period of time in which to install and test the system in the rented space prior to filming. But the technology worked, Monk states, adding, "It was pretty amazing." The show is currently halfway through its initial 10-week run, he says, though it may be renewed in October.

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