Every day we’re connected through technology. This communication between people, devices, networks, and everything in between has become so prevalent that it seems ordinary for most. Clearly what we now take for granted has been years in the making, with innumerable individuals and companies working to make it happen. But I think it’s worth highlighting the recent successes of companies like Zebra Technologies, whose leadership has helped to make this connected world possible, and has helped put technologies like RFID at the center of this movement.
Zebra - a partner of ThingMagic for many years - provides enabling technologies for organizations with high-volume, mission-critical or specialty labeling needs. Several Zebra products use ThingMagic embedded modules to encode RFID tags used for item-level tracking applications such as healthcare specimen tagging, supply chain work-in-process management, and retail item tracking, among many others. Zebra’s recent recognition by Frost & Sullivan as the 2012 Company of the Year in North America for their high-value products, robust portfolio, deep market penetration, and optimized channel strategy is a testament to the impact they have had on the entire industry. Their reach is impressive – having shipped over 11 million printers of all kinds to nearly 100 different countries – and is a driving force behind making RFID-enabled solutions a viable option across markets.
In addition to their execution on the technology end of business, Zebra has done a good job articulating to the public the importance of an interconnected world, more specifically promoting an understanding of the value of the “Internet of Things.” To further an understanding of this concept, Zebra recently partnered with Forrester to produce a study that helps IT decision-makers better understand the importance and growing presence of Internet of Things solutions. The RFID-based technologies behind the Internet of Things are used to solve business problems like supply chain inefficiencies as well as inspire innovation in organizations. And as the survey revealed that 82% of organizations either have Internet of Things solutions in place already or plan to put solutions in place in the next 5 years, it’s become clear that the Internet of Things will become a household concept in the very near future.
Congratulations Zebra! We as an industry should follow your example of explaining and promoting the value everyone has and will experience in this increasingly connected world.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on the R&D effort to develop passive RFID tags that can be offered for five cents or less. Have we succeeded? Almost. In high volumes assembled UHF tag inlays cost somewhere between seven and ten cents. Along the way, however, the RFID industry have invented something far more important: five-cent wireless networking!
What is it and how does it work?
Both NXP and Impinj have released RFID chips that offer an Inter-Integrated Circuit (I2C) interface in addition to the Gen2 RFID interface. The new chips also include significantly more memory compared to previous generations of simple-passive RFID IC’s: NXP’s UCODE I2C offers 3.3kBit of EEPROM memory; Impinj’s Monza-X offers 2.1 to 8.2kBit of EEPROM memory.
Electronics manufacturers have been using I2C-enabled EEPROM memory chips for decades to store small amounts of data persistently, including configuration data or boot-loading information. As the main microprocessor of a device is powered up, it reads configuration information from the memory chip via the I2C interface.
The new generation of I2C-RFID chips will maintain this functionality, but offer more. The memory content can be accessed through the I2C interface and through wireless RFID interface using a standard UHF Gen2 RFID reader. Since the RFID chips can be used in passive mode, the EEPROM memory can be read and written to without powering the host device.
Why is it so cheap?
Fully assembled conventional RFID tags require the actual chip, an antenna substrate, and the conversion into a usable package. A relatively small percentage of the cost can be attributed to the chip itself. The biggest cost items are the handling, assembly and antenna substrates.
When I2C-RFID chips are placed on printed circuit boards, the antenna is etched into the board at virtually no additional cost. The assembly is part of the surface mount board assembly, i.e. it’s also virtually free. Hence the only real cost item is the IC itself. The I2C enabled RFID chips are more expensive than the regular passive RFID IC’s, however, most of that cost can be attributed to the large memory of the chips. Since I2C-RFID chips replace conventional EEPROM chips, the marginal cost of adding RFID and hence wireless networking amounts to a few cents.
What is it going to be used for?
Device manufacturers will include the I2C-RFID chips to store essential configuration, licensing, or product information persistently. Since the memory can be written to over the air, configuration or licensing information can be applied to the device using an RFID reader without turning on the device.
