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RFID: The Next Stage

A host of innovative business and consumer applications for radio frequency identification are on the horizon. Industry leaders and adopters share their insights.
By John Edwards
Jan 10, 2011—Leading-edge technologies don't stay on the leading edge very long unless they continually evolve into new applications and adapt to emerging user demands. This is certainly true of radio frequency identification, which began its commercial life as a straightforward retail asset-tracking technology and has since moved into manufacturing, health care, environmental monitoring, human and animal identification, security applications, transportation management and a variety of other fields.

As the second decade of the 21st century unfolds, RFID is increasingly leveraging other cutting-edge technologies and activities, such as smart phones, social networking and robotics, to create a new range of innovative business and consumer applications. "We're on the cusp of the next phase," says Drew Nathanson, director of operations for Natick, Mass.-based VDC Research. "RFID is getting an entire new look."

Next-generation RFID applications are the result of years of steady progress, including thousands of pilot projects and trial deployments, according to Nathanson, as well as an ever-deepening pool of powerful and sophisticated RFID system-development tools. Early projects are now proving their value, inspiring enterprises of all types to move forward with more advanced initiatives. "Businesses are scaling and deploying," he says. "In many different ways, RFID is moving to the next stage."

Smart Phones
Thanks to the technology's pending integration with smart phones, RFID is poised to move from loading docks, warehouses and other commercial venues into users' hands. Analysts see the transition as part of a natural technological evolution. "It's an inevitable next step, given the current path of both fields," Nathanson says.

On today's smart phones, voice communication almost seems an afterthought. Users are increasingly moving beyond conventional voice calls to engage in text and video messaging, Web surfing, media streaming and other activities that make speaking and listening either irrelevant or less significant. "Smart phones provide a communications environment that's virtually ready-made for RFID," Nathanson observes.

An upcoming generation of smart phones incorporating Near-Field Communication (NFC) capabilities will give users what amounts to their own personal RFID tags, allowing them to effortlessly purchase an almost endless range of products and services. With an NFC-equipped smart phone, consumers can forget about exchanging money with store clerks or fumbling with point-of-sale terminals. Instead, an individual will complete a transaction simply by pointing a phone at a box or sign.
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