Shop of the present

A funny thing happened on the way to the Metro RFID shop of the future yesterday. For a number of perfectly valid reasons, as I arrived in Düsseldorf I took a taxi to the only fragment of address I had – namely the above, which I knew was situated in a suburb called Neuss. Before long we pulled up at what appeared to be a hypermarket. “Shop of the future,” I thought. “I wonder what’s inside.” So I paid off the cab and waved him on his way. After a few minutes of walking around, the truth dawned. This *was* a hypermarket, absolutely of the present. All rather surreal – or rather, real, when I was expecting pretend. It wasn’t a problem – very kindly, the store manager (I sat in his office like a kid who’s lost his mum) sorted me another taxi and I was on my way.

RFID turns out to be a lot more simple, interesting and complex than I previously understood. Simple – it is no more or less than a standardised code that can be attached to any object and thus linked to a piece of data, somewhere. Interesting – from a philosophical standpoint, we have seen a major evolution of our understanding of data with the arrival of XML – again a simple construct but which enables data to know something about itself. RFID extends this concept into the physical world, enabling a wealth of innovation to be built on it. Complex – nobody knows exactly where this takes us, and there will be a number of technological, practical, and even socio-political challenges to be faced along the way. For the moment there is time to consider all of these things as the technology is not quite yet mainstream. RFID tags still cost about 30 cents each, which is prohibitive for many applications, and the scanners and other kit items are a long way from being commodity items.

Retail is currently leading the way, but my guess is that the first opportunities lie in other domains – tagging of tapes and optical disks for more efficient archiving, for example, tagging of fine arts and museum items to simplify inventory taking, maintenance of asset registers by medium and large organisations (as anyone who’s had to crawl around under a delivery of 50 tables, label them up and log their asset numbers will understand). Easy-to-access information about poisons, solvents and so on. Ski passes. Recorded delivery and restitution of lost parcels. Military procurement. Drug labelling. The possibilities are endless. The challenges are endless too – not just integration and data cleaning but security, civil rights, the power of the major corporations, fraud, misuse and so on. The important thing at this stage is to be informed.

Shop of the present

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