In manufacturing, the RFID chip can be used to identify and serialize the device (WIP tracking). Once manufactured, channel partners are able to configure devices in the warehouse or at the point of sale without taking them out of the box.
Post sales, the device’s host processor can log information on usage hours, failure modes, misuse, use of consumables etc. on the I2C-RFID chip. As the device is sent in for maintenance or repair, the information is available to the service center through the RFID interface. Once again, the device does not have to be tuned on to read out the information.
Intel announced recently that it has included an I2C-RFID chip with the reference design for its new Windows 8 tablet computer, making Intel and its OEM partners the biggest users of this new capability yet.
Why is this so important?
More and more of the objects we buy and use on a daily basis include electronic circuit boards to support and enhance basic functionality: Nowadays toys like to speak to their child owners, kitchen appliances can be programmed to turn on at arbitrary times, toothbrushes beep when its time to switch sides, and power saws shut off electronically when safety is compromised. Today, few of these devices are networked and few are RFID-enabled. The inclusion of the new I2C-RFID ships will enable both RF networking and RF identification. Almost overnight networking and identification of inexpensive everyday objects has become feasible and realistic.
We have long been waiting for the Internet of Things to become a reality. I think I2C-RFID chips will finally make it happen.
(Photo: Tom Hurst / RFID Journal)
Fifteen years ago my ThingMagic co-founders and I worked as research assistants in the MIT Media Lab’s Things-That-Think consortium. Our main agenda was to embed intelligence in everyday objects such as clothing, toys, and furniture. We quickly realized how important passive RFID would be for implementing the vision of smart and networked objects and ultimately the Internet-of-Things. Today, passive UHF RFID outperforms any other technology in applications where a large number of tags are attached to inexpensive objects and where readers are embedded in the environment to quietly understand the objects around them without human intervention.
In the years since, we haven’t always been true to this insight into the sweet spot of RFID applications. In fact, my co-founder Ravi Pappu and I like to pride ourselves in having proposed the use of RFID for just about any imaginable scenario. In our enthusiasm for the technology and our eagerness to help customers, we have put tags on people, retail shelves and vehicles of all types including fighter jets, locomotives and racecars. None of these applications deal with millions of inexpensive objects; most of these applications require expensive, portal-type reader set-ups; and none of these applications helped the RFID industry develop its full economic promise.
On the other hand, when we deployed embedded RFID reader modules, usually with the help of OEM customers, our efforts resulted in scalable projects generating long-term repeat-business. This success can only partially attributed to our market leading position in UHF modules. Embedded RFID readers quite simply outnumber their fixed reader cousins by an order of magnitude, much like WiFi-enabled devices outnumber WiFi access points.
The most successful embedded RFID applications continue to be RFID-enabled printers and RFID-enabled handheld terminals. RFID-enabled label printers, for example those made by Zebra Technologies, are a necessary ingredient of any high-volume RFID application. Labels have to be encoded, no matter what you use them for.
RFID-enabled handheld terminals have become the workhorses for the majority of workflow applications. In logistics, retail, or construction alike, workers need to truly interact with the objects they are handling. They require a user interface to fill out forms, collect the electronic signature of a customer, or record the geo-location of a particular object. RFID-enabled handheld terminals offer these capabilities: at the low-end, terminals include Bluetooth and a single-button user interface; at the high-end, terminals include every imaginable wireless capability in addition to RFID, along with a full keyboard and a big screen. For example, see Trimble Announces New RFID Accessory for Nomad Handheld. All of these devices include one common element: a ThingMagic embedded RFID reader module.
More recently, other exciting embedded applications have emerged: Keurig is embedding RFID readers in their single-cup coffee machines. The machine recognizes the RFID-enabled coffee container and optimizes its settings to produce the best coffee possible.
