A report by the consulting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP predicted that by the end of 2005, "billions" of RFID devices will be commissioned, tagging people, products and even parts.
The data generated by the tags will change the face of e-commerce, experts said, and require databases that can hold terabytes, or trillions of bits, of information, spurring another massive growth in computer sales, perhaps rivaling the height of the Internet boom of the 1990s.
"Traditional technology architectures are not prepared to handle this volume," said a spokesman for ObjectStore, a subsidiary of Progress Software Corp. in Bedford, Mass., and a developer of technology that collects, correlates and propagates data from RFID tags. "If you committed every piece of RFID-related data as it comes off a reader, you would be backed up in about two seconds."
There will be setbacks along the way, to be sure. Last week, the first high-profile failure for RFID tags emerged when parents of children in a town in California raised hackles about a program launched by a local school to track children. Civil-liberties organizations objected that the technology interfered with the privacy rights of the students, but others think the concerns will be worked out.
"The technology is a Godsend to frantic parents wondering if their child has been kidnapped or at a friend's house," said Robert Siciliano in Boston, author of the book, "The Safety Minute: 01." "It's scary to some like the (American Civil Liberties Union) and privacy advocates, but is it taking away your freedom or giving you the freedom of peace of mind?"
Similar RFID projects in Japan and Houston, which are helping school administrators take roll calls of students during each day, have not been as controversial as the California project, however, and new uses for the wireless tracking tags are arising every day.
"The trend of using RFID will hit a milestone when Jacksonville International Airport becomes the first major airport in the United States to launch this new technology for baggage tracking," said Albert Munoz, a spokesman for the facility. "Among its main benefits are increased airport safety and a decrease in lost baggage due to the accurate identification of luggage."
Research shows RFID can be used to track baggage with 99 percent accuracy -- about a 14 percent improvement over bar codes used on luggage tags at most airports today.
"Working with JIA is Delta Airlines, which aims to improve customer satisfaction and decrease lost baggage costs," Munoz said, adding that other airports, such as Logan in Boston and McCarran International in Las Vegas, also are examining RFID technology.
The ability to track packages accurately was first envisioned as a purely industrial operation -- helping major retailers, for example, track their inventory. Now, visionaries reckon the technology can help change the way consumers shop.
"The fact is, many chains, mostly in Europe, have been testing RFID for supply chain initiatives, anxiously waiting for the results of the Wal-Mart initiative, or are deploying RFID-based technologies for other uses," said Michael Davis, managing director of the Clear Thinking Group., a consulting company in Hillsborough, N.J.
Alastair Charatan, an for analyst for PA Consulting in London -- a leading researcher of the retail space -- who has been tracking RFID, said retailers envision equipping convenience stores and other shopping centers with RFID readers in the coming years that will enable consumers to put their goods in their cart, bag them and walk out of the store, without having to stop at the cash register. "That is still a long way off," he told Wireless World.
To prepare for that day, and for other business uses of the wireless technology -- including tags outfitted with sensors that can enable retailers to store price, product and other information on a disposable microchip -- even business graduate students are eyeing the problem.
At Indiana University, for instance, professors in the decision-sciences field have created a Supply Chain Academy, said to be the only working prototype of an RFID operation in a business school.
"We bought several types of systems, which involve antennas, tags and reading devices that are hooked to computers that store the information being transmitted," said George Vlahakis, a spokesman for the university. "Our students experiment with the system in different ways -- by, for example, putting the tags on a miniature train and truck system that simulates the transportation from train to truck to warehouse. This prototype system allows students to learn how well various systems offered by vendors capture information tags ... and to separate the hype from reality."
Common problems that need to be worked out -- before grocery and convenience store check-out lines are eliminated -- include chip readers that cannot distinguish among the signals sent by different products, and multiple readings of the same chip by some readers.
Research and development is continuing in the field to alleviate such problems. A spokeswoman for Hewlett-Packard said over the next five years, the company anticipates spending $150 million on RFID technologies for its own products. It also has targeted 26 manufacturing sites around the globe where it is implementing RFID. Details of the projects will emerge in due time.
"HP is working with several major retailers (but) they are currently under non-disclosure agreements," the spokeswoman told Wireless World.
Gene Koprowski is a 2004 Winner of a Lilly Foundation Award for journalism for this column for United Press International. He covers telecommunications technologies for UPI Science News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org