ID chips pressed into laundered clothes

The controversial RFID tag technology is being taken to the dry cleaners

Chipmaker Texas Instruments on Monday announced a wireless identity chip aimed at clothing going through the dry cleaning process, creating a new market for a technology that is expected to revolutionise the way products -- and people -- are tracked and identified.

The Laundry Transponder, from TI Radio Frequency Identification Systems, is a thin 13.56MHz radio frequency identification (RFID) chip with a circumference of 22mm that can be attached or sewn into fabric. Its plastic casing is capable of withstanding industrial cleaning processes, making it practical for dry cleaners to track items through to customer delivery.

Each transponder has a unique 64-bit identification code, as well as 2,000 bits of memory that can be programmed with customer data. The identification code can be laser-etched on the transponder casing for visual identification, TI said.

RFID functions as an evolution of the bar code, but is more efficient and versatile because items can be identified wirelessly. For the retail supply chain, this means, for example, that a box of goods could be added to a shop's inventory system without opening the box and scanning each item individually, since the RFID scanner could identify all the items through the box.

The tags are also being considered for other applications where a large number of items need to be sorted and identified, such as EU banknotes and airport luggage sorting systems. The EU and some other regions are planning to embed RFID chips containing biometric data into passports, which is a measure required for entering the US under new anti-terrorism legislation.

Industry analysts expect spending on RFID chips to surge in the next few months, possibly even fuelling a new tech investment boom, with huge retailers such as Wal-Mart looking to have RFID supply chain systems in place by 2005.

The tags are seen to have privacy implications, however, as they are capable of collecting data on consumers and allowing individuals to be tracked remotely. Labour MP Tom Watson has submitted a motion for debate on the regulation of RFID devices, and is confident that it will be debated in September.

Watson told ZDNet UK in July that he submitted the motion because without proper regulation, RFID tags are "open to abuse by unscrupulous retailers" who could misuse the technology.