RFID, Alta, and change

Alta, which has perhaps seen less change than any other American ski resort of comparable stature, has implemented a nifty RFID-based lift ticket this season.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
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Radio frequency identification, a technology that allows identification of objects using radio waves, hasn't exactly been a failure. The Wikipedia article on RFID lists all manner of examples of RFID use, ranging from the whimsical to the more substantive. And early proponents of RFID, such as Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense, have moved ahead with large-scale RFID deployments affecting both themselves and their suppliers--albeit at a slower pace and in a more limited way than originally envisioned.

Still, if you contrast the selective use of RFID to the ubiquity of barcodes, the contrast is striking. It's arguably just a normal technology adoption curve--"valley of despair" and all that--but that doesn't make it any less disappointing for its proponents. In general, at least from the supply chain angle, RFID is so far mostly focused on goods that are either high-value individually (such as parts for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner) or in aggregate (such as full pallets of less expensive items).

Thus it was with both interest and some amusement that I discovered Alta in Utah (where I'm skiing this week) now using RFID for its lift tickets, replacing the familiar sticky paper and metal "wicket" that are still the most familiar form of ticket to most skiers. You put this plastic RFID card in a jacket pocket (preferably away from credit cards and electronics) and a little gate swings open at the lift if you have a valid, paid ticket.

It's a nifty system. It's "hands-off," so there's no need to stick a card with a magnetic strip into a reader--a fairly common system at a variety of ski areas. They've also developed a system with a swing-out gate rather than an annoying turnstile. Furthermore, the card can be refilled online and can easily accommodate pricing schemes such as multi-day discounts within a given time period and the like. (Although the current scheme is fairly bare-bones.)

So why amusement? Well, this is perhaps one of the unlikeliest of ski areas to implement such a relatively cutting-edge technology. (Its use at a variety of ski areas mostly in France and Ski Dubai notwithstanding, it's still uncommon.) Because Alta is...Alta.

This is, after all, one of three ski areas in the U.S. that still doesn't allow snowboarding. The lodge where I'm staying was originally constructed by the WPA. The wife of a Dartmouth friend of mine describes an Alta ski vacation as something akin to "boot camp." It doesn't require quite as much traversing (aka climbing) to get from lift to lift as it did in past years, and the Alta Ski Lifts Company has upgraded some lifts here and there. Still, it's perhaps seen less change than any other American ski resort of comparable stature in the past decades.

On the one hand, this sort of change reflects just how accessible computer technology has become. It almost goes without saying (although a couple of longtime lodge guests were a little bit surprised) that I'm sitting here typing this via a Wi-Fi connection. However, it's also a reminder that change--even when generally positive--can have its downsides as well, even if they're small. As this article about the new Alta Cards notes: (See the article for a picture of the old ticket.)

While much will be gained in the way of comforts and convenience, with the phasing out of the conventional passes, Altaholics will unfortunately have to say goodbye to one of the mountain's richer traditions: the personalized messages printed below that classic Alta-red banner on the tickets, denoting various "special days" celebrated at Alta.

"We're going to feel a sense of loss and change, not only those within the company, but our guests, too," (Connie Marshall, Alta's director of sales and public relations) says. "A vestige of personalization at Alta, people would even call ahead to request this service."