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 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.

Ford F-150 Equipped with DeWalt and ThingMagic\'s \"Tool Link\" RFID Tracking SystemThat 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.

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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One response to “ThingMagic’s New RFID Reader–A Step Toward the Internet of Things”

  1. Using RFID to automate things will really transform the way business is working. What I am now looking for an RFID reader that could transmit information over the Internet. If the RFID is able to communicate over TCP IP, I think it is possible.