Project to tag Tokyo neighborhood with RFID

Will blanket Ginza shopping district

A location-based services trial that will see a famous Tokyo neighborhood blanketed with about 10,000 RFID tags and other beacons got its start earlier this month.

The Tokyo Ubiquitous Network Project seeks to install RFID, infrared and wireless transmitters throughout Tokyo's Ginza area, which is the most famous shopping area in the capital. The tags and transmitters will provide location-related information to people carrying prototype readers developed for the trial, said Ken Sakamura, a professor at the University of Tokyo and the leader of the project.

The system works by matching a unique code sent out by each beacon with data stored on a server on the Internet. The data is obtained automatically by the terminal, which communicates back to the server via a wireless LAN connection and requests the data relevant to the beacon that is being picked up.

Sakamura envisions that the system will be able to provide users with basic navigation and information about the shops and stores in the area in at least four languages: Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean.

For example, bringing the terminal close to an RFID tag on a street lamp will pinpoint the user's location and enable the system to guide the user to the nearest railway station; walking past a radio beacon in front of a shop might bring up details of current special offers or a menu for a restaurant.

"Ginza is the most famous shopping district in Japan," said Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara at an event to launch the project. "In every building there are many shops, bars and clubs, and it can be difficult to find the one you want. With this, you can just push a button and find the where you want to go, even if you're drunk!"

The terminal being used in the Ginza trial has been developed by Tokyo's Ubiquitous Computing Technology Center, which is a joint venture between the Japanese government and some of the country's largest high-tech companies, including Fujitsu Ltd., NEC Corp., Hitachi Ltd. and NTT East Corp.

It features a 3.5-in. OLED (organic light-emitting diode) touch-panel display and a host of networking interfaces. There is RFID, infrared and 429-MHz wireless for interacting with the beacons in the trial, a wireless LAN for connection to the Internet and a Bluetooth link.

General trials in Ginza are scheduled to begin on Jan. 21 and will run until March.

The project is supported by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport and is one of several that are currently taking place in Japan.

In one of the trials, RFID tags have been embedded in the yellow, studded rubber tiles that are often put onto pavement as an aid to blind or partially sighted people. An RFID reader at the tip of a cane picks up the tags and a transmitter box mounted higher on the cane sends the tag's ID to the prototype terminal, which gets relevant information from the server. In a demonstration of the system, the terminal alerted the user that the pavement was coming to an end but that there was a ramp to the right and stairs to the left.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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