Five-Cent Wireless Networking – The Most Important Invention in RFID Yet

Posted by Bernd Schoner on Fri, Nov 09, 2012 @ 10:31 AM

Tags: RFID, Item Level RFID, Internet of Things, Embedded RFID, Smart Objects

RFID ChipHundreds 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)

Holiday Gift Idea: Game On RFID!

Posted by Ken Lynch on Wed, Dec 14, 2011 @ 11:05 AM

Tags: RFID, Gaming, RFID Enabled Toys, Smart Objects

SkylandersKids are harder to please come holiday time every year.  The more that technology goes into toys, the more kids expect from them.  The Wii and Xbox Kinect have set the bar high for the use of wireless technology in game play.  Action figures are downright boring if they don’t make wondrous sounds. They need RFID to really make them interesting.

That reality is here with one of the hottest gifts for the 2011 holiday season.  Activision, the company that brought the “Guitar Hero” franchise to life, has introduced Skylanders, the latest innovation in gaming technology.  Through the use of plastic action figures that act as thumb drives for storing data, users are able to connect wirelessly to a video game system with each of the figures serving as an independent wireless storage device.

The action figures have RFID chips that are read by the “Portal of Power” on which they are placed.  This allows users to play with the figures on one gaming system and transport them to other locations and different systems without losing any of the stored data so they can pick up at the point they left off.  For example, a gamer could start off a skylander mission on his PlayStation 3 and complete the adventure on a Wii system without any loss of status or interruption of game play.  This has never been possible before.

It is being speculated in the gaming industry that if the Skylander franchise takes off as expected, it will lead to other game manufactures such as Nintendo with its popular Mario brand to begin producing its own version.  This is incredibly exciting news for the makers of RFID technology as gaming is one of the fastest growing industries in existence.  If anyone has any doubts to this, try finding a shopping plaza these days that doesn’t have a GameStop store.

As RFID technology continues to become more a part of our daily lives it stands to reason that we will see even more breakthroughs in the areas of entertainment in the years to come.  And with the consumer of this technology being much more tech savvy than previous generations, companies are going to be forced to push the envelope of innovation in order to capture market share. 

This is good news for consumers and RFID alike.

Image credit: Activision Publishing, Inc.

The Next Revolution in Wireless and Mobility

Posted by Ken Lynch on Mon, Jul 19, 2010 @ 06:57 AM

Tags: RFID, Sensors, Internet of Things, Smart Objects

How RFID and Sensing Is Automating Identification, Data Collection, and Location Systems

The history of communications has progressed from human/human through human/machine to machine/machine interchange. The long evolution of each of these modalities has undeniably had a profound impact on human civilization. The last frontier in this saga is to connect the physical world to the world of machines.  Physical objects coupled with a myriad of radio technologies are driving this revolution. For instance, a modern multi-band mobile phone contains at least eight different radios —  receiving  location information from GPS satellites 26 kilometers above the earth to as close as a Bluetooth headset in your ear 1 meter away - all within the same personal communicator. 

In the past 10 years, we've gone from a world in which very few knew of RFID, to one in which the hype of the technology exceeded practical adoption rates, to today, where RFIDS is found in automated data collection, identification, and location systems worldwide. There are many types of RFIDS technologies. From Active RFIDS to ZigBee, each offers benefits across a variety of parameters including performance, standards maturity, and complementary hardware components and software applications. Solutions enabled by these technologies are addressing familiar needs across many industries including locating high-value assets in hospitals, improving item level inventory in retail stores, and tracking vehicles and goods in transit to improve supply chain management. Much more intriguing though, are the growing number of innovative solutions where users and consumers can naturally interact with RFIDS and where the technology is so integrated and transparent that it disappears into its environment.

Users of RFIDS technology may not know or even care about the enabling technology in the product or solution they are using, but understand that their professional and personal lives can benefit tremendously by experiencing its benefits. Consider a cancer patient whose treatment experience is enhanced because the environment (temperature, lighting, music, etc) changes to their liking by simply walking through the hospital door. Or a construction worker who can make sure he has all of his tools in his work truck by using an in-dash tool tracking application. Or an event participant who can manage their on-site and post-event activities through a personalized interactive information network. Each of these is an example of how new innovative solutions can deliver a valuable and unique user experience by processing data and automating processes in ways that could not be done economically or aesthetically without RFIDS.

While exploring these applications of RFIDS it is also worth reviewing advances in the enabling technology itself. Of all RFIDS technologies available, the performance of Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) Passive RFIDS (860 to 960 MHz frequency range) is advancing phenomenally. Consider the following: The read range of passive UHF RFIDS tags has quadrupled in past 3 years, meaning that UHF devices can now “see” objects at distances from millimeters to tens of meters. Read rates have increased from 200 to 1200 tags per second and read accuracy is near 100%. The cost of Passive RFIDS tags has decreased by a factor of 5 over the same period. Functionality is also expanding. In addition to reading a unique ID, UHF devices can remotely query the state, e.g., temperature of an object, determine its direction of travel and velocity, and can even turn on and off devices connected to the tag.

Regardless of the type of RFIDS you may be exploring, one thing is certain - the broad adoption of all types of RFIDS today shows that the much-heralded promise of the technology goes far beyond the supply chain focus that generated so much hype in the last decade – leading us to the next revolution in wireless and mobility applications.

September 2010 marks the 10 year anniversary of the founding of ThingMagic and as we reflect on the significant advances in RFIDS technology over the last decade, we at ThingMagic are equally excited about what the next decade holds. Since the release of ThingMagic’s first products, RFIDS technology has been able to take advantage of the incredible amount of Moore’s law expansion in the embedded world. What previously required thousands of components to implement is now available in a single chip, allowing for the design of products today that are higher performing, ten times cheaper, and one hundred times smaller than the products we brought to market ten years ago.

At ThingMagic, we believe that these advances in passive wireless ID and sensing technologies represent an important next step toward a multi-scale wireless world, significantly and positively impacting a wide array of end-market applications including mobile computing, asset tracking, telematics, and security.  To illustrate this, we plan to highlight a different application each business day for the next 100 days. We will be doing so on this blog and through a new page on our Web site. We also plan to use Twitter to foster and participate in an active dialogue as these applications are revealed.  You can participate in this discussion by following the hashtag #RFID100 on Twitter.

What is your vision of how radio frequency identification will impact our world?  What will the leading uses of RFIDS be in the next 10 years? How will we benefit from smart objects that recognize and respond to one another and to the world around them?

100 Uses of RFID

ThingMagic is the Engine in RFID®

For more examples, follow ThingMagic’s 100 Uses of RFID campaign to learn about innovative ways in which RFIDS is being used to automate data collection, identification, and location systems worldwide.  Visit our 100 Uses of RFID webpage and join the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #RFID100.

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