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RFID Rubbernecking

BMW MADE a splash when it resurrected the MINI line of cars in 2001. For an encore, Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners of Sausalito, Calif., MINI USA's ad agency, mixed toll-road technology and billboards to create Motorby, an interactive system that flashes personalized messages at the cars as they drive by.

<p xmlns="http://www.w3.org/1999/xhtml">MINI Cooper owners can send themselves a message via billboard with the help of key fobs laced with RFID chips. It's one way the technology is making it into mainstream living.</p>

MINI Cooper owners can send themselves a message via billboard with the help of key fobs laced with RFID chips. It's one way the technology is making it into mainstream living.

Credit: Courtesy Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners

BMW MADE a splash when it resurrected the MINI line of cars in 2001. For an encore, Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners of Sausalito, Calif., MINI USA's ad agency, mixed toll-road technology and billboards to create Motorby, an interactive system that flashes personalized messages at the cars as they drive by.

Here's what happens: MINI owners sign up for Motorby online, where they're asked questions such as, “What is you MINI's nickname?” and “What adjective best describes how you motor?” (Sensitive information, such as the person's name, address, or credit card number, isn't collected.)

In return, they get a key fob in the mail that is embedded with a radio frequency identification chip, which carries a set of random numbers that identifies that MINI and its owner.

When the owner drives past one of the Motorby billboards, an RFID scanner reads the key fob's code and flashes a message in light-emitting diodes. For example, John Butler, the creative director at Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners, is an Oakland Raiders fan. “It could say, ‘Great game against the Colts, eh, John?,' ” says Butler.

Trends at Work

Motorby is a large-scale application of a technology that some vendors think has potential in pro AV applications such as digital signage. For example, BTV+, a Mississauga, Ontario, company, has developed an interactive digital signage system that employs an embedded RFID scanner to identify nearby merchandise, then present ads and other information that aims to improve the chances of a sale.

Branded as ADvantage RFID, the BTV+ system leverages a trend in retail: using RFID tags for tracking inventory and thwarting theft. Wal-Mart is among major retailers that now require suppliers to apply RFID tags to pallets and cartons of merchandise, even to individual products, in the case of high-value items. Those types of retailer mandates create a growing, installed base of RFID-tagged products that pro AV applications can leverage.

One difference between MINI Motorby and systems such as ADvantage RFID is the type of technology. The RFID tags used in retail are known as passive, simply electronic circuits with no power source, such as a battery. The scanner creates an electromagnetic field that powers the data exchange, effectively pulling information, such as a product code, from the tag. That simplicity makes the tags cheap, as low as 10 cents each, depending on volume.

By comparison, MINI Motorby uses active RFID technology, similar to highway toll-collection systems, such as EZPass. Active RFID tags have a battery, which powers a mini transmitter that sends data to a reader. Active RFID can support connections over hundreds of feet, compared to the few inches or feet a passive RFID system can handle. The battery in the Motorby key fob, for instance, can last three to six years, depending on factors such as how often it uses power to communicate with a billboard.

DIY RFID

Active RFID's range makes it a good fit for an application where there is a big distance between the transmitter and receiver — about 500 feet, in Motorby's case. But Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners still had plenty of trial and error to get the system to work.

“The biggest challenge was the environment,” says Matt Butner, the firm's director of analytics, who supervised the project. “The most severe threat we had to deal with was a cell phone tower installed next to our location after we had done our initial field tests. Basically, it drowned out our signal.”

Another challenge was building the Motorby system. Although RFID equipment is widely available from hundreds of vendors, Butner and his team had to create the Motorby system because nothing remotely close was available off the shelf. “The biggest technical challenge was integrating more than a half-dozen systems, each of which is an absolutely necessity for the system to function,” says Butner. “Every technology and partner that was involved in creating this solution had to charter into new territory to meet the performance requirements.”

In fact, several RFID vendors pulled out of the project after hearing Motorby's distance and speed requirements. U.K.-based Wavetrend hung on to produce the key fob, while Butner and his team built from scratch the software that runs the whole system.

“It's a very scalable application that can be configured to work in a number of different environments, such as high-speed driving and slow-moving foot traffic,” says Butner.

That flexibility is key, because the first four MINI Motorby billboards are in vastly different environments. For example, the New York billboard is at an entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, where traffic moves slowly and allows more time for the Motorby system to do its job. But the Chicago billboard is by the Tri-State Tollway, where speeds often are 60 mph or more. The faster the speed, the longer the distance has to be between the key fob and billboard to allow enough time to transfer the information, display the message, and let the driver read it.

Despite those challenges, the Motorby system is highly reliable. “Our read rate is pretty close to 100 percent,” says Butner.

Mix of Fun and Business

The MINI company says that RFID stands for “really fun interactive devices.” But why use toll-road technology for a product with hip cachet? Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners saw RFID more as a way to reward MINI owners than to convince others to buy the car.

“From the start, our goal was to make sure the car doesn't turn into a fad,” says Butler. “Look at the VW Bug. It came back in full force, and then after two years, its numbers were down considerably. So you keep ‘the club' a cool place to be, and other people want to jump in.”

Butler and his colleagues also saw RFID as a way to make static media more dynamic and personalized. “The Web is very one to one,” he says. “How do you bring that to other media? This was a way to continually engage the evangelists, the people who made the brand what it is, in an interesting way that makes them feel special.”

The Motorby idea wasn't hatched because someone at Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners was inspired by EZ Pass. “The concept started purely as a sci-fi idea, intended to be part of a larger, covert campaign that had ads accessible only to MINI owners,” says Butner. “Our decision to explore the concept was not at all based on an existing system such as EZ-Pass. Initially, we explored several technologies. Eventually, RFID was deemed to have the most potential to meet our requirements.”

Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners won't say how much Motorby cost, but apparently MINI didn't get sticker shock. Says Butner: “As the head of MINI, Jim McDowell, put it: it was modest.”

The cost should be significantly lower in applications that don't require as much customization as did Motorby. One way to cut costs is to reuse existing AV products. For example, BTV+ says that adding ADvantage RFID to digital signage costs about $900 per display.

The business case for an RFID-based AV project, whether it's an electronic billboard or a digital sign, depends partly on whether it can be used for a variety of applications. For example, although MINI hasn't announced plans, the Motorby system could be used in places such as dealerships, where drivers are greeted by name as they pull up for an oil change. All automakers are looking to increase revenue from service after the sale, so MINI could leverage Motorby billboards to remind owners that it's time for some maintenance.

For Butler, Shine, Stern and Partners, Motorby was a valuable — if occasionally painful — learning experience.

“This definitely was a pilot program for us,” says Butner. “Getting to the solution, there were gaps just about everywhere. But you fight that battle being an innovator.”

Tim Kridel is a freelance writer and analyst who covers telecom and technology. He's in Kansas City, Mo., and can be reached at tkridel@kc.rr.com.



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