Intel is enabling its OEM customers to embed RFID tags with every Windows 8 tablet computer at the time of manufacturing. This will enable embedded readers track the devices during the manufacturing process and into distribution. Retailers will be able to offer customized licensed features and configure the tablets using embedded RFID readers at the point of sale. Service centers will be reading out information about a device without even taking it out of the box or powering it on. How will they read out the information? They will be using RFID-enabled handheld terminals or other embedded readers.
In conclusion, once in a while we should remind ourselves why we got excited about passive RFID in the first place: we saw the opportunity to make inexpensive, small, but pervasive objects part of the networked world. Embedded RFID readers continue to be key to realizing that vision.
A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to be able to speak with InformationWeek’s Jeff Bertolucci, a respected voice in the Big Data space. In a conversation stemming from our Future of RFID infographic, we discussed the role RFID is playing in the revolution brought on by devices communicating with one another and individuals and enterprises relying more on technology.
In general, we are all connecting more with the world around us every day and RFID can be thought of as an enabling technology that pulls it all together. Clearly it contributes to the amount of data generated by business and consumer activities, but it can also be used to manage it – and in the words of a recent report by InformationWeek, “the big data challenge is real.”
New and innovative uses of RFID are emerging on a daily basis - reshaping the way we (vendors, partners, end users) should be thinking about the technology. It can no longer be viewed as a niche technology or a replacement for barcodes. In a previous blog post, we introduced the intersection of RFID and Big Data to get people thinking about the technology in a bigger way. Business managers are seeing cost savings, consumers are enjoying new efficiencies, and generally speaking, people are able to more easily connect their online world with their physical world.
So what do you think – is RFID becoming more of a household name in Big Data conversations? Or do we have a few more years of flying under the radar?
In our view, RFID plays an important role in managing Big Data and facilitating the Internet of Things, even though it’s never been the flashy new technology that has commanded headlines - well, until now at least.
Inevitable, open, and inclusive are just a few words Rob van Kranenburg used in a recent article The Sensing Planet: Why The Internet Of Things Is The Biggest Next Big Thing to communicate the growth and adoption of what he loosely defines as the global process to enhance all objects with some form of digital identity. Van Kranenburg, a teacher and consultant on the topic, believes that U.S. industry and government bodies aren’t taking as active a role in its adoption as we are – the people – who are coming to own and drive the movement.
But don’t consider this a mark against it. This isn’t a bad sign for the Internet of Things. In fact, since its inception, the Internet we’ve seen evolve over the past twenty years has itself functioned a lot like the Wild West, with people driving its progress more quickly than any governing body or private business has. It’s clear that a number of factors will drive our world closer to this connected world, but we believe it’s RFID that will be the unsung hero supporting the people to drive this shift.
Van Kranenburg referred to RFID and the rest of the “ecology” surrounding the Internet of Things as “nothing fancy; mostly radio, quite mundane,” but that’s what we love about RFID. Its wallflower-like characteristics enable it to blend into our lives, and that’s the very reason it will drive this movement. If any technology requires extra steps, behavioral changes, or new inconveniences, it can’t take off.
We live in a connected world, but in reality it is hundreds and thousands of systems that all operate separately. RFID is the glue that passively, yet intelligently, connects our doctors to their patients, our cars to their parking spots, and our businesses to their products. It will be the connection between the intranets we already have established that forms the Internet of Things we all imagine coming to life.
Van Kranenburg will be communicating how he perceives the Internet of Things at the PICNIC conference this week in Amsterdam. In fact, the theme of this year’s PICNIC is “The Shift from Top Down to Bottom Up,” articulating that it’s the people driving innovation, not the legislators and business leaders up top.
For an idea of what’s possible with RFID growth, Tik Tik, one of the businesses attending PICNIC, is using the example of children checking themselves in and out of daycare with RFID keychains and rating activities they’ve chosen there for their parents to see via a secure Web site. The conference will most likely usher in a new era of understanding just how universally applicable RFID technology has become. I’m willing to bet that in years to follow, RFID will have a much bigger presence at this show because people will have recognized its role in driving the Internet of Things. If you’re not yet convinced, we have an Infographic that could change your mind.
