August 09, 2004, 9:51 AM — You've been hearing a lot about RFID recently, and with good reason. The promise of RFID is essentially the creation of a radio-based bar code, meaning that we can use radio, and not light from a laser in close proximity to a bar code, to obtain a small amount of information from an RFID tag. Maybe you saw the IBM TV commercial that ran last year depicting a shady looking guy stuffing grocery items into his coat, and then making for the door. As he exits, a security guard calls to him. Are we about to see an arrest for shoplifting? Nope - the guard merely informs the shopper that a receipt had been forgotten.
As our shady shopper exited, there was some obvious scanning going on, shown as a kind of laser-beam effect. But with RFID, again, no lasers are involved. As our hungry friend passed through the scanner (or interrogator, in RFID parlance), all of the RFID tags on his various items were scanned, and they responded, again, with a small amount of unique information sent via radio. A total amount was computed, and his credit card automatically charged. Sound cool? It is.
But don't get carried away with this vision just yet. RFID is in use today, and there are lots of companies building tags, readers, and software, and offering systems-integration services as well. But consumer applications? Not yet, and here's why:
RFID tags cost a lot more than bar codes, which are essentially free. There are, by the way, many different types of bar codes; what you see most often is the Universal Product Code, or UPC. All, however, work pretty much the same way: scan a laser over the code, and read the reflection. There's enough error checking in the codes so that mis-reads are very uncommon. And, again, bar codes are very, very cheap: just the cost of the ink to put them on a label. You can find a lot of information about bar codes at the BarCode 1 Web site.
RFID tags, on the other hand, cost anywhere from about 50 cents to a few dollars apiece, meaning that today they're only suitable for high-value items, or collections of items (e.g., shipping pallets). If we add location capability to the tags (allowing them to be tracked and located in a given venue), the cost can be much higher. I also want to stress here that simple tags designed to simply indicate the presence of the tag and not radiate a particular value (and thus identifying an object to which the tag is attached) also count as RFID, albeit in a very simple form. These tags can cost less than a penny apiece in large quantities, and are most often used in retail environments for "shrinkage reduction" (aka theft prevention).