Wearable Technology in the Performing Arts

image source: pixelbay.com CC0 Public Domain

image source: pixelbay.com CC0 Public Domain

It’s likely that RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technology is already part of your everyday life, even if you don’t notice. If you zoom through tollbooths because you have a transponder in your car, you’re using RFID. You can find it in retail locations, protecting merchandise from theft. It’s also used in the warehouses and transport systems that bring that merchandise to your local store. If you’ve been to a rock concert or a museum recently, you likely have encountered RFID there too.

 RFID is a relatively mature technology–it was developed during WWII by the British Air Force, and since then, has crept into use by many industries. The concept behind it is simple. Radio waves are used to communicate between a “central command” and any number of small “receptors,” each with it’s own unique store of information. Because RFID systems can distinguish between individual “receptors,” it is used often in inventory systems, including museums archives. For example, RFID systems can track and identify cargo at a loading dock, or music fans roaming the grounds of a music festival. 

RFID is old school analog technology, but the communication it transmits can be transformed into digital data as it reaches “central command.” Are you wondering how to track every visitor’s path through a museum, including how long he or she views each exhibit? RFID can collect this data and feed it into a variety of software tools for analysis. In fact, last year, AMT Lab contributor Anne Marie Padelford researched how museums can leverage RFID technology to enhance the museum experience. To read the full extent of her work, click here.

Recently, RFID technology has been extended in interesting ways that enable transactional capabilities and unique customer experiences. Large music festivals, and the vendors that service them, have been at the forefront of new uses for RFID: Gating and Cashless Payment.

GATING: Since 2014, RFID bracelets have become the new ticket into many music festivals, usurping paper and mobile phone based systems. RFID vendors claim that swiping a bracelet at an entrance point not only gets people into the festival quicker, but also reduces ticket scalping.

CASHLESS PAYMENTS: The RFID system knows who is wearing each bracelet, and it can connect purchasing activity to the wearers’ credit card number. Swiping an RFID bracelet is functionally the same as swiping a credit card, and it’s quicker than paying in cash. RFID vendors mention point-of-purchase efficiency and audience safety as benefits, but they also taut impressive statistics to show how cashless payment entices people to spend more at the event.

Gating and Cashless Payment demonstrate that RFID is a mature technology. It is secure, programmable, and capable of feeding data into sophisticated analytics software. Insofar as it has achieved these capabilities, it is a stable technology, not changing all that much from year to year. Today, the real action in RFID is not on the technological frontier, but in the creative uses that organizations are making of its capabilities, such as brand amplification.

BRAND AMPLIFICATION: “Brand Amp” moves RFID into the marketing realm. Just as RFID bracelets can be linked to your credit card, they can be linked to your social media account. Many festivals have featured interactive stations that automatically post a ”souvenir” picture to your Facebook feed, complete with festival and sponsor branding. Production teams are finding novel ways to “gamify” RFID technology by creating participatory activities, tracking scores, ranking users, and posting it to your social media along with their branding.

Where will the creative use of RFID go next? No doubt arts festivals and other large events will continue to push the envelope, creating ever-greater spectacle, audience interactivity and sponsor tie-in. Big events are usually invested in the idea of outdoing the last events, and scaling up RFID technology will lead to more exciting developments.

Can RFID also scale down? Can smaller arts and cultural institutions get in on the game? Can they be just as creative on their own, less commercial terms? The answer lies somewhere in the crossroads between the economics that make it affordable to smaller budgets, the utility and information it can create, and the aesthetics that make it a desirable way to manage the user experience in a performing arts setting. In the coming months, I will be investigating practical applications of RFID technology that fit the missions, values and budgets of performing arts organizations.

Has your performing arts organization made use of RFID technology? Tell us about it in the comments below.