Infographics are cool. They've been developed to visually represent data about a great many industries, places, and people. Everything from Understanding Carbon Offsets to 7 Things You Didn't Know About the Golden Gate Bridge to The State of the Internet to The History Of Steve Jobs & Apple have been depicted in Infographic form. Yes, there is even an Infographic of Infographics!
I've found a couple of Infographics that touch on The Internet of Things and the global supply chain like IBM's Stories of a Smarter Planet, but I was a bit surprised to find that there aren't many that cover Auto-ID technologies or RFID in particular. So, here's our pass at creating a visual representation of The Future of RFID. Take a ride along the path of Adoption, Convergence, the Internet of Things, and Big Data - ending in a place where RFID systems will become an integral part of the consumer and business experience!
Download a PDF of The Future of RFID Infographic and don't forget to let us know how we can help you with your RFID project!
Embed the image above on your site:
View more than 100 other innovative ways in which Radio Frequency Identification and Sensing (RFIDS) is being used to automate data collection, identification, and location systems worldwide - 100 Uses of RFID
I first saw TV ads for Google Glass while in Orlando for RIFD Journal LIVE! (more about the conference in a future post). About what you'd exepct from Google - an imaginative glimpse into the future of computing and human interaction.
I have to admit I didn't make the immediate connection between Google's view of the future and the Internet of Things. But Mark Beccue of ABI Research did, and it is an intersting read - see the full copy of Mark's piece here and let us (and Mark) know what you think.
Google Glass: A Glimpse Into The Internet of Things?
Posted Tue, 10 Apr 2012 11:10:00 EDT by Mark Beccue
Last week, Google announced Project Glass, an ambitious project to feed on-demand, real time data onto eyeglasses http://bit.ly/HeSg62. The project has produced skepticism and mocking, both of which I think are unjustified. Google is merely nudging us along to an eventuality - the click less, swipe less web interface and the internet of things.
Last year, I wrote a report on mobile augmented reality http://bit.ly/hycWOK in which we found that many enterprising companies are seeking to expand the internet to become even more useful than it is today. Visionaries at companies like Google, Intel, Metaio, and DoCoMo http://bit.ly/AyGQuz believe there will be a day when we can attach data, graphics, audio or video to objects such as buildings, vehicles, machinery or a location. This data could then be accessed using augmented reality technology - either through a smartphone app through which you would see or hear the data as you looked at the object, or eventually through glasses.
While today we are seeing the emergence of smartphone apps and AR, there are lots of challenges before any of this happens for eyewear. Applications would require filters because of information overload - our brains can't handle too much data at one time. One solution in that respect could be you as a consumer choose the apps you would like to run through your eyewear, just as smartphone users choose apps and run them today on their phones. Industrial and military uses of augmented reality eyewear produce significant eye fatigue. And how would eyewear and smartphones peacefully coexist over time? And then there are issues around attaching data to things -- indoor AR today is limited because of GPS, and image recognition requires huge, cross-referenced databases.
But it is easy to see why Google is so interested. Search expands when internet expands, and where search goes, so goeth Google.
I believe Google will showcase Google Glass to promote the technology and look to eyewear and smartphone makers to make eyewear eventually. They will potentially make eyewear (with a partner), but as with Google phone and new Google branded tablet, Google knows the key is to make click less touch less web interface and the internet of things universal.
--end ABI article
As you know, our position at ThingMagic is that the ongoing and recent advances in RFID lend themselves very well to the technology becoming integrated into more things, and as such, more ubiquitous. Today, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and solution providers are starting to consider RFID as they design end-user solutions, versus adding RFID onto the solution after the fact.
