Wristband on the run

The indestructible digital ID bracelet will be a feature of festivals this summer – and reveal your name, location and musical tastes. Chris Beanland reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It's a baking 41C in the Californian desert just outside Palm Springs, or an even scarier-sounding 106 when measured in Fahrenheit, as Americans are wont to do. As the Texan electro-pop troupe Neon Indian play their set in the frying-pan heat of mid-afternoon, a fan standing not far away collapses and is helped up by medics. But the futuristic wristbands that Coachella's festival-goers have been issued with seem indestructible. No amount of sweat, heat or refreshing, chlorine-laden, swimming pool water will break them

This is the future of ticketing at music festivals: a tiny, round microchip slotted into a thumb-sized slice of lemon-yellow plastic which you wear on a normal entry wristband. It knows your name and where on the festival site you are at all times. "There are so many ways to use this technology – we've just started to scratch the surface," says Serge Grimaux of Intellitix, the Québécois company that developed the system and, after its North American successes, has just opened a London office to launch a UK assault.

The microchip wristbands the French-Canadians are flogging use radio-frequency identification (RFID) to communicate between the chip and a reader. "It's incredibly robust," says Grimaux, whose next idea is to put the chips into mobile phones and do away with wristbands altogether.

Greg Parmley, Intellitix's PR officer, is also searing in the desert heat of Coachella. "It's the first time that we've tried loads of things here, like having people check in at stages on Facebook," he says. "Huge numbers of people have been trying it out." Some fellow members of the press pack are positive. "Each tap registering on your social media platforms induces an instant outpouring of utter jealousy from your friends," laughs Stylist's Anita Bhagwandas. "Effectively, the wristbands are just another method of showing off online."

But Jo Walker, from Australia's Frankie magazine, says: "Does anyone really need to know how many times I went to the loo in the VIP tent? It's a bit Big Brother."

The music-lovers at America's hippest festival look as if they've walked straight out of a desert branch of Urban Outfitters, so the garish purple bands teamed with yellow microchips seem somehow apt. My brightly coloured wrist is scanned as I come and go between the press compound and backstage areas by guards brandishing hand-scanners. The scanner's dystopian display flashes up my name, gender and tells them I'm a journalist – to prevent me tossing it over the fence to someone else. In addition, I have to manually touch my wrist on a reader coming in and out of the festival grounds – like using an Oyster card at a London Tube station.

More than one million microchip wristbands – which cost a few pence to produce – were activated last year at festivals such as Lollapalooza. They made their European debut at Eurosonic Noorderslaag in The Netherlands in January and have been handed out to backstage guests at festivals like V. Another company, the Anglo-South African ID&C, trialled its system at this year's BRIT Awards – giving VIPs microchip wristbands to claim their free drinks.

The wristbands will be rolled out en masse for the first time this summer at British festivals, though Intellitix is so jumpy that it refuses to name any to The Independent. It is impossible (the firm claims) to counterfeit them, and the chips work even if they get soaking wet.

New acts might be the real winners from this Logan's Run science – because it will allow the battered festival-goer to remember who they discovered during the haze of a lost weekend. "Imagine watching that new band on the first day. By Monday you've forgotten all about them. But now, you can click your wristband at a touch point and instantly receive a free track and information about when they are next playing," smiles Grimaux.

But are festival-goers happy to be snooped on when they are letting their hair down? "Fans can decide to stay anonymous at all times," argues Grimaux. "The technology collects far less information than credit card companies and supermarkets do."

Not everyone is convinced. "I wouldn't wear one of these in a million years," says Emma Edmondson, a teacher. "I go to a festival to escape these kinds of digital intrusions that have become so embedded in modern life. Why would I want to check in to Facebook when I'm having fun hanging out with my friends in human form?"