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Tag lines tugging at business

By Devangshu Datta
January 22, 2004 14:28 IST
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In the sci-fi show Dark Angel, genetic mutants are manufactured with barcodes. Actually, this is unlikely because barcodes are too generic. It wouldn't be possible to uniquely label every mutant, assuming assembly-line manufacture. On supermarket stores, every can of Pepsi or Nestle Tetrapak is labelled the same.

Mundanity is the ultimate benchmark for an invention. Once it becomes a part of ordinary lives, success is guaranteed. Among the most mundane of things is the barcode. So many things come tagged with these strips; global trade would collapse if barcoding ran into a problem.

Barcodes are strings of computer-readable numbers -- these are direct descendants of punch-cards. Retailers love them. Just swipe under a scanner and description plus price is available. Barcodes are also used with ID-documents like licences and passports. Even international standard book number codes for books are a variant of barcoding.

Barcodes have existed since the 1970s. Internationally-accepted systems are administered by the 101 nation-members of the (misnamed) European Article Number association. (India joined EAN in 1995.) These strips are used by single-product entrepreneurs and vast transnational corporations alike.

With ubiquitous PC-technology, it is easy to print barcodes. But since codes are generic, the ease makes codes easier to forge as well. Thus, codes offer little protection against spurious goods or theft.

Many businesses, including retail giants like Wal-Mart and Tesco, are moving to smart tags that rely on radio-frequency identification technology. RFID could replace barcodes since it offers every functionality of barcodes and more. It can uniquely identify every specific item and offer positional information. Gillette is one of many multinational companies implementing RFID.

RFID consists basically of an antenna, an RFID transponder tag and a transceiver-decoder. The antenna transmits signals between tag and decoder. The tag can be written to, so information can be changed as required. Typically, an RFID contains a 64-bit unique identifier, so more than 18,000 trillion (10^12) unique tags can be created.

Tags can be deactivated. They come in all shapes and sizes ranging from less than a quarter-inch in diameter upto monsters with 1Mb of rewritable memory; some tags are even washable and can be embedded anywhere -- radio-waves pass through most things. The smallest RFID chips are the size of a sand-grain.

Batteries are not required, though often included -- the transceiver's power can be used to bounce a signal. Unless deactivated or smashed, a tag could last forever (battery-operated "active" tags have more limited lifetimes). Antennae come in all shapes and sizes and the range can vary from anywhere between a couple of inches and hundreds of metres. An antenna will pick up any tagged devices within range, regardless of weather conditions and without sight limitations.

Anti-theft devices are built around RFID -- the young man who steals the Killer jeans in the ad would, in real life, have had the jeans he was wearing transmit identity to security. If he'd bought the jeans, the tag would be de-activated or marked "sold" to enable him to walk without triggering alarms. Organised retailers lose over $50 billion annually to thefts, so this is a big market. With car devices using concealed RFID, a stolen vehicle can be tracked easily.

RFID also has useful applications in transportation. A unique RFID can be pasted onto every piece of luggage on flights -- remember, these are rewritable and reusable. Then there is less chance of luggage being sent to Buenos Aires while the owner goes to Bangkok. In cargo shipping, RFID use is already the norm.

There is a privacy issue here. If retail tags are marked "sold" rather than switched off, it would be possible to track anybody physically through his accessories. And it wouldn't be difficult to link credit card information, for instance, to the buyer of a given RFID tag. It's slightly creepy to think of every consumer as a walking bug-repository! Such concerns apart, we'll see more of RFID.

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