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Assignment: Impossible

Assignment: Impossible

Exploring the area between the unknown and the impossible.

A Modest Proposal: Consumer Wi-Fi Tags.

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.

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

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