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Highlights from AIM and RAIN

Leaders from the auto-ID and RFID community met in Washington D.C. last week, including holding the first meeting of the RAIN Alliance for UHF RFID (whose founders include Google and Intel). The Internet-of-Things was a key topic, but they also discussed a new color barcode standard, and more.

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The Venerable and the Newcomer

I recently gave two talks at a pair of co-located, back-to-back conferences: the AIM Summit 2014 and the inaugural meeting of RAIN. AIM (Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility) was founded over 40 years ago to represent auto-ID solution providers. At that time, barcodes were in the infancy of their commercialization. While barcode technology may have been the focus of AIM in its early days, its charter is broader, encompassing all auto-ID and mobility technologies. That includes of course RFID, which brings us to the formation of ‘The RAIN Alliance,’ announced just five months ago, with the goal of promoting and rebranding UHF Gen2 RFID. RAIN is an industry alliance of AIM. Last week’s meeting was their group’s first formal meeting.

Let it RAIN

On April 9, 2014 four founding companies (Google, Intel, Impinj, and Smartrac) and AIM announced the launch of RAIN. The stated mission of the alliance is to “Promote the understanding, acceptance, and ubiquitous adoption of UHF RFID technology and applications to improve business and ultimately, peoples’ lives.” Since that announcement, they recruited 44 other companies, bringing the total membership to 48 companies at last week’s meeting, and have exceeded 50 member companies now. Chris Diorio, the founder of Impinj and the chairman of the RAIN Alliance, said the Alliance would like to do for UHF Gen2 RFID what the Wi-Fi Alliance, Bluetooth SIG, or NFC Forum have done for their respective technology bases.

The Google/Intel Factor

It was apparent that the inclusion of Google and Intel in the founding group was a draw for many participants. What interest do these two giants have in the relatively small market of UHF RFID? When a company has an overwhelmingly dominant market share (say above 70% or so)—as Intel does in microprocessors for computers and servers and Google does in search—then its primary growth strategy can no longer be about taking market share away from competitors. It has to grow the overall market and increase the world’s appetite and consumption of their product. For both companies, one of the prime drivers of their interest in RAIN is their interest in encouraging the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Intel’s Motivations

The expected spectacular growth of the IoT will drive a massive increase in data coming from objects or things in the world, including data about the objects’ identity, location, authenticity, condition (temperature, humidity, pressure, tamper-detection, etc.) and more. The consequences of this tsunami of data for the compute infrastructure are staggering. It will require many millions of new readers and gateways to collect, filter, and make sense of the data. But further, it will drive a new era of analytics for all that data, requiring a lot more compute power in data centers. So, although Intel makes no direct revenue selling UHF RFID tags and readers, the widespread adoption of RFID will substantially increase the world’s need for more compute power. Shahrokh Shahidzadeh, Senior Principal Technologist at Intel said, “UHF RFID is the technology that will link information about items in our everyday world to the internet.” It’s no wonder that Intel is interested in promoting the adoption of UHF RFID.

Google’s Motivations

Google has their fingers in many pies, but search remains the core of their business. Today, their search business is focused on content on the web—searching the Internet. I assume that Google very much wants to have the same dominant role in search for the Internet of Things (“where are my car keys,”“where’s my car”). Of course the variety of services possible in the IoT goes way beyond search. It will include condition monitoring, intelligence gathering, risk avoidance, predictive maintenance, and of course many types of analytics. Google’s role in this broader array of services is less clear, but they have been early to capitalize on emerging, potentially massive new technology trends … and always ready to experiment and try different things.

AIM Summit 2014

Internet of Things, Front and Center

It should be no surprise that in both conferences, the Internet of Things was a central theme, either explicitly or implied. At the AIM conference, Mike Liard gave a session on “Trends & Opportunities in IoT. He pointed out that there is no widely accepted definition of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and it means something different to just about everyone. Mike also said there is a very real danger of getting swept up in “me too” marketing. He asked, “You may be able to spell IoT, but can you sell it?” Mike made the point that data from auto-ID technologies provides the raw material/fuel powering the Internet of Things. Louis Parks, President and CEO of SecureRF, talked about some of the challenges of securing the IoT. Louis walked us through the concepts of symmetric and asymmetric encryption,1 the compute-intensive nature of asymmetric encryption, and thereby the challenges of offering asymmetric encryption on RFID, when the cost and chip real estate are very constrained.

Ultracode—Color 2D Barcode, coming soon to a scanner near you

It is not often that a new symbology standard comes along. On June 5, 2014, AIM announced a public review draft specification for “Ultracode”—the first 2D color barcode standard, designed to support both printed barcodes and electronically displayed barcodes (e.g. on a phone or tablet). It can be read by any sRGB-compliant optical scanner, cell phone, or color digital camera. At the AIM meeting, one of the principal developers of the standard, Clive Hohberger, PhD (CTO of Midwest Medical Technologies, AIM Chairman Emeritus) gave a technical overview of the new standard.