As OEMs evaluate building their own readers, there are three basic options available:
- Costly & Complex = Purchasing all of the necessary discreet components and building their own readers
- Less Complex, but Not Ideal = Purchasing reader chips with software to design and build their own readers
- Faster, Better, Cheaper = Purchasing a fully functional and globally certified reader module that can be easily integrated into a wide range of products
A decade ago, when RFID readers weren't available in as many finished and embedded form factors as they are today, and companies didn’t think twice about dedicating a team of engineers to create the entire RFID communication system from scratch, the first option might be considered acceptable. But these days, unless you have time and money to burn, building from scratch doesn’t make much sense; especially when you throw regulatory certifications into the mix.
The second option is definitely less expensive and less time consuming than the first, but it still introduces significant challenges. With the reader chip and reference design, there are significant development, testing and certification requirements that take precious time and money.
Option number three is the most efficient approach available. With embedded RFID modules, OEMs can very easily incorporate RFID into pretty much anything such as handhelds, printers, vehicles, retail point-of-sale (POS) and security devices and much, much more, at a significantly lower total cost of ownership.
Our own Ravi Pappu walks us through the steps and requirements involved with each of the three approaches in this RFID.net video, “How to Build an RFID Reader, Part 1: Discrete reader, IC, or Module?”
If you’ve been following our blogs, you’ll know that the applications and solutions that can be RFID-enabled are endless. It’s no longer feasible to reinvent the wheel.
To learn more, Download our Whitepaper: Getting a Read on Embedded UHF RFID: Why RFID Modules are the Smart Choice for Developing Next-Generation Solutions!
As published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of PassAGEnow:
When predicting technology trends, Bill Buxton, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and author of Sketching User Experiences may have said it best:
“If history is any indication, we should assume that any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already 10 years old!”
This theory holds true for several technologies. For example, the first mobile telephone call was made in 1946, many years before the first commercial cellular network was launched in 1979. GPS was in use for nearly 30 years in government and military programs before it became a must have for personal vehicle navigation. And, the formation of the Internet as we know it began in the 1980s, but wasn’t truly incorporated into virtually every aspect of modern human life until a decade later.
Applying this premise to radio frequency identification (RFID) seems to hold true as well. The technology itself was well over 10 years old in 2004 when retail giants began pushing it as a means of driving efficiencies into their supply chains. While these initial retail programs didn’t succeed according to plan, and mass adoption didn’t happen the way many analysts predicted, these initiatives did kick off a high level of interest from retailers, product manufacturers and many other industries and markets focused on improving their business and service processes. Between 2004 and now, something else happened that makes one ask if RFID is ready to have that significant impact Buxton mentions.
During this span, RFID hardware and software providers have continued to innovate and collaborate at a notable clip. RFID readers have evolved to include a wide variety of purpose-built and multi-use form factors. Smaller, more powerful embedded RFID modules are being used to enable many stationary and mobile devices with the auto-identification technology. These advancements, coupled with continued innovation in the RFID tag and software markets, have resulted in RFID system performance improving exponentially. While these advances are significant, I’m not suggesting that that there will be an ‘ah-ha’ moment when businesses and consumers realize that RFID is a technology they can’t live without. To the contrary, RFID adoption will likely be steady; finding its way into a greater number of solutions and replacing less effective legacy technologies as time goes on. A key point in all of this however, is that the technology itself has matured to a point where it is no longer a barrier to entry.
‘Climbing the Slope’
So where are we now, more than 40 years after the first passive radio transponder with memory was patented in 1970, and nearly eight years since the retail industry brought attention to RFID at a global scale? Confirming the market’s progress is evidence that RFID technology has passed several critical milestones of Gartner Research’s well known Hype Cycle, including first and second generation products, media hype, negative press, supplier consolidation and failures, and emerging methodologies and best practices. Taken at face value, this would put the market in the Hype Cycle’s Slope of Enlightenment stage and moving toward the emergence of third generation products, out-of-the box usability, and high growth adoption.
