Media Metrics: RFID Technology Makes Print Interactive

Like other analog media, print is finding ways of going digital in an effort to make its editorial and advertising content unbounded by the constraints of paper and ink. For magazines, this has meant publishing on the Web and the creation of digital editions that use a variety of electronic publishing formats. New technologies are emerging that can give the printed page an electronic backchannel with interactive features for readers, advertisers, and publishers alike.

It's not a new concept. Digital Convergence Corp.'s CueCat used a mouse-like PC device to scan bar code data printed in magazines that linked to the Internet for additional content and information. Recently, magazine publishers have begun experimenting with camera phones that do essentially the same thing. But all of these applications - Web publishing, digital editions, CueCat, and picture phones - have required the Internet be used as a backchannel for relaying print-related content. Now, a new technology promises to give the printed page itself the ability to transmit electronic data.

That technology, known as Radio Frequency Identification Tags, or more commonly as RFID tags, has already been embraced by a wide range of industries, but is just now being considered for media. RFID tags essentially are microchips capable of emitting a radio signal that transmits data to electronic "readers" stationed nearby. By embedding the tags in a product or device, marketers can transmit data back and forth knowing, for example, the unique identity of the product, whether it has been removed or taken back to a warehouse or retail location. Not surprisingly, it's becoming a popular way for marketers and retailers to manage their inventory. It's also the primary technology behind the EZPass system, which electronically collects tolls on highways, bridges, and tunnels.

The magazine industry is about to learn whether the tags can be used to determine when, where, and how people are reading magazines. Mediamark Research Inc. (MRI), the primary source of magazine readership data used by ad agencies and marketers to plan their consumer magazine advertising buys, has struck a deal with TagSense, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that's developed a process of printing RFID tags on a page utilizing special inks. If the application, which grew out of a project at the MIT Media Lab, works, it may be capable of electronically verifying a reader's - or for that matter, a group of readers' - exposure to magazines and even individual pages of magazines, over time and in various locations.

The technology could be as significant for print media as the Global Positioning System is for outdoor media measurement, or Arbitron's portable people meters might be for out-of-home measurement of radio, TV, and potentially other media, including print. Testing needs to be done before MRI deploys the technology, so we asked Jay Mattlin, MRI's vice president of new ventures, what we might expect and when we might expect it.

MEDIA: What does MRI's deal with TagSense mean for the magazine industry?

Jay Mattlin: It means that mri is getting very serious about exploring the measurement of readership passively, and this is an agreement to do some experiments with something we think may be a promising measurement technology.

MEDIA: Can you explain, in really simple terms, what RFID is and how it can be applied to magazine audience measurement?

JM: Simply put, RFID is a more sophisticated form of bar-coding. It's essentially a bar code that responds to an electronic reader nearby. It's already incorporated into a wide array of technologies that we use everyday: Remote access to cars, EZPass on highway toll booths, secure access to buildings. RFID is a sophisticated way of storing and transmitting data. It has advantages over bar codes because RFID can store more information than a bar code, and because the data can be transmitted.

Right now magazines use bar codes, but they only tell you limited information. It can tell you that it's a copy of Sports Illustrated magazine. An RFID tag could tell you much more: what the magazine is, but also who the retailer is that it was shipped to. Another advantage is RFID tags don't have to be on the surface of a product, they can be inserted inside a magazine.

Also the [RFID] reader does not have to be in the direct line of sight of the tag. It only needs to be in the vicinity of the tag for the data to be transmitted.

MEDIA: How does the technology work?

JM: There are three components of a typical RFID: the tag, which is a microchip attached to an antenna, a RFID reader that sends signals and receives signals to the tag, and some form of software that can process it. The tags can be powered by a battery - they're called active tags. Or they can be powered by the radio waves emitted from a reader. That's a passive tag. Battery-powered tags have to be bigger, but we're looking into ways to make them sufficiently small for use in magazines. There is an obvious advantage for using passive tags in magazines, because they don't need a power source.

MEDIA: Explain how you think this might be applied to magazines.

JM: The ideal would be for every page of a magazine to have a tag, and for every user in a sample to have a [RFID] reader. That way, every page in a magazine would be detectable by the [RFID] reader. Right now, what we're looking at is a little more of a first-stage application. We want to see whether or not it is possible to identify exposures to magazines by placing a RFID tag of some sort within the magazine, and equipping volunteers with readers.

We're testing a couple of different applications. In the most extreme scenario, we would hope to use the technology to measure exposure to individual magazine pages - not every page - but some individual pages. We're hoping to come up with a technology that could allow us to identify not only the total time that an individual reader was exposed to a page, but the number of times that an individual was exposed to a page. We'd like to know that this page was opened 'X' number of times for 10 seconds or 20 seconds or 30 seconds each time. Another track we're working on is to devise a system that would allow us to measure that a particular magazine was opened for a total of 75 minutes this time, and all the other times it was used.

MEDIA: How does the RFID tag get printed on the page? Is it some sort of magnetic ink?

JM: It's not specifically magnetic ink, but it uses certain special inks that can be detected by a reader.

MEDIA: How will the test be conducted? When will it begin and when do you expect some results?

JM: Once we're ready to test it in a real world setting, we would recruit a panel of MRI friends and family who would agree to use the system. If the tags work with magazines and meet our standards, we would deploy a larger scale test. If everything goes right, that would be about 18 months from now. If they don't work the way we want them to, it will be back to the drawing board.

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