IF THE LAST soda can fell off the store shelf and there was nobody around to hear it, would it make a noise?
At the Electronic Product Code (EPC) Executive Symposium in Chicago in September, the answer from technology companies was a resounding yes. The show celebrated the launch of the EPC network, an open standard infrastructure that uses RFID (radio frequency identification) tags.
Behind the hype, there is almost universal acknowledgement that RFIDs are the next "big thing" — discreet tags that will replace bar codes and enable products to identify themselves to RFID readers, even when buried within a crate or a ship's hold.
MIT's Auto-ID Center co-hosted the show and has been a major source of RFID innovation, with the backing of the Department of Defense and major US corporations such as Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart.
Sun Microsystems is working with Gillette to implement RFID technology, making it easier for Gillette to track products after they leave its facilities.
As of January 2005, Wal-Mart is requiring its top 100 suppliers to put RFID tags on pallets and cases sent to the retailer.
However, the short term may be filled with more headaches as companies wrestle with the demands of the new technology.
At the symposium, some exhibitors turned on their RFID readers, only to encounter unwanted data from neighbouring booths, says Dave Douglas, senior vice president of products and strategy at ConnecTerra.
For many companies, RFIDs also raise significant privacy concerns. Companies will need to perfect the technology to deactivate or "kill" the RFID tag once a product leaves the store.