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Disney scanner identifies devices from electromagnetic signals

Without its case, its wallpaper, and any scratches its screen might have picked up, could you tell your smartphone apart from another example of the same model? Probably not, but a team of researchers at Disney have found a way to do just that with a $10 scanner and a computer program.

The team, working as part of the Disney Research program, found that every piece of technology has its own electromagnetic signal — even those that are the same make and model. With this knowledge in hand, the researchers set about creating a scanner that could pluck this information out of the air.

Technicians tested 40 devices, covering a broad swathe of consumer electronics. Fluorescent tube light bulbs, lightsaber toys, iPhones, MacBooks and Dell LCD displays were all scanned, according to a report from Engadget. The scan works by feeding electromagnetic signals into a program that seeks out 1,000 frequency responses to create an identifier known as an EM-ID.

Related: Disney poised to make virtual reality history at the 2016 Radio Disney Music Awards

The lightsaber seems to have been the most successful test subject, as it was identified perfectly thirty times — typically strong brand cohesion from Disney. The scanner also did well with the Dell monitors and the MacBooks, maintaining an average identification accuracy of 94.7 and 94.6 percent for each device, respectively.

However, when attempting to identify iPhone 6 handsets, the scanner was only able to achieve an average accuracy of 71.2 percent. The research team is attributing this drop to the smartphone’s frequency distribution, which can sometimes overlap between individual devices that are part of the same product generation.

Disney hopes that this technology might one day replace current methods of inventory management. The scanner could feasibly track individual items by their unique EM-ID, which would negate the need for more expensive solutions like RFID tagging.