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5/12/2011
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RFID Can Put Social Media On Autopilot

Organizations from Vail Resorts to a small ice cream maker are using radio ID tags to trigger social posts.

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Organizations from Vail Resorts to an ice cream shop in St. Paul, Minn., are using radio-frequency ID tags to trigger posts to Facebook and other social media sites, prompting RFID specialist Odin Technologies to create a product aimed at making these applications easier.

Vail's social site for skiers, EpicMix, has already gotten a lot of attention from Wired Magazine and Fast Company, as well as InformationWeek editor Chris Murphy's interview with Vail CIO Robert Urwiler on lessons learned from the project.

While Vail is allowing skiers to auto-post their accomplishments to Facebook, Twitter, and the EpicMix website, Izzy's Ice Cream is sending out updates on the flavors available at its sole retail location in St. Paul, Minn.--proving that the technology is not out of reach for even a small business.

Odin Technologies founder CEO Patrick J. Sweeney II said the firm has been working on a number of these integrations on a custom basis, many of them for trade shows and events like the Dew Tour, an extreme sports competition sponsored by Mountain Dew. "The uptake on it has just been incredible," he said.

Now Odin is promoting a software-as-a-service product called Easy Connect specifically for RFID-powered feeds into Facebook. By handling the integration through Odin's service, customers will be able to spare themselves some of the complexities of working with Facebook. For example, when working with promotions for a one-time event where the demand placed on the Facebook APIs ramps up very quickly, "making sure they understood when the event started that we weren't spamming" proved very important, he said. Easy Connect doesn't have Twitter integration yet, but it does support the Chinese social media site Renren. Sweeney said the Renren integration was added in response to a specific customer request--a shoe company that wants to use the RFID integration for an event in Shanghai, where Renren is more relevant than Facebook.

Odin is offering Easy Connect as an adjunct to its core business of software and services to improve the accuracy and reliability of RFID tag readers. The trickiest part of any RFID application, particularly in a consumer context, is getting the radio physics and software configured to ensure the tags are read consistently, the first time, Sweeney said. "The good news is you only have to do that one time--once you get it set up right, it's generally pretty stable."

In interviews, Vail CIO Urwiler and Izzy's Ice Cream co-owner Jeff Sommers said Odin has been an important technology partner, although they created their applications independently of the Easy Connect service. More importantly, they say the automated instant updates made possible with RFID integration have proven valuable to their businesses.

Vail's EpicMix website is a social media experience onto itself, allowing skiers to keep tabs on their friends and track their own performance by metrics like vertical feet skied. Vail uses its RFID-powered electronic ticketing system to gather the information, and users sign up to view the information on the website and optionally cross-post to their social media accounts, as well as sharing on the EpicMix site. Nearly 100,000 guests at Vail and associated resorts in California and Nevada activated EpicMix accounts this past season, generating more than 35 million social impressions and racking up more than 55 billion vertical feet of skiing and snowboarding, according to the company.

"We're enabling all of our guests to be brand advocates," Urwiler said. It works for the same reason many skiers put Vail bumper stickers and window stickers on their cars--because they're proud of their association with the brand--and also because they can accumulate specific bragging rights by earning "digital pins" for conquering specific challenges on the slopes. Sort of like Boy Scout merit badges. When Vail announced the top 5 EpicMix skiers, the man who wound up #1 on the leader board had skied 171 days, racking up over 7 million vertical feet skied and 102 pins.

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