Location, location, location... technologies under the microscope

The view from space and your pocket

Our old friend: RFID

Anyone who has walked out of a shop and set the alarm off will have experienced RFID: radio-frequency identifiers. Like beacons, these send out a signal that can be used with other stuff, transmitting either on their own or when energized by a nearby reader. The use of RFID tags for security has been going on for a while but it’s far from the only use of the technology. RFID is actually quite an old idea, going back decades, and early iterations tended to be expensive, which has hampered its widespread adoption. However, today, RFID is experiencing something of a renaissance, at least in retail and supply chains.

RFID comes in different flavors. Passive RFID (it takes its power from the readers, such as security gates by shop doors or card-enabled door locks) can be anything from 10cm up to 12 metres. Inventory management, ticketing, contactless payments and access control are key uses. Active RFID needs its own power, so it can emit regular signals. The range is greater – up to 100 metres – and is generally used for larger tracking jobs such as shipping containers or transport.

Of course, for RFID to work it requires specific tags and readers. Passive tags are low cost, (anything up to $2 each) but readers can be anything from $100 to $10-20,000. The global RFID market is expected to grow in the coming years at a CAGR of 14.5 per cent.

Where it is seeing growth is in Ultra-Wide Band technologies, such as DART. With a good range of sight, you can achieve a range of up to 200 metres with good accuracy too. In large warehouses or retail stores this could have significant value. It doesn’t stop there either. Using multilateration, RFID systems (such as WhereNet) can reach up to 2km with one to three-metre accuracy. RFID may be one of the oldest location techniques, but it is far from spent.

Wi-Fi

As a technology for location-based tracking, Wi-Fi wouldn’t be an obvious choice and yet in banks and retail outlets, in particular, that’s just what is happening. For one, it enables businesses to utilize existing infrastructure, assuming points are reliable and in good positions. Tracking customers through a store to determine footfall, for example, does demand a little more though. You need customers to have Wi-Fi switched-on for starters and a data service that can manage access points and determine locations at any point in time.

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Although, Apple's randomization of the iPhone MAC address was supposed to stop access points recognizing individual phones, the reality is that Wi-Fi can still track individual users and create footfall maps. For customers that opt-in, there is also the possibility of more personalised services sent directly to their device during a store visit.

Managed Wi-Fi can also be used to deliver personalised content to customers - perhaps, its greatest strength for location services – free access in exchange for messages from the retailer or brand. For accurate tracking, beacons and RFID are no doubt more suited but Wi-Fi is Wi-Fi, it’s already everywhere.

NFC

Near Field Communication (NFC) is a close-proximity communications chip technology that is found in most smartphones, over two billion, according to the NFC Forum. Evolved from RFID tech, NFC enables proximity payments such as Android and Apple Pay but it’s also used in some product tagging and key cards. It’s short range (about 15cm or less) means it is highly accurate and low powered.

Although primarily being used for mobile payments – although Apple has opened up NFC on its iPhones for third party developers to now access – NFC is being trialled as a marketing technology. Last year Nike released its NFC-enabled fan jersey in partnership with the NBA in the US. In conjunction with a Nike Connect app, fans can access exclusive offers and content. Certainly there is growing interest in NFC tags, but given the penetration in smartphones, NFC is more likely to establish itself in mobile-centric activity. As a base for interacting with brands, through smart packaging for example, NFC is a low cost and reliable option. It’s the sort of technology that could enable new ideas too. Given that research by the National Retail Federation found that the generation-Zers would like more active engagement with brands, this is surely only going to gain more traction.

Clearly you have choices and – clearly – each of these technologies has, and continues to, evolve. Just remember, whichever way you decide to jump won’t simply be about picking favorites. Your choice will be depend on the applications and the use cases. And, of course, privacy. And these are a whole other discussion. ®

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