Keeping track of kids

RFID: Radio frequency ID technology is making it easier for parents to follow youngsters' movements in big, confined spaces.

September 02, 2004|By Sam Diaz | Sam Diaz,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- It's every parent's nightmare: You take your kids to an amusement park, get distracted for a moment and they're gone -- vanished into the crowd.

At Paramount's Great America park in Santa Clara, Calif., in late July, Jennifer Winding's 5-year-old nephew ran off to see the Spongebob Squarepants character strolling nearby. Later, her 4-year-old daughter headed in a different direction when she spotted Blue the dog from TV's Blue's Clues.

But the watchlike devices the kids had on their wrists helped ease anxiety about losing track of them. Part of Great America's Star Watch program, the wristbands broadcast a signal to antennas scattered throughout the park. A central computer tracks the children's location and sends the information to seven interactive kiosks placed around the park. If kids become separated, parents can find them by going to a kiosk and waving their Star Watch over a reader. A screen will show them the location of each member of their group.

Tracking children has become yet another use of a technology called RFID, for radio frequency identification. Manufacturers and retailers are beginning to attach RFID chips to products to keep better tabs on everything from laser printers to shampoo. Now there's growing interest in using the technology to help keep track of children within an amusement park, mall or even on a school campus.

"I think it's a great system," said Winding of Brentwood, Calif. "When I was here as a little kid, my sister got lost in the park and it was very traumatic for my parents," she said. "I remember that vividly."

Promoting such peace of mind is the idea behind Star Watch, said Regan Kelly, co-founder of SafeTzone Technologies, the Laguna Hills, Calif., company that installed the location system at Great America.

"This is not a substitute for parental supervision," Kelly said. "It's not an electronic baby sitter. It's a tool for families and groups."

The Star Watch devices cost $5 to use for the day. Besides using the kiosk to see where other members of their group are, users can send and receive messages among themselves and even find the nearest restroom.

But Star Watch rentals have been slow so far this season, averaging about four groups a day, said Gwen Bambarger, Great America's merchandise operations manager.

One possible upgrade could make them more popular: allowing groups to put money on their Star Watch accounts so they can buy snacks and merchandise by scanning their watches. "Everything is electronic these days," Bambarger said. "I think people will be interested in something like this."

Because RFID signals travel only over short distances, Great America has been divided into 63 zones. Antennas in each area pick up the signals so people don't get caught in "dead zones."

At a mall near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., SafeTzone is gearing up for the opening of Wannado City, a department store-size "role-playing theme park" that will entertain children while their parents shop. The RFID technology will allow the children to roam throughout the "city" while letting care providers track their movements.

A similar system, involving a mix of RFID and wireless technology, is popular among parents and staff at a Legoland in Denmark and has proved valuable in reducing the time it takes to find a lost child.

"Every time you need to get multiple people out of the park looking for a kid in a red jacket, it's labor-intensive and no one is happy," said Andris Berzins, a vice president with AeroScout, the San Mateo, Calif., technology company that developed the Legoland system.

Mark Roberti, editor of the RFID Journal in New York, said the technology is ideal for confined spaces such as a mall. But he noted that a short-range device wouldn't work well as a way of locating a child who doesn't make it home from school.

"It can't be read from a satellite or from a police car," he said, adding that the wristwatch or even an identification card can be removed from the child's body.

Roberti said he can see the advantages, but also one major problem. "I don't think people like to be tracked," he said. "There's always going to be that kind of a trade-off between security and privacy."

Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Therese Poletti contributed to this article.

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