S'pore opens specialized RFID center

The facility will design and develop applications for Asia's hospitality industry, with the first commercial offering to be ready end-2006.

SINGAPORE--A new research facility that seeks to tap on radio frequency identification (RFID) for deployment across the region's lifestyle and hospitality industry, has developed three applications it expects will be commercially available by the end of the year.

The RFID Hospitality Management Systems (Rhymes) Center, touted as the first of such initiatives in Asia, is led by Singapore educational institution Ngee Ann Polytechnic and mobility solutions provider Symbol Technologies. Other collaboration partners involved in Rhymes include Millennium & Copthorne Hotels and Sun Microsystems.

Speaking at the launch of the center Tuesday, Boon Swan Foo, managing director of Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) noted that to stay competitive, players in the hospitality industry need to deliver outstanding service to "delight" their customers. He added that "RFID can play a central role to the future growth" of this industry sector. A*Star is the national body tasked to spearhead the development of Singapore's RFID industry.

Angela Wee, director of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Infocomm Technology, told ZDNet Asia that RFID has been successfully used in logistics and supply chain management, but its deployment in the lifestyle and hospitality sector is still largely "untapped".

According to Wee, Rhymes has developed three applications following a memorandum of understanding agreement between the center and Millennium & Copthorne Hotels, inked in January this year.

First, the center built a self-service check-in and check-out system using RFID cards, designed to eliminate queue times for frequent hotel guests.

Second, Rhymes developed a baggage management system that uses RFID tags to track guest luggage deposited at the hotel. This system can not only identify baggage more easily, it can also prevent unauthorized removal of luggage.

The center also developed an application that allows for personalized services. To enable this, RFID readers would be located strategically within the hotel premises, such as at the reception desk and in elevators. With this application, when a hotel guest enters the elevator to go up to his room, for example, the reader will retrieve his details from the RFID-enabled keycard and automatically select the floor on which his room is located.

Wee pointed out that although the center aims to design and develop "personalized services" for the hospitality industry, the biggest impact is usually felt at the end-user level and applications can therefore, be tweaked to benefit other industries as well. For example, some students used the backend engine of one of the customer service applications and tweaked it for test-use in a bank setting.

Gerry Oh, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Millennium & Copthorne Hotels, said the RFID applications would likely be trialed at one of its hotels in Singapore during a major mice (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) event in November or December this year. The hotel chain manages five hotels in the island-state including the Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel, Orchard Hotel and Copthorne Orchid Hotel.

Oh added that the group plans to carry out similar implementation in its hotels in other countries, but the type and number of applications may vary from country to country.

The hotel chain's aim, he said, is to understand how guests use its hotels' facilities and enrich the customer experience, particularly that of frequent guests. In Singapore alone, that amounts to "a few thousands" customers. The main objective of the hotel is to provide a "memorable" experience for guests, each of whom it "must know", Oh explained.

Upcoming applications
Paul Chen, Symbol's Asia-Pacific director of systems engineering, told ZDNet Asia that "the next sweet spot [in RFID deployment] would probably be [applications] that bring cost-efficiency and a quicker response to customers' needs". For example, the hotel's food and beverage staff will be able to identify dietary preferences of frequent travelers before or as soon as they enter the restaurant, so guests do not have to wait long before they are served.

Chen noted that providing a positive customer experience will create loyalty and over time, "people will go back to the place which they're more familiar and they feel more comfortable with".

Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Wee added that other areas of user personalization could involve items used within the hotel room, such as the minibar.

A*Star, Boon noted, will continue to support initiatives such as Rhymes to solve real-world problems. According to him, the agency recently announced plans to open a RFID center in September that will bring together industry players as well as academia "to jointly pursue RFID adoption projects".

Boon also referred to the recent RFID initiative by Brussels, where the European Commission has pledged support for the project to the tune of 7.5 million euros (US$9.4 million). "As long as we have worthwhile projects, we are prepared to match this [level of] funding [for the Singapore center]," he added.