Hold the R'FID beans…

…first up, I know the post title is an awful pun on refried beans… but hey, if a boy can’t use an awful pun on a Friday, when can he..?

Anyway, to the point; the whole RFID tag on supermarket items thing – are people barking up the wrong tree?

Some background…

I wrote a post here which covers this in more detail, but for a while now there’s been a lot of stuff around talking about how life would be wonderful if everything sold on a supermarket’s shelves came embedded with a little RFID tag…


…so that you could do all sorts of handy things with it.  When you took things home and kept them in your house, an RFID reader in your fridge or cupboards would know what you’ve got at home, what you need for certain recipes, what you need to pick up on the way etc etc etc.

As I say, read more about it here if you wanna.  It’s all very handy, all very exciting…

…but it ain’t here in any significant way yet.

And the reality, as this state of the market report from ReadWriteWeb says, is currently quite a way off, for various reasons; the cost of implementation, getting all suppliers to sign up, efficiency of technology and so on.

Whilst we wait for the business world to sort something out with better tech… will we see ordinary people just bodge and hack a version that works for them?

Say what you see…

Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle recently wrote a white paper called Web Squared: Web 2.0 five years on (found via ReadWriteWeb again).  In it, they talked about how RFID might not the way we extract ‘identity data’ from real world objects:

“A bottle of wine on your supermarket shelf (or any other object) needn’t have an RFID tag to join the Internet of Things, it simply needs you to take a picture of its label. Your mobile phone, image recognition, search, and the sentient web will do the rest. We don’t have to wait until each item in the supermarket has a unique machine-readable ID. Instead, we can make do with bar codes, tags on photos, and other “hacks” that are simply ways of brute-forcing identity out of reality.”

So, for example, think about the way QR codes worked… they used cameras hooked to computers (your mobile, most likely) to turn an image into data:


So, when you saw a bottle of pepsi with a QR code on it, you could use your phone to capture the data from the code, access the content etc etc etc…


Think what’s going on though… all the camera is doing is recognising shapes, colours, patterns.

And can of Pepsi Max is, visually, shapes, colours and patterns too… it’s more complex, admittedly, but with the advancements in augmented reality (more great examples of that here) rapidly improving all the time, cameras will be able to recognise packaging as it comes off the shelf.


Then, if we can teach a computer to recognise packaging… can we teach it to recognise the visual signs of how much of the product we have left?

For instance…


I know this bottle of Pepsi is finished.  You know it’s finished too.  I wonder how far we are away from teaching a computer to realise that it’s finished, or half empty, or has been open for a week so is probably flat…

Because then what you might do is just stick the equivalent of a mobile phone camera in the inside of a fridge door, and when you need to have a look in the fridge… well, you just bring up the iPhone app that connects to the fridge camera and determines what’s in there.


Which as my missus will tell you, is going to be a lot more efficient and reliable than sending me to look in the fridge… I can never find anything…

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that by the time RFID gets around to being implemented by creating physical ways of making it feasible and reliable, there may be a non-physical way of capturing and interpreting the same data.

‘Twas ever thus, eh..?



I’ve just read this brilliant piece by Matt Jones of Dopplr / Schulze & Webb on what he calls ‘thingfrastructure’

(I found it via Influx Insights, thanks Ed)

Matt proposes that…

“the technologies of rapid fabrication and pervasive networks are allowing the tangible and the intangible to switch places and mingle.”


Don’t worry, I’m going to ‘write out loud’ to get my head around it too…

Rapid fabrication – We can make things (real world, physical objects) very quickly, and replace it often.  We don’t have to make something in the bulk we used to, with the homgenous consistency we used to, or at the price it used to cost.  Moo cards being a great example; I’ve just had another set of 100 delivered, with a variety of personalised, different images, at a much lower cost than traditional business cards…


The same technology is beginning to affect packaging, and when 3D printing kicks off properly will really come into it’s own…

…so physical objects are becoming updatable very regularly.

Pervasive networks – Through a combination of constant access to the network through a myriad of devices, the low cost of everything from processors to RFID tags, and the design & use of systems to capture information, there is increasingly some information & data capture sitting behind everything we do.  It’s also referred to as Ubiquitous Computing (so Wikipedia tells me).

…so everyday actions can provide timely, relevant and useful information.

Now, here’s the clever bit:

i) we can quickly make physical things based on the best available information

ii) we can collect the best available information from the things that are in the real world

This means that the real world of ‘tangible’ objects influences the intangible world of services via the network, and vice versa, as Matt’s chart shows:


It means that every thing that is a part of the connected world is more than just a physical object; it becomes a connected, influencing part of the world around us and the services we use.


