MIT’s annual Auto-ID and Sensor Expo has grown substantially since the first one four years ago. This year, there were 60 exhibitors and over 500 attendees. The audience is always an interesting mix of entrepreneurs, academics/students, financiers, and end users. There were a lot of innovative new products on display. Here are a couple of standouts:
At the MIT event this year, Omni-ID showed off their impressive array of innovations, such as their Visual Tag that we wrote about last year (see Big Changes at Omni-ID). We also wrote about its application in a manufacturing setting at the world’s largest washing machine plant (see 2013 RFID Live Report: Applications of RFID). Omni-ID also showed their UltraThin printable on-metal labels, which are only 0.8 mm (3/100th of an inch) thick and can be printed on standard thermal printers. Most on-metal tags are clunky and relatively expensive hard tags (a couple bucks or more and definitely can’t be printed with a standard printer!). These UltraThin tags are well under a dollar (in volumes) and come in two styles, the IQ 400 (4.1” X 1.1” X 0.03”) and IQ 600 (4.1” X 2.0” X 0.03”). Omni-ID claims read distances on metals and liquids in the 4-6 meter range (13’ – 20’) which is good for on-metal performance, especially for this form factor. The tags can perform well around cleaning agents in temperatures up to 185â° F (85â° C). I think the ability to print your own tags, at that price and performance, would be attractive to many manufacturers of metal or liquid-filled products.
Batteryless Visual Tags
Omni-ID also showed off a prototype of a batteryless visual tag. You might be wondering how they power the display without a battery. Good question. The E Ink display only uses power when you change the content of the display. The rest of the time it does not draw any power. When the Omni-ID tag is in the presence of an RFID reader, it harvests and temporarily stores the RF energy emitted by the reader and uses that to re-write the display. This is a real breakthrough – being able to combine a passive tag and display. It solves the battery life issue for applications in which the display only needs to change when you are near a reader (which fits many applications). It also paves the way for significantly lower cost visual tags. At the event, Omni-ID showed a prototype of this device (see picture — the final product will be smaller and of course much better packaged). They don’t have a specific date set to productize this concept, but will roll it out based on customer demand. I can’t wait to see how this technology gets used.
U Grok It
Another promising new development in RFID was on display by U Grok It: a small RFID reader (weighs 6 oz.) that works with any iPhone, iPad, iPod, or Android phone or tablet. Traditional RFID handheld readers are purpose-built devices, often ruggedized for the warehouse. As a result, they are single-purpose devices usually at a relatively high price point and often a bit heavy. In contrast, U Grok It takes advantage of the smart phones that many people already have in their pockets — “RFID for the rest of us,” if you will. The device attaches to the phone through the headphone port. The reader works with Gen2 UHF tags, outputs between 5dBm and 26dBm, with a claimed range of 2-3 meters (6’ – 10’) in general use and over 6 meters (21‘) under optimal conditions.
U Grok It has some announced partnerships and is working on more, combining their technology with some other platforms. At RFID Live, they demoed Stratum Global’s TagNet with an iOS phone using U Grok It. At the same show, RFID Global Solution showed their intent to support U Grok It with a trial version of their Visi-Trac Mobile app on Android.
U Grok It unleashes the power of smartphone apps, their open platforms, and growing legions of app developers, into the world of RFID. These apps are already connected to all kinds of data, systems, networks, functionality, and capabilities. Combining that with RFID is ground-breaking. The possibilities are really exciting and we look forward to seeing how this technology will be used as well.
I also saw a solution called Path Intelligence that provides visibility into visitor/shopper locations and behavior in shopping malls and other large venues. It has 3D capabilities (knowing which floor you are on) and works by using cell tower, WiFi, and Blue Tooth communications to locate individual cell phones (usually with a person attached to them) moving through the property. They are pretty sensitive to potential privacy issues and their system is designed to be incapable of identifying individual people — it is all completely anonymous. This data can be used to provide heat maps (showing where the traffic is heaviest and where people dwell); show associations (people who shop in this store also tend to eat in this restaurant); measure the impact of promotions and other marketing campaigns; and provide other data that mall owners can use to optimize their real estate assets. This gives the mall owner a better understanding of the role each tenant (and other attractions/features) plays within the overall context of the property. This is a good example of a new type of location-based service, taking advantage of the technology that virtually all of us are carrying these days.
Much More at the Expo
There were plenty of other interesting technologies and solutions on display at the Expo, such as RF Micron’s passive RFID sensors and others. There were also interesting panel discussions. It is a great place to see a snapshot of many different entrepreneurs, some of whom don’t necessarily show up at the larger shows. Kudos to the organizers and we look forward to seeing more innovations at next year’s show.
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