ThingMagic’s New RFID Reader–A Step Toward the Internet of Things
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go into the manufacturing business itself. It raised $18.5 million in venture capital and brought out the pizza-box-sized Mercury4 and Mercury5 readers.
Wal-Mart did, in fact, buy many of the devices for its distribution centers (DCs, in the lingo). “I installed a few of them myself, working overnight in these big DCs in the middle of Texas where it was 100 degrees even at midnight,” Pappu recounts. “But it was great experience. Part of the challenge of RFID is to make this stuff disappear into the world, so that you never see it again. You only learn how to do that by getting your hands dirty.”
Despite Wal-Mart’s leadership, however, the supply chain market has evolved very slowly. Many companies still get most of the product-tracking functionality they need from barcodes, says Pappu. On top of that, RFID tags haven’t come down in price enough to make tagging every item economical. To stay alive, ThingMagic needed to explore other markets.
That led to the creation of the Mercury5e in 2007. The device put all of the processing power and software needed to communicate with RFID tags into a credit-card-sized box that’s small enough to be embedded inside other devices. Lexmark, for example, has built the M5e into a laser printer, where it’s used to program RFID tags on paper with peel-off shipping labels, and Ford and DeWalt are using it for “Tool Link,” a system that tallies every RFID-tagged tool that workmen put into the beds of their pickups.
Earlier this month, ThingMagic announced that it had raised another $9.5 million to develop more applications for the M5e. The Astra is one of those applications—and it finally brings the company back to a focus on tracking discrete things in human-scale environments rather than vast distribution centers.
The technology “has come full circle,” says Pappu. “To create the Internet of things we need to make it simple to deploy this stuff. The Astra is 10 by 10 [inches]. What took several hours of union labor to install now takes a few minutes. It allows this stuff to disappear into the wall.”
ThingMagic hopes that the Astra, which costs $995 per unit and can read nearly 200 tags per second from a distance of up to 30 feet, will be used in places like healthcare facilities, IT-heavy offices, or airports, where it could help track everything from documents to medical equipment to baggage.
Pappu insists that ThingMagic hasn’t abandoned its distribution-center customers. “The supply chain market is huge, and success there would guarantee success for the company,” he says. “But it requires many things, including a critical mass of deployment, and somebody has to pay for that. So we’re pursuing the Internet of things goal. If an application popped up where we could use some of our new stuff in the supply chain market, we absolutely would go after that. But the new round of funding is to drive adoption of our stuff in other places.”
Which Pappu doesn’t sound too upset about, truth be told. Before I left, he walked me through his Powerpoint slides about the reality search engine, and his spiel was sufficiently impassioned and provocative to quote at length:
“If you take space and divide it up into various zones, space in this region—the couple of meters around you—is manipulatory space. Stuff you can walk to, up to say 30 meters away, is ambulatory space. Then there’s vista space—as far as you can see. Then there’s the stuff that Google searches very well, which is extrasensory space: libraries across the world, hard drives.
“But there’s very little search that you can do today in the manipulatory, ambulatory, and vista spaces. Google 411 is the closest that you can come, and it’s really in vista space. But most of us spend all our time in the manipulatory and ambulatory space. If you want to search-enable the physical world between you and the horizon, you need to take this technology and make it disappear into these spaces. The Ford technology is a perfect example, where you have a space of several cubic feet that’s traveling with you, and you’re asking the question, ‘Do I have all the stuff I need with me now?’ We firmly believe that making RFID smaller and more efficient and getting it to disappear into the environment enables different kinds of reality search engines.”
The other half of the reality search equation, of course, is making sure that every item in Pappu’s manipulatory and ambulatory space has an RFID tag to search—but that’s becoming less of an obstacle, now that companies like Alien, TI, and Impinj gradually lower the costs into the range of 10 to 15 cents per tag. The Internet of things may indeed be coming fast—with help, on the search side, from a bit of ThingMagic.
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