Spies in your underwear (and other RFID red herrings) - Embedded.com

Spies in your underwear (and other RFID red herrings)

Wal-Mart last week kicked its on-again, off-again RFID tagging program into higher  gear. Starting next week, it will track socks, jeans, shirts and (ahem) underwear  with RFID tag technology based on EPCglobal’s “Gen 2” UHF standard. With predictability you could set your watch to, the consumer-privacy alarm bells clanged across the land.

Up popped one of the most-quoted critics of the plan, Katherine Albrecht, a talk-show host and author of a book that argues RFID technology is the fulfillment of a Biblical “end of time” prophecy.

Despite the clamor, though, the sun rose the next day. And its light shone on the challenges and promise of RFID technology in the months and years ahead.  RFID investment, like much of the rest of the economy, was packed into the deep freeze the past two years. VDC Research Group reported recently that growth in core RFID hardware overall, fell from nearly 20 percent year on year to 5 percent in 2009.

But now comes the thaw. As the economy recovers, companies are keen to wring as much productivity gains as they can before they ramp up hiring again. RFID technology is key lever for that increased productivity. Earlier this year, ABI Research reported that that global RFID market would grow 15 percent to $5.35 billion this year.

Predictions are predictions and nothing more, but consider how much more promising the RFID market has become in recent years. A 2006 report by BCC Research predicted an RFID market of $1 billion in 2011. We’re on target to do 5X that now. Usually, forecasters are overly optimistic in their predictions; in the case of RFID they have been proven overly cautious.

If you’re looking for a market to drive your RF components and antenna technology into, life is good. Just ask the engineers at Avery Dennison, where the stock price has doubled since March of 2009.

If you’re worrying about privacy concerns, get a grip. Have a cellphone? They know whom you’re talking to. Walking on a London street? They see you at every corner (yes, your hair’s a mess). Have a FasTrak-type device to speed through bridge toll booths, they know where you’re been.

That horse left the barn years ago. Yet if technology has its pernicious potential, it also can be used to counter-act them: There’s no reason RFID tags can’t be built to solve the retailer’s inventory problem AND be automatically de-activated the minute you leave the store.

Failing that, there’s the mechanical solution: Have the clerk just yank it off after you buy your items.

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