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RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)


Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is a generic term for technologies that use radio waves to identify objects automatically, but it is most commonly used to refer to systems where small, low-powered RFID chips are attached to or embedded in objects whose ‘identity’ can then be ‘read’ by an RFID receiver. An RFID chip comprises a microchip and a tiny antenna that transmits this data from the chip to a reader. The reader is activated whenever the antenna comes into range and the data can be used to trigger an event. Some museums use RFID systems to tag their objects for security and maintenance. Usually the range is no more than a few feet, and for the more common, low-powered RFID systems, only 5-25cm (2-12 inches). The short range of RFID requires the user to come very close to or touch a tag to activate the trigger, so the practical logistics of this technical constraint have to be considered in exhibition as well as tour design. Unlike IR, RFID does not require line-of-sight between the RFID chip or tag and the reader. Like WLAN, RFID systems use radio signals which can move through permeable materials, although RFID signals are usually much weaker than WLAN so can’t travel as far. 


One of the earliest museums to use RFID with the public was the Tech Museum in San Jose, where children can wear RFID ‘TechTag’ wristbands that trigger exhibits and collect information for review on personal webpages. In the eXspot RFID system being trialed at the Exploratorium in San Francisco visitors carry keepsake RFID cards. (Hsi 2004 and http://exspot.exploratorium.edu) Battery-powered transceivers at the exhibits allow visitors to use their RFID cards to bookmark information on exhibits and, in some cases, trigger a camera to capture a photo of themselves or the results of their experiments at an exhibit. These photos and bookmarked information are saved in the user’s online account for later viewing. (Exploratorium, 2005, p. 23) 35% of visitors are following up on the Web or at kiosks in the museum.  (Exploratorium, 2005, p. 17) Reviewing personal photographs had a similar appeal for visitors using the IR-triggered tour in theThat’s Canada exhibition at La Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in 2004, where visitors could take a picture of themselves in the exhibition and go to their personal webpages to see it later. Also at La Cité, barcode readers at exhibits in selected exhibitions have enabled visitors to use their admission tickets to the museum to record their route around the exhibits on personal webpages with the museum’s proprietary Visit+ system. Visitors can review their visit record online or at information kiosks in the museum. As of early 2005, 104,000 personal websites had been created for Visit+ users, receiving a total of 70,000 hits. (Topalian, 2005) The Technisches Museum in Vienna provides a similar ‘SmartCard’ service, allowing visitors to track and bookmark information from the exhibit. Like the Exploratorium, the Miami Museum of Science Planetarium is hoping to use RFID tags in its Shark Bytes exhibit to track visitors and trigger interactive exhibits.  http ://www.prnewsnow.com/PR%20News%20Releases/Art%20And%20Entertainment/Museums/ inLogic%20Announces%20RFID%20Pilot%20Solution%20for%20Miami%20Museum%20of %20Science%20%20Planetarium%20Shark%20Bytes%20Exhibit

Granite State MetalWorks, a commercial art gallery in Littleton, N.H., has already placed RFID chips in labels next to artworks. Visitors can carry a PDA and RFID reader pen as they look around, triggering text-based information about each artwork to display on the PDA when they touch the label with their pens. The pens then Bluetooth the RFID tag information to the handheld device, which displays further information on the artwork, including price, provenance and other details from the gallery’s collection management database. It is hoped that being able to carry information in a discrete, personal format will prove more user-friendly for potential clients who might otherwise be afraid to ask questions of the gallery staff.  (http://www.rfidjournal.com/article/articleview/1540/1/9/) 


A kind of RFID tag is currently being used at Legoland in Denmark to help to identify and locate children lost in the park. Unusually, these tags use the same frequency as WLAN, allowing the signal to be tracked over a much larger distance, but making this in effect a WLAN technology. (http://www.rfidjournal.com/article/articleview/921/1/1/)


Both traditional RFID and barcode technologies as implemented to date indicate that these close- range technologies may be better suited for exhibit triggering, bookmarking and information tracking than wayfinding or other navigational assistance in the museum. Nonetheless, the action of bookmarking also seems to have a value in and of itself: as Sherry Hsi found in the Exploratorium’s eXspot project, “…the value is not in the keepsake but rather in the act of making it[.] The act of bookmarking can be useful whether or not visitors go back to it.” (Guidebook 2005,  p. 25) A forthcoming study of bookmarking from Silvia Filippini Fantoni confirms that in the act of bookmarking items of interest in the museum, visitors are often ‘voting’ for their favourite works as much as they are requesting further information to follow up from home or school. If nothing else, RFID has the undeniable power to give visitors this pleasure as well as to engage them in actively responding to their experience in the museum.


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