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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 February 2008, 09:22 GMT
Smart tags hail the web of things
By Mark Ward
Technology Correspondent, BBC News website

Construction workers, AP
Tags are helping monitor health and safety on building sites

The humble radio tag is growing up.

So say researchers and developers who are finding ways to make the tiny devices much more than just a hi-tech price tag that can help shops and supermarkets track cans of beans from warehouse to store shelf.

"It all started with simple radio tags and asset tracking," said Gerd Kortuem, "but that really only gives you an identifier for an object."

Now, said Dr Kortuem, tiny Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags are getting smarter and more communicative as bigger memory, basic processing power and wireless technologies are added to them.

"We are trying to embed a little more intelligence beyond location by adding sensors and by networking these objects together," he said.

Safe and sound

Dr Kortuem and colleagues at the University of Lancaster are working on a project that combines smart tags and personal identifiers to keep an eye on people working on construction sites using heavy machine tools.

"It's to keep track of how long they are used, to figure out vibrations generated by these tools," he said. "It's for health and safety. We create personalised health and safety records for every worker."

The future of the internet is an internet of connected objects
Jean-Francois Kitten
"The current way of generating this data is after the fact and no-one really cares about it," he said. "There is legislation and companies need to generate the data, they need to prove that they comply with the legislation."

Workers will also be able to look at their own health records to get a sense of their exposure to potentially harmful working environments and raise awareness of the dangers.

For instance, prolonged exposure to vibrations from drills and other tools can lead to a condition called "vibration white finger" that can leave extremities numb and painful.

Many hardware makers, such as router maker Cisco, are also starting to put smarter tags on devices so they can keep a record of their working life and can call for help if they are about to fail or are in need of servicing.

Smarter homes

In the home too some gadgets are starting to use RFID tags to become smarter and help their owners cope with the pace of modern life.

The latest version of the Nabaztag wi-fi rabbit gadget has been fitted with a sensor that can interrogate the radio tags.

The rabbit can also read out e-mails, monitor RSS feeds and the weather for its owners. Rival devices such as the Chumby and Tux droid perform similar functions.

Nabaztag rabbit reading a book, Violet
The rabbit can recognise lots of different objects
Violet, the creators of the rabbit have signed a deal with Gallimard Jeunesse to put RFID tags on books produced by the French publisher.

Jean-Francois Kitten, a spokesman for Violet, said at first only five titles, some stories and some educational, would have tags but more were expected soon.

When a tagged book is waved under the Nabaztag's nose it pulls a recording of a story being read from the net and begins to play it. Moving the rabbit's ears lets listeners skip forward or back in the text.

The rabbit also remembers where it reached in the book so, in the case of a story, it can pick up at the right place in the action when listeners want to continue.

"In the average house you have about 10,000 different objects and right now you have maybe three objects connected to the net - phone, computer and perhaps a rabbit," he said.

"But we think that more and more objects are going to be connected," said Mr Kitten.

Mr Kitten said putting tags on books had huge potential. For instance, he said, a tagged book could become a key to future content if a novel was made in to a film or game. When the rabbit read the tag its owner would get the chance to watch the movie online or download a game.

"It's a pedagogical way to explain what you can do with RFID and interactive objects," he said.

Violet also had plans to sell RFID stamps, or ztamps, that can be stuck on any object which can then be associated with almost any net content. When they go on sale three ztamps will cost 1 (1.34 euros).

Nabaztag owners will be able to customise what happens when a tagged object is waved under the nose of their wi-fi rabbit.

"The future of the internet is an internet of connected objects," he said.

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