Photos Get Shopped at Princeville Ranch Adventures, Capturing Action with RFID

By Rochelle Garner

Pat Nowak had a wish list.  He wanted to offer action photos of guests as they happily skimmed across one of Princeville Ranch Adventures’ four Zipline tours. And he wanted those photos captured, sorted, cataloged and ready for viewing (and buying) before guests returned from the field. His goal: Satisfying guests’ top request for photos while at the same time generating a new source of revenue.

There was just one problem. Nowak, Princeville Ranch Adventures’ (PRA) general manager, didn’t know where to start. The reason? PRA’s mountainous terrain made it difficult to get great action shots — and impossible to transmit photos from the field. 

Blame it on location: Remote and on the rugged north coast of Kauai, PRA has no electricity or even, as Nowak puts it, “any hope of having traditional infrastructure.” Weather in Paradise is no picnic, either: Located near Mount Waialeale, one of the wettest spots on earth, the ranch is battered by the corrosive combination of rain and sea air.

Yet despite these obstacles, Nowak never stopped thinking about giving guests the photographs they continually asked for. “As wireless became more prevalent, we started thinking about new ways to transmit photos from the field,” says Nowak. “We also thought about motion and light sensors to take photos automatically, but we couldn’t get our heads around how we could get the right photos to the right person.”

Help came 18 months ago, when a mutual friend introduced Nowak to Ben Kottke, professional photographer, technologist, sports enthusiast — and chief executive officer of Snapsportz. Snapsportz puts together systems that combine cameras and radio-frequency identification (RFID) sensors and tags for capturing and sorting images of people doing the activities they love. The company had already worked with customers including Nike, Brighton Ski Resort, and Osiris Skateboard Shoes.

But Snapsportz had never before tackled anything quite like what Nowak wanted. Kottke realized that PRA and Snapsportz faced months of trial-by-error to overcome the terrain, conditions and remoteness of PRA’s Zipline adventures. He also recognized that PRA would have to participate on a mutual journey of discovery as, together, they developed a system “no one had ever tackled before. “ 

“I said there will be bugs we will have to work through, but they never fully understood how long that would take,” says Kottke. Nowak admits he didn’t realize the enormity of what they faced: “As with any development process, it took longer than anticipated,” says Nowak.

Over the next five months, Snapsportz and PRA faced down one problem after another. Among the first: Setting up a wireless network that could withstand the elements, and work without a steady supply of power. Today, PRA runs both omni- and directional microwave technology to transmit signals up to 2 miles away. “We send locally through wi-fi to a central hub in the field, from there via microwave to a relay point on the mountain, and then to the office,” explains Nowak.

To capture the images, Snapsportz installed RFID sensors and cameras at three points along two Ziplines. Kottke relied on his photographic eye to set up the proper lighting, focal length and camera angles, while the RFID sensors snapped the photos as guests zipped past the sensors. Solar power, with backup battery cells, drives the entire installation.

Finding the right RFID tags, however, proved to be a thornier problem than anyone anticipated. The challenge stemmed from PRA’s sanitation regime: Helmets get soaked overnight in a solution of bleach and water as soon as guests return from the field. As it turns out, few RFID tags can withstand that kind of abuse. “We went through 20 tags before we found something bulletproof,” says Nowak.  

Those RFID tags are the key to triggering, sorting and cataloging images. Now when guests get back to home base, they can go directly to an array of iPads, enter the RFID number from their helmets and — voila, see professional-caliber pictures of themselves in action. A retail app, which Snapsportz also developed, makes it possible for guests to find, buy and leave within just a few minutes.

The result for PRA: A new revenue stream. Nowak estimates 70 percent to 80 percent of all guests buy photos. He expects the system to pay for itself within the year.

Both PRA and Snapsportz say they learned from the experience. Snapsportz has learned what it takes to serve the Zipline industry, and now offers systems starting at $15,000 that withstand the unique rigors that Zipline parks present. PRA has learned thesatisfaction that comes from being a development partner creating something that has never been done — and that others can use.

“This was like running a marathon,” says Nowak. There are points where you don’t think you can keep going, but you do, and it’s a great achievement. Guests love it. We have cameras where we can’t put humans, and we get great shots. It enhances our program and will pay for itself in a short amount of time. I absolutely would recommend this to others.”