San Diego Comic-Con: How RFID Badges Work

Starting in 2016, San Diego Comic-Con and WonderCon badges have gotten a makeover. Why the big change? Because both cons are implementing RFID tags as part of their badges.

RFID technology allows Comic-Con to better track how many people have entered, and where and what times people enter and exit. But most importantly, RFID makes it much harder to counterfeit a badge.

SDCC 2016 Badges.6.WPSize

The new 2016 SDCC attendee badges.

Although the average attendee is probably blissfully unaware, counterfeit badges have become a major problem for Comic-Con. SDCC introduced small security hologram stickers several years ago, but it wasn’t enough to combat the problem. RFID makes it easy for security to tell if your badge is real, and if it’s already been used to enter.

Another of SDCC’s major problems is a group of attendees entering the building, one person collecting everyone’s badges, and then going back outside to deliver the badges to more people – essentially, sneaking people in on real badges. RFID is meant to prevent this as well.

Scalping of tickets remains a problem, and SDCC’s new practice of mailing out badges in advance won’t help. But it’s certainly more convenient for attendees.

What’s In Your Badge

In the past, Comic-Con badges have been simple cardstock, printed with your name and badge type, inside plastic sleeves. The sleeves were color-coded by day to allow security to better see if you were wearing the correct badge for entry.

Paper inserts, color-coded by day.

Paper inserts, color-coded by day.

The basics of those two systems survives in the new design. However, the color-coding is now part of the paper insert; this means if you ordered multiple single-day tickets, your badge probably seemed pretty thick from all the cardstock inside. (This is still much easier to carry than several different plastic sleeves, as was the system in years past.)

Above the paper inserts is a plastic card, this year branded for The Walking Dead. This card is the RFID portion of your badge.

The Walking Dead plastic badge in the center is your RFID badge.

The Walking Dead plastic badge in the center is your RFID badge.

While your paper cards have your name on them, the RFID badge does not. It’s important not to get your RFID badge mixed up with anyone else’s – if you have a problem with your badge, you’ll need to show photo ID that matches the name that scans off the RFID to prove it’s yours. Mixing up your group’s RFID badges will prove to be a time-consuming nightmare.

How to Use Your RFID Badge

These badges were first rolled out at WonderCon Los Angeles 2016, so we’ve had a chance to experience them in action.


Basically, you tap your RFID badge to the RFID station at entrances and exits. Wait for a beep and a green light, then continue on your way.

If you’ve used reloadable public transit cards in many major cities, including San Diego’s Compass Cards and Los Angeles’ Tap Cards, you already know this process – those are also RFID cards that must be tapped before boarding.

WonderCon 2016 LA.27-RFIDTapOrange

Where to Tap

We don’t know yet where exactly the RFID stations will be in San Diego, but expect to see them at major entrances and exits, outside major panel rooms, and at other points where you’d usually find a security check.

Sometimes, security may be confused as to whether you need to “tap out” to exit an area. When in doubt, just tap.

WonderCon 2016 LA.26-ExitTapOut

Known Problems

Using the badges at WonderCon allowed CCI to hopefully work out the kinks before SDCC – and there were plenty.

These problems were all pointed out to CCI at WonderCon, and it’s likely that most (if not all) will be corrected by the time we get to San Diego. But in the event they aren’t, here they are so you can be prepared:

  • Single points of failure. If your badge won’t scan, you have to go to the help desk and have the RFID badge reset. At WonderCon, long lines and technical difficulties caused real trouble with this process. Many tech problems sprang up at the offsite Microsoft Theater, and walking between the help desk in the Convention Center and the Microsoft took a lot of time. For some attendees, this caused a perfect storm of problems that ultimately made them miss their panels. Having redundant scanners is meant to combat this problem, but here’s hoping the tech issues were worked out at WonderCon.
    • At San Diego Comic-Con, RFID help desks will be located in Lobby A, D, and G in the Convention Center and at attendee registration in the Pacific Ballroom at the Marriott next door.

  • Height of the tap stations. The “tap here” spot on the stations is about four feet tall. For many, that’s too short – you’ll end up bending over to get your badge flat on the tap surface. Lanyard alternatives were recommended by attendees, including retractable badge clips, to prevent this problem. Other suggestions were taller stations, although that makes things even harder than they already are for wheelchair-bound attendees, who must reach way up to tap.
Most people had to bend over to reach the scanning spot on the station.

Most people had to bend over to reach the scanning spot on the station.

  • Cable floor pads. The rubber pads that cover cables across the bottom walkways through the stations are also difficult for anyone in a wheelchair or with mobility problems.
  • Wristbands vs. badges. Many of these issues stem from the fact that Comic-Con’s RFID vendor, Intellitix, is known for their work at music festivals (like Coachella and Bonnaroo). Those events use RFID wristbands, and as such many things – like the height of the tap stations – were originally designed for wristband use. SDCC tested wristbands in the past for exhibitors and found it didn’t work; they’ll be sticking with badges.
  • Tap stations vs. archways. Some festivals use archways and scan everyone as they pass under – but don’t expect to see those at Comic-Con. Because they can’t scan in a single direction to determine an entry or an exit, they’re not suitable for SDCC.

WonderCon 2016 LA.40-RFIDEntrance

  • Too many tap stations. Many at WonderCon felt they had to tap too often. Some of this was attributable to the layout of the convention center, and the expectation of bad weather (forcing WonderCon to use more entrances to let people get out of the rain). However, some extra stations are intentional, to prevent people from sneaking in on someone else’s already-tapped badge.

You can read more details on these issues in our WonderCon Talk Back Recap.

Overall, CCI was very receptive to the complaints raised about their first adventure with RFID, so it’s reasonable to expect most of these issues to be resolved in time for Comic-Con.

Bring Your Own Lanyard

We don’t know yet if the SDCC lanyards this year will have retractable badge clips as suggested at WonderCon (they’ve already got them at NYCC!). But if you want to come prepared, bring your own!

You can buy a lanyard with a retractable clip on Amazon, or your local office supply store likely stocks them.

If you’ve got basic sewing skills, you can make your own! Follow a regular tutorial for making a lanyard, like this one from SewCanShe or this video tutorial from JoAnn Fabrics. Buy a retractable clip instead of the clips shown in the tutorials, and attach them the same way.

  • USA Lanyard has retractable badge reels with lanyard attachment tops in several colors.
  • Spoonflower has lots of great geeky fabrics. They’re pricey, but for a lanyard all you’ll need is a Fat Quarter (21″x18″).