RFID: Tracking Kids, Keys and Pets
By Niall McKay, Fri Sep 05 07:00:00 GMT 2003

Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak has started a new company which will use wireless radio frequency identity (RFID) tags to help people find those annoying little things that seem to keep getting lost like pets, keys and... well... children.

Mr. Wozniak, often referred to as Woz, decided to call his company Wheels of Zeus because, as he told the New York Times, he already owned the wOz Internet address.

Electronic Smell

Roughly speaking, RFID could be described as the electronic equivalent to smell. By transmitting a unique code number in the form of a radio signal it says, "I am this item and I am here." Unfortunately, radio signals are often unidirectional so it's difficult to tell just where the electrical smell is coming from. Woz however is developing a more complex version of RFID - one that will not only give off an electronic smell but also state its exact location.

Mr. Wozniak is planning to create a wireless platform that will act as a reference design consisting of wOzNet - a wireless network that operates on the DECT (cordless telephone) standard using the 900 Mhz spectrum and miniature RFID tags, which will transmit their unique code number and their the location. wOzNet will use GPS technology to electronically tag things within a one or two mile radius.

"We are looking to create a system that is capable of protecting your valuable items for just a couple of hundred dollars," says Gina Clark, vice president of marketing and business development for Wheels of Zeus.

The technology will use GPS to identify the location of devices in the open air and it will use the 900 Mhz network to identify the location of devices in the home. DECT is not powerful enough to work outdoors and GPS does not work inside buildings.

The company also plans to encourage its customers to interconnect individual networks into one big network using peer-to-peer technology. Officials hope that these networks will grow organically in much the same way 802.11 or Wi-Fi networks have grown in the past.

"The more people on the network the more valuable it becomes," says Clark.

New New Thing

Is this the new new thing? Well not really. The notion of Radio Frequency Identity Tags (RFID) dates back to the World War II when the Royal Air force used a system called Identify Friend or Foe (IFF). The system sent out a specific radio signal to identify aircraft as they came in to land.

The RFID market is currently pegged at about $1 billion a year and is projected to grow between 20 and 35 percent annually. The technology could unlock a wide range of new previously unthought of applications that could benefit companies and customers alike. However, privacy advocates fear that it could also give rise to a new breed of Orwellian applications that would infringe on the rights of individuals.

For example, Gillette recently came under fire for planning include RFID tags in their products which privacy advocates feared that people could use to drive by their houses and figure out what items they had in their kitchens and bathroom cupboards. This is unlikely since the RFID system that is being used by Gillett only has a range of about 3 feet.

Wheels of Zeus is approaching the technology another way. wOzNet base stations will be mobile and the tags, much like the anti-theft devices in stores, could be adjusted to sound off an alarm if the item, pet, wallet, laptop computer or child strayed a given distance from the base station.

"People want to know that something is not where it is supposed to be immediately because when they realize it's lost it is often too late," says Clark. "So we have set up a system that will send a notification such as an electronic alert, email, or text message to them when the item leaves an area."

You could see it as a great way to keep an eye on a toddler or a hell of a system for grounding teenagers.