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In our increasingly connected world, it seems like just about everything is becoming a “smart” version of itself. Some of these smart items can be really useful. Others are more of a novelty.

Landing in the first category is smart paper technology, which uses printed, sticker-applied, or drawn radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags to embed sensor capabilities into a sheet of paper.

How Does It Work?

There are a few different methods to create RFID tags on paper. First, the tags can be printed using conductive inks. Researchers from the University of Washington, Disney Research, and Carnegie Mellon University uses silver nano-particle inks applied with an inkjet printer.

Conductive ink pens can also create RFID antennas, either with a stencil or by drawing freehand. These antennas don’t require wiring or battery power, and are inexpensive at about 10 cents each. An RFID reader can detect each tag’s unique ID, allowing for interaction with one tag at a time (or, as we’ll see in a minute, with several tags to build more complex end uses).

Real-World Uses

RFID readers can sense different kinds of interaction – such as the difference between a touch, a slide, and waving a hand over the tag. When your hand interacts with the tag, the signal between the tag and reader is interrupted, which registers the interaction. Algorithms in the reader software can recognize specific movements and link them to a specific command.

So, for example, a professor can hand out a worksheet with RFID-tagged questions. Students can use the tags (by touching or filling in a field with a conductive pen) to answer the questions, and their laptop app can give them immediate feedback on whether their answer is right or wrong.

In-store signage could employ RFID tags to show customers various benefits of a product, or deliver sales and coupons to their smartphones.

Or, you can put an RFID tag on your business card. At a networking or other event, other attendees can scan your card with their smartphone or tablet, and get taken instantly to your portfolio, resume, LinkedIn profile, social media page, or other important information about you.

Another important potential use for this technology is reducing counterfeiting and theft. With currency, legal papers, and other documents printed using “smart” paper, counterfeiting could become prohibitively difficult. And RFID tags, with their tiny physical footprint, make a more unobtrusive anti-theft device in retail stores than the bulky sensors currently in use.

Smart paper isn’t in widespread use just yet, but thanks to the RFID tag’s flexibility, feather-light weight, and low price tag, it could become an everyday part of modern communications.