(and no, I didn’t just blog about this because of the Lego slide Matt uses; it’s not part of the ongoing Feeding The Puppy obsession with Lego as a brand and a metaphor).

But what would it mean in real life?  Here’s an example of where this could go…

Imagine you are about to leave home from work one night, and fancy cooking a curry.  Using your mobile, you’ll be able to find a recipe, and then connect to the refrigerator in your kitchen at home to see which of the ingredients you need.  <o:p></o:p>

The fridge knows what the contents of your kitchen are; there’s an RFID tag on each of the items in the fridge & cupboards that identify them, the date they were placed in there, the number of times they have been taken out and replaced (telling you roughly how much you’ve used, and therefore need).  

The fridge responds with a shopping list.  You take this list, and connect your mobile to the satellite navigation system in your car.  <o:p></o:p>




Your car contacts a series of stores which you could pass by on your route home, and checks which ones have all the ingredients (because all the RFID tags in store act as a real time inventory of stock), which ones are at the lowest prices, and which will take the least amount of time as a detour on your way home.  You get exactly what you want, in the fastest, cheapest, most convenient way.

This is commonly referred to, I believe, as the internet of things, but I think Matt’s concept of Thingfrastructure is a great build, because it highlights the need for services in this world, and not just physical things.

Companies in this new world will of course have to make sure the things they produce are great (there’s noweher to hide a dodgy product anymore, as Chris alluded to recently).  But it will be the service they create around the things that will make people choose them over a competitor…

So, the smart supermarket could identify what people are using certain products for.  They could start printing the recipes on the back of the next print run of packages.  Or add in photos taken by customers of the meals they created, or tips on how to make the recipe better, or what wine people tried with it.  Or become as competitive on price as possible by creating packs that are the exact size people need for the recipe…

Of course, it all sounds very far away and futuristic… but hey, if the iphone fridge is here already, it may be closer than you think.



Dell and Twitter; thousands not millions

The morning after the iMedia conference last month, I wrote a list of five things that I believed to be true about the state of the world, agencies, communications, and so on.

It’s here, if you didn’t see it already.

Anyway, one of the five has been nagging at me ever since:

“We used to reach a million to affect a thousand.  Why not now just reach the thousand?”

…and it seemed to bother other people too, judging by the comments from Will, Andrew, Emily and Jeremy.  So I’ve decided to expand a little…

We as an industry evolved in a world where it was nigh on impossible to find the exact few thousand people who wanted your product or service at a given time. 

Even if you found the few thousand, then you’d be hard pushed to communicate your offer in a cost-effective way.

So we targeted everybody.  We spoke to millions, in order to affect the thousands.


Of course, over time we got very good at doing this on behalf of clients.  There were two key ways in which we improved what we did.

Firstly, we bought in bulk to deliver better value.  We got people more millions, and by association more cost efficient thousands, for their money:


Then, we began identifying a better selection of the millions; we started targeting much more smartly to make sure we didn’t reach people that weren’t really interested in the first place.


But the world has changed, phenomally.  I shan’t reiterate ‘why’ again, see the first half of  the ‘future of…’ presentation if you want a refresh. But save to say this passage from Benkler’s ‘Wealth of Networks’ encapsulates it very nicely…


“It seems passé today to speak of “the internet revolution”…  But it should not be.  The change brought about by the networked information environment is deep.  It is structural.  It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries” <o:p></o:p>

Yochai Benkler, ‘The Wealth of Networks’


To wit; the cost of communication, sharing, and conversation is now so low that companies (and their agencies) have available to them the approach that they arguably would have wanted in the first place.

Just talk to the thousands.


If you can engage in conversation with the people who’re actually in the market for your goods and services (and by ‘engage in conversation’ I don’t mean in a fuzzy ‘brand’ way, but as in have them talk to someone in your company), then you achieve the very thing companies wanted in the first place.

Of course, in the grand scheme of things it’s a very new approach… and as such we’re only starting to see results seeping out from various places… 

…but recently Dell have shared the results of some of their Twitter activity.  By creating, developing and honing the @delloutlet twitter account, which releases information about deals and offers to be had direct from Dell, the company has directly created $2m in revenue


The ‘thousands’ of people interested in Dell products (in this case 600k+ subscribers to @delloutlet) have opted in to receive news of deals, news, information and exclusive twitter-only discounts.

Whilst clearly only a small proportion of the 600k+ have bought through the channel (do the maths – $2m/600k…), turn it around into old world maths…

…just how many millions of people would you have to reach to sell $2m worth of computing equipment?  And how much would it cost vs. how much it costs for Stefanie @ Dell to run the account.

