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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible


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A Modest Proposal: Consumer Wi-Fi Tags.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the series “A Modest Proposal,” my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.

I have a memory like a sieve, and I can’t remember (heh) how many times I’ve misplaced keys or a remote. It would be wonderful if I could ask an omniscient butler where they were, but I don’t think I can afford one on my salary.

Enter radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags, in theory. These essentially consist of a small antenna and transceiver. Ping it with a signal, and it will respond with whatever data you’ve encoded onto it. Many do not use batteries — instead, they use the energy in the radio signal from readers.

I used to work with RFID tags volunteering at a local library. They look like square stickers about an inch wide, with a flat antenna spiraling around the transceiver in the middle. You stick one onto a book, scan it, type in the book’s info, and the computer and the network automatically link that book with the RFID tag stuck inside it.

It would be great if there were rolls of such tags one could buy in stores that could work with Wi-Fi signals. You would stick them inside books, onto remotes, and so on. They could be a way to help find misplaced items, or to keep an inventory of what you have.

I would imagine you would scan items with a Wi-Fi ready device — say, by placing them onto a base station, or with a Wi-Fi-ready mobile device like the iPhone. You then would enter the item’s data into an app of some kind on a computer — you could either type it in manually or scan its bar code. When it came time to finding that item again, maybe the base station and a Wi-Fi-ready mobile device could ping out for it, triangulate on its position. No one else would know what the code on an RFID tag stood for unless you chose to share that information, so privacy is protected.

You can email me regarding A Modest Proposal at toohardforscience@gmail.com and follow the series on Twitter at #modestproposal.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. davide.cowlishaw 12:55 am 10/27/2011

    This is in fact a WONDERFUL idea! However (but), we run into bandwidth restrictions on both the sending (energizing frequency), and responding (transmitting frequency) limitations.

    Any old coil and diode will convert AM radio signals into BOTH energy, AND information (harken back to the old Galenium chrystal, and “cat’s whisker” radio sets, that could power their headsets with the energy in the radio wave), to today’s burst transmiters, that can encode WAY too much information in an enfolded, prime number enabled cypher.

    Let’s say we tag everything with a unique identifier number, and we have local (or through the internet), global localization and identification of each and every thing on the planet (that we want to track, by applying a “sticker”, or “tag”).

    That antenna could be wrapped smaller than the head of a pin, and the circuitry (logic, probably flash memory), can not only identify itself, but also have senses, that can be read by anyone having that address.

    Do you really want to wear clothing that identifies it’s manufacturer, it’s sales outfit, where you first put it on, how you purchaced it (cash or credit), and everywhere you go while wearing it?

    This is ultimately a privacy issue, and who has access to that information.

    DavidC – 9:55 pm – Wednesday, 26 October 2011

    Simple idea, global (and personal) implictions!

    Link to this
  2. 2. Charles Q. Choi in reply to Charles Q. Choi 10:20 am 10/28/2011

    Oh, I know that RFID tags have plenty of privacy and security implications. My idea would not be for clothing/etc. manufacturers to include RFID tags loaded with product data onto all of their wares — my idea is for people to add RFID tags onto RFID-tag-less items with just an ID code. What other data users annotate that ID code with is up to them, and ideally secure on their own databases somewhere.

    Link to this
  3. 3. davide.cowlishaw 3:12 am 03/9/2012

    This is assuming a voluntary “opt-in” structure in marketing, security, identification, grouping, advertising, or other rational reason for being “tagged” with RFID.

    I’ve been watching WAY too many shows that falsely Identify a suspect, only to be exonerated by DNA, location (aliby), living in a world of identity theft!

    My objection is privacy.

    12:12 am, Friday, 9 March 2012

    Link to this

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