More Data in Less Space

Ultracode has compression features specifically to reduce the amount of data required to represent URLs. It also inherently carries more information per cell (i.e. per square ‘dot’) than a black and white 2D barcode. Depending on the amount of compression, an Ultracode can store about twice the density of information of other 2D barcodes (plus it is prettier to look at!). Ultracode uses Reed-Solomon Error Control for detecting and correcting errors, providing continued functioning in the face of worn out or degraded codes.

Overcoming the Challenges of Color

There are some gnarly challenges around using color. For starters, different printers will print the same color differently—the same is true about different displays. Furthermore, different lighting conditions reflect the same color differently. Printed colors can fade over time. Then there is the fact that printed materials depend on reflected light and therefore use a subtractive four color scheme (CMYK),2 whereas the screen on a phone or tablet transilluminates the images and therefore uses an additive three color (RGB)3 system. A lot of effort went to ensure Ultracode works robustly under a variety of different lighting conditions and hue variations, as well as with both reflective (printed) and transilluminated (displayed) colors. Clive described the technical challenges presented and how they have been solved (many very ingenious techniques went into this). The public review period goes until Oct 24, 2014.

The RAIN Meeting

The RAIN meeting started off with talks by Jonghoon Lim of Hamni IT and Dr. Frank Honoré from Google X. Hamni is using RFID to track pharmaceuticals through the supply chain. Frank discussed the use of UHF RFID as a platform for embedded sensors. Next up were several presenters from Intel and American RFID Solutions. Many of the examples were about RFID’s use in healthcare, such as the “Hand Washing Activity Platform,” which tracks how often doctors and nurses wash their hands at various hygiene stations. Hospitals using this saw immediate substantial improvements (to 100%) in the rates of hand washing. Steve Schattmaier from Tyco gave a great presentation on the use of RFID in retail. I gave the lunch-time presentation, which was an abbreviated version of our recent webinar “RFID Renaissance: What Vendors, End Users and Investors Need to Know.”

More Sensitive, Smaller Tags

After lunch, Chris Diorio of Impinj and Enu Waktola, VP of Corporate Business Development for Smartrac gave a talk about where we’ve come and where we’re going with RFID and the goals of RAIN. Chris talked about how there has been a steady increase in tag sensitivity of about 1dB per year, which translates into about 10% read-range increase per year. But instead of using it primarily to increase range, tag suppliers have taken advantage of that increased sensitivity to decrease the tag size.

Today, tags made with Impinj’s Monza R6 chip are at about -22dBm sensitivity. Chris made what he described as a “risky prediction,4 that in another eight years tags will reach -30dBm—the equivalent of a 2.5X increase in range/readability. To support this prediction, Chris noted that all UHF RFID suppliers today use ‘ancient’ 0.18 micron (180 nm) CMOS technology, but there are opportunities to follow Moore’s law to more advanced process nodes (modern microprocessors use 22 nm CMOS).5 While the analog portion of the chip doesn’t scale much with Moore’s law, the digital portion does, and the analog performance improves as well. Chris also noted that the Gen2V2 features are all digital, and for this reason Chris believes that over time, adding authentication to UHF RFID ICs will barely impact the speed and range of tags from them. That would be a big difference from today, where chips with encryption are big, power hungry, short range, and a lot more expensive than those without.

RAIN’s Goals and MO

Steve Halliday, President of RAIN, then led an open discussion with the room. He said, when you go into the hotel, you ask if they have Wi-Fi. You don’t ask whether they have IEEE 802.11 a/b/g/n. RAIN wants to do the same for UHF Gen2 RFID, so people will just say, “Do you have RAIN?”

One prospective member in the audience asked, “What are your initiatives and deliverables? How will you measure your impact? How will we know we are getting a quantifiable return on our investment?” The response was that those were exactly the kinds of questions they wanted to start answering in the afternoon sessions. This was RAIN’s first face-to-face meeting, and they wanted to make it very much a member-driven organization, defined, led, and run by the members. Steve said, “We’ve seen what the WiFi Alliance and NFC forum have done. We need to do something like that. Nobody has done the marketing at a broad level for RFID. That is what we want to do.” The rest of the afternoon sessions were closed-door meetings for the RAIN group to hash out these things and define their future. Stay tuned to see what that future brings.


1 A.k.a. Public-key Cryptography -- Return to article text above

2 CMYK = cyan, magenta, yellow, black -- Return to article text above

3 RGB = red, green, blue -- Return to article text above

4 In the words of the famous quantum physicist Niels Bohr, “It is exceedingly difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future.” -- Return to article text above

5 Current PC and server semiconductors are mostly made with 22 nm technology. Chips using 14 nm technology are expected to go into production in Q4 of 2014. -- Return to article text above

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