I think it’s a wonderful example of how a company can use social media, and I think there’s three main lessons that people should take from it…

1. People like talking to People

Firstly, it’s not a conversation being held by ‘a brand’.  It’s not a faceless ‘Dell’ account, but one set up and run by Stefanie.  I’m sure someone will cover for her when she’s on holiday and stuff, but it’s very clear that when you follow the @delloutlet account it’s run by a person, not a faceless ‘marcomms team’.


And people, believe it or not, like talking to other people.  At the Corporate Social Networking Forum last week, Euan Semple made a very good point; business is founded upon people who trust other people.

So yes, once again, it’s about people, people, people

2. Social media is not ‘campaigning’ media – it takes TIME to work…

Stefanie and Dell didn’t set up their @delloutlet account three weeks ago.  Or even three months ago.  It’s been going for 2 years now. 

And the numbers have only really started taking off in the last three months; this graph from Mashable shows the growth of their followers since March 09… from just over 100k three months ago, to 600k+ now.


Also from Mashable, this quote:

“It took nearly two years to reach $2 million in Twitter-based revenue, and only six months to go from $1 million to $2 million.”

So that probably means that for the first 6 months, or even first year, the amount of effort, the trial and error, the constant refining probably outweighed the returns by far.  How many companies would have given up 6 months in, with a few thousand followers and limited returns?

Social media takes much longer to work.  Which means that you should really start now, and not be put off when, in the first six months, you’re only talking to a handful of people.  Which brings me to the final point, and back to the beginning…

3. Talking to thousands can be much better than reaching millions

I’ll be fascinated to see how quickly @delloutlet‘s success continues to grow, but a quick supposition makes you think that they’ll hit $3m in the next three months…

…in fact, let’s call it: by 1st September they’ll hit $3m.  And probably $5m by the end of the year.  I’ll remember to keep an eye out for it…

Which is a mightily impressive revenue stream to have developed.  And yet look again at the followers of the twitter account… it was only in May this year that there were more than half a million.

It just shows that where the old world demanded audience figures that had at least six noughts on the end, it’s possible to create highly successful communications in the new world by talking to a fraction of that audience, and at a fraction of the cost too.

(additional stuff: ReadWriteWeb)


Edgar Davids is from the Future

I’m just back from a run along the sea front in Brighton.  I gave up the gym a while ago because I wasn’t using it, basically because I think I didn’t really want to spend any time there.  Gyms are rubbish.

But they are good for one thing; data.  I always liked the timing and measuring aspects of the gym.  So if I was going to take up running outside, I wanted something that would helped with that.


So I signed up to a MapMyRun account, which is a nice little freemium (free with ads, but if you pay membership you get no ads & extras) mash-up with Google maps.  You draw your route on the map, and then when you get back, having recorded your time, it’ll give you all sorts of breakdowns (how far you’ve run this month, average pace & speed and so on).


You also get to sbhare your runs and times with the other users of the site, so i can imagine in time the community aspect will really come to the fore; want to start running in a new area?  Well just ask the people who’ve done it before you.  It’s a great little site.

However, you have to update it when you get home.  So when you’re out running, you have to do the maths in your head if you’re trying to hit a certain time. 

Now, I know the Nike+ & iPod system is better than this, as I believe it tries to get you to change pace (and it shouts at you through the headphones or summat…), but I think that soon there’ll be something better on the way…

Why?  Well, I was inspired by this post from Wired: Gadget Lab, about a fella who wants to mash up the Mario Kart ‘Ghost Racer’ function with real life driving; you could ‘see’ where you were at the excat same time on the previous lap.

For those who don’t know, the ‘Ghost Race’ function in Mario Kart lets you try and beat previous best times by projecting a ‘ghost’ image of the exact location you were at that time last time out:


Now, imagine you combine a data bank like MapMyRun, a spot of GPS on yer iPhone so the system knows where you are, and a smattering of heads-up display on a pair of glasses, like the ones featured in this article from popsci.com:


If all the technology exists now,I don’t think we can be far off seeing a real life ‘ghost race’ for the tech’ed up runner… either race against your best times, or chase other people who’ve uploaded their runs too:


And you could use it for all sorts of sports, not just running; cycling, golf, motorsports, any track & field… in fact any sort of sports games that already have some sort of replay/performance tracking… well, that might just come to real life soon.

Of course, all this is lending yet further evidence to the theory that Dutch footballer Edgar Davids was actually from the future…