Friday, January 6, 2012

RFID and the future

RFID, what?!?  Yeah, I know what you are thinking, "what is is re-fid?"  Maybe's it's a new internet slang, like LOL or ROTFL or BFF.  Could be, I'm too old to understand that; however, I am a techy type and totally get RFID <insert geek moment>.   RFID stands for Radio Frequency Identification Technology.
I've been thinking a lot about the application of RFID technology after is was mentioned this past summer, I think it's impact on park operations could be much more than what it appears to be.  Cue, the maniacal laugh, "mwaaaahhhhh"...
At the D-23 Conference and Expo this past summer, one item that was unveiled was a new wristband embedded with an RFID chip that would replace your “Key to the World” card and could be customized and expanded to enhance the guest’s experience.  While on the surface, this seems like an innocent, benign project, the implications of RFID are huge, and ground breaking.  

RFID wristband prototype
Currently, Disney guests are issued plastic cards, affectionately called, your “Key to the World” (KTTW), which serve as your room key, and contain an assortment of information such as your park ticket, credit card information, dining plan credits, and fast pass usage.  Integrating all this data into an easy, convenient card is something that Disney has done well.  I love the idea that all I have to take to the parks with me is in one card, which I keep on a lanyard around my neck.  So easy to access!  
If Disney chooses to launch the “RFID Wristbands” to replace the current plastic in 2012, you better hold on to your seat, because you won’t believe what RFID technology can do!  
For those of you who aren't familiar with RFID, it's a Radio Frequency Identification Technology that allows a unique code to be wirelessly transmitted if under a close range.  Similar to the tags you may have in your car for Toll Roads.  You drive under or near the sensor, your tag is logged, and you are charged your toll.  Simple enough concept, huh?  
So, here’s some basics that could be implemented by replacing the plastic card with a wristband.  
  • Hotel Room Key – simply hold your wristband to the door and your in.  That would be convenient!  How many times do you have to put your packages down in order to dig out your room key and open the door?  
  • Park Passes – instead of digging for your card, you hold your wrist up to the turnstile.  I’m not sure if we’ll every get past that biometric reader (the finger scan thing) which is really what slows the entry process, but we can hope!  
  • Disney Dining Plan – again, it’s about convenience of not having the deal with that card at all transactions.  Most people I see carry their KTTW card in their wallet, backpack or purse.  Not exactly the easiest to get to when you are at a counter or snack vendor payment station.  
  • Refillable drink program – your drink is dispensed only when the RFID tag is swiped over a sensor.  A similar project was rolled out this year with RFID tags on refillable mugs at the All Star Sports Resort.  In my opinion, I believe this was a concept test for the RFID tag and sensor system, more than a roll-out of RFID on the mugs themselves.  We have yet to see it deployed at other resorts.     
  • Photopass, Fast Pass, and Room Charges – same concept; the wristband will provide a convenient, easy to access solution to the card.  
But all these applications really don’t drive the technology.  It’s what is under the surface of this program that is extremely intriguing to me. 
Disney could integrate the RFID functionality into rides, character experiences and more by personalizing everything that is on that chip.  Prior to your vacation, you would upload information like your name, age, birthday, if you've been to Disney before, your likes/dislikes, etc., and integrate that into your experience.  Imagine your daughter meeting Ariel or Belle, and the character knowing her name, age, birthday, or that she’s been to Disney before.  As you ride an attraction, imagine digital screens coming alive with personnel messages to you or your favorite animated character appearing to address you by name.  And those ride photos?  They could be automatically uploaded to your photopass account.  
In the resorts, guest accommodations could be personalized.  Imagine, Cinderella coming alive in a Magic Mirror to tell your children a bedtime story.  Or Mickey Mouse wishing them a great day or their way out the door.  Food allergies?  No need to speak the chef.  He or she will know your preferences when you check-in for your reservation.
How about lost children (or lost parents)?  RFID tagged bracelets can be easily encoded with the parent’s contact information.  You would need a special sensor device to read the information on the tag, thus enabling cast members an easy way to contact the parents.  The bracelets are bright and colorful and could be customized with your child’s favorite character which will make it appealing to wear.  
In addition to the outward guest experiences, RFID could enhance theme park operations.  A long standing goal of most theme parks is to reduce or eliminate lengthy wait times at popular attractions.  Hence the development of the Fast Pass system and interactive queues, which don’t so much to eliminate wait times, but makes them more enjoyable.  One scenario with the wristband/RFID technology would be allowing guests to select preferred ride and show times and then use RFID scanners at attraction entrances to verify that they are showing up at the correct time.  RIFD tracking could also give Disney much more detailed data about its guests’ spending habits and movements in the park, which could in turn be a powerful tool.  Disney might be able to tell, for instance, that a family wandering one of its theme parks in the evening has no dinner reservations, and so could contact the family by cell phone to suggest nearby restaurants with available seats or promotions.  Even the ability to deploy more buses at park closing to accommodate the crowds would be a perk!  Long term tracking of guests’ movement in the park could enhance crowd flow, parade and event timing, and make park operations more efficient, in general.  
Before anyone jumps me on “invasion of privacy” and so forth, let me say that this program is planned to be optional in so much as you can request the same plastic card that you have today.  If you want to partake of the additions features that may be part of the wristband and embedded RFID chip, you’ll have to use the system.  Walt Disney World is private property and our expectation of what privacy we have to somewhat limited.  Just read the fine lines in park admission and resort lodging.  
If all this RFID technology sounds unrealistic, think again.  The Walt Disney Company’s theme park division has been quietly working a major technology initiative that could radically transform the theme-park experience.  Details of the project, which has been dubbed within Walt Disney Parks and Resorts as “next generation experience” or “NextGen,” are being held secret.  But there is widespread speculation among bloggers who follow the company that part of the project involves RFID technology that could be used in concepts ranging from keyless hotel-room doors to rides and shows in which the experience varies based on an individual guest’s preferences.  The budget for the program is between $1 billion and $1.5 billion, according to former Disney parks executives who have spoken to media sources only on the condition that they would not be identified.  The amount is roughly comparable to what Disney would spend to build two 4,000-passenger cruise ships.  WOW!  $1 to $1.5 Billion?!?  To spend that kind of money would definitely be a game-changer in the industry and one that I am looking forward to.  Will 2012 be the year?  Maybe so.  I’m anxiously awaiting the “NextGen”…whatever it may be, but I’m a techno-geek kind of gal.

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