ThingMagic’s New RFID Reader–A Step Toward the Internet of Things

ThingMagic may sound like an oddly whimsical name for a company that makes some of the key hardware and software behind radio frequency identification (RFID) systems—machines that have serious real-world jobs like tracking the hundreds of thousands of products that pass through the dock doors of Wal-Mart warehouses and other distribution centers every day. But if you spend any time talking to the principals at the company, most of whom came out of Neil Gershenfeld’s physics and media group at the MIT Media Lab almost nine years ago, you’ll realize that for them, RFID technology is just a means to something bigger: an “Internet of things” where every common object or device is tagged with an electronic identifier and can wirelessly interrogate every other object, creating a real-time picture of everything passing through a given space.

That world, in turn, will need what Ravi Pappu, director of advanced development at ThingMagic, calls a “reality search engine”: a combination of sensors and software that can tell you at a moment’s notice whether you’ve got enough widgets in the warehouse to fulfill today’s orders, or whether all the tools you’ll need at the construction site are in the back of your truck, or who’s got the closest defibrillator, or where you left your other green sock. So even though ThingMagic is concentrating for the moment on fairly prosaic challenges such as making ever-smaller gizmos for reading RFID tags, “it’s the gravitational attraction of that [reality search engine] that makes me get up in the morning,” says Pappu.

ThingMagic\'s Astra RFID readerOn this particular morning, ThingMagic is taking its latest step toward the reality search engine, releasing a new device called Astra. It’s a flat, 10-inch-square box that includes both the computer hardware and the antennas needed to read RFID tags—which only give up the information stored on them when they get a big enough hit of radio energy— from up to 30 feet away. Designed to be placed in fixed locations in facilities such as offices and hospitals, Astra is about the same size as its predecessor, ThingMagic’s Mercury5 fixed RFID reader, except that the Mercury5 required massive external antennas in order to transmit sufficient radio power and hear the weak signals returned by RFID tags. By shrinking the reader hardware and taking advantage of improvements in RFID tag technology, ThingMagic was able to squeeze everything needed to detect RFID-tagged objects into a single box no bigger than a laptop computer, and power it all over a standard Ethernet cable.

“Before, you needed a lot of power to power up the tags, and also you needed a lot of isolation between the transmitter and the receiver,” Pappu explained to me when I visited him at ThingMagic’s radio lab in Woburn, MA, last week. “It was the same as you yelling at the top of your lungs while trying to listen to me whisper one kilometer away. Now the tags require lower power, and when you are transmitting at lower power you can hear yourself better.”

You can also use smaller antennas. Whereas the RFID assembly that ThingMagic sells to warehouses–the old Mercury5 reader plus two antennas—is a couple of feet wide and taller than a person, the Astra unit is so small that “you can just hide it in the ceiling and it creates this zone of RFID. That’s starting to approach the Internet of things.”

In a sense, then, Astra is a sign that ThingMagic is returning to its roots at the Media Lab, where Gershenfeld led a consortium called “Things that Think” that brainstormed technologies such as coffee makers that would recognize your cup and serve up your favorite blend. Pappu was one of five Media Lab PhD graduates (Bernd Schoner, Rehmi Post, Yael Maguire, and Matt Reynolds were the others) who formed ThingMagic as a consulting company in 2000. At first, the company worked on very “thingy” technologies such as electronic-ink-based price tags for retail shelving that could be rewritten remotely, and an RFID-driven device that would help consumers calibrate home medical devices such as glucose meters.

But gradually, the company drifted away from a focus on tracking discrete things used by individuals and toward the specialized field of supply chain management—that is, warehousing and distribution. Around 2002-2003, MIT’s Auto-ID Center was spearheading a global switchover from old-fashioned barcodes to a new product identification standard called the Electronic Product Code (EPC). ThingMagic built the world’s first EPC-compatible RFID reader, and licensed it to manufacturers such as ADT Sensormatic and Omron, who sold the devices for use in stores and warehouses.

By 2004-2005, when it looked as if companies like Wal-Mart were going to rebuild their supply chains around EPC and RFID technology, ThingMagic couldn’t resist the temptation to … Next Page »

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