What’s more, businesses across all industries have a great number of well documented end user case studies and best practices to help them with their ROI analysis. Many pre-configured and kitted solutions are emerging, and ease-of-use features are starting to find their way into once highly-technical, hard to use products. Maybe most importantly, vendor promises and user expectations about performance have found solid common ground. Error rates have dropped significantly and there are many applications where 100 percent read rates are achieved. That said, users accept that there can be momentary losses of visibility of RFID tags owing to environmental factors and that software error correction, along with well-designed installations, should be a principal consideration in implementing successful solutions.
So now what?
It’s Time to Reshape the Way We Think About RFID
With the reliability of today’s RFID systems and the apparent progression through traditional stages of technology advancement, it’s time to reshape the way we think about RFID. RFID vendors and solution providers have survived the technology maturation process. End customer organizations of all sizes have learned where and when it makes the most sense to apply RFID to their business processes. Now it’s time to think beyond RIFD of the past 10 years and toward the next wave of innovation.
We should think beyond the underlying technology – and toward the value of the data, emerging methods of data access, and about the many innovative enterprise and consumer applications that can be enabled with RFID data.
We should think beyond one-size-fits-all readers – and toward the wide variety of fixed-position and embedded RFID reader form factors that can support a great number of unbelievably diverse applications.
We should think beyond siloed deployments of RFID – and toward the hardware, software and data becoming an integrated element of the enterprise.
We should think beyond the singular technology of RFID – and toward the combination of RFID and other technologies like GPS, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
As an industry, we are beginning to see glimpses of this forward thinking. Technology vendors are more willing to collaborate. True solutions are starting to emerge. We are experiencing a realization, albeit a slow one, that no single technology is suitable for identifying and tracking things because different assets hold different values and each technology has its strengths and weaknesses relative to a given application.
As we’ve experienced with many other data-driven solutions, I expect this progression may eventually lead to RFID as a platform – with RFID modules and extensible software interfaces allowing for the integration of RIFD with other technologies. Purpose-built systems will incorporate passive sensors and computational systems will emerge. In certain applications, it is easy to imagine everyday physical objects with built-in RFID. If we’ve learned anything from the mobile device revolution it is that there is great promise when devices are able to connect with objects around us. Even more compelling is when these devices will be able to learn about our environment, provide contextual adaptation if necessary, and, connect those objects to the broader Internet and business systems.
There is no doubt that over the next decade, RFID systems will become an integral part of the consumer and business experience. The convergence of wireless technologies will be augmented by RFID systems. The development of passive RFID as part of this platform will be driven by the potential to measure, report and monetize a growing number of transactions in the physical world.
Similar to the mobile phone, the widespread integration of GPS into today’s commercial and consumer positioning solutions, and the adoption of this thing called the Internet, RFID is ready to transform markets. Only time will tell the scale and impact RFID will have, but I for one, bet it will be a big one.
Really? Did I just read that the maker of one of my favorite mobile games, Angry Birds, is going to be connecting the virtual world of slingshot flung bids and grunting pig heads with the physical world by using near field communications (NFC) and GPS?
Yup – as reported by ReadWiteWeb, Rovio (the Angry Birds game maker) will be making this announcement at the ReadWriteWeb 2WAY Summit taking place this week in New York City.
According to the article, game players with NFC-enabled phones will be able to unlock new levels and special birds by taping their mobile devices together or on NFC-enabled tags placed on merchandise like toys, books, or presumably just about anything. Taking the virtual-physical world connection a step further, when played in certain locations – that “make sense for the birds and the brand” - you will be able to access new location-specific features. Rivio also plans to offer a GPS-enabled version for those without NFC-enabled phones.
This isn’t quite where I thought RFID and GPS would converge to reach thousands if not millions of consumers, but I guess you’ve got to start somewhere!
You’ve got to like the name too. Known as Angry Birds Magic, the branding for Rivio's internet of things platform follows our affinity for adding magic to everyday things.
Angry Birds fan or not, share your thoughts on the convergence of auto-id technologies and the virtural world. Where do we go from here?!
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