February 21, 2006 2:45 PM PST

RFID tweaked for item-level tracking

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) specialist Impinj has devised a way to make it easier for manufacturers and stores to put RFID tags on shirts, CDs and other consumer items, a move that should please corporations but could raise the hackles of privacy advocates.

The company has extended the reach of its GrandPrix RFID product suite with a new set of tags. GrandPrix consists of a reader, RFID tags and software. The tags used in the current GrandPrix suite are designed to go on pallets and crates. The tags--which rely on electromagnetic propagation for communication--can be read about 30 feet away. The antenna's length is about 3.5 inches.

RFID tag

"It is a fairly big thing to put on a tube of toothpaste," said Impinj CEO Bill Colleran.

The new tags for individual products sport smaller antennas and rely on the same processor but use magnetic coupling to communicate. As a result, the tags cost less and are shorter, measuring as small as 9 millimeters. The tag reader can be only about 3 feet away. "You don't want to be ringing up items in the next counter," Colleran said.

Privacy remains a concern with the new tags, he said. Because each tag contains a unique number, the tags essentially can act as serial numbers. The GrandPrix suite, however, is based around the Gen 2 RFID standard and thus can be disabled at the point of sale. Retailers have to merely send an item through a second scan to put the tag on the fritz.

Several consumer advocacy groups have protested the use of RFID tags on individual items and have forced some retailers to curb trials. Many fear that corporations, law enforcement agencies or governments will eventually use the tags to track their movements or purchases. Some critics also have pointed out that one of the chief benefits of RFID--lower operational costs for manufacturers and retailers--is not exactly a cause close to the hearts of many consumers.

But even with the public outcry, item-level tags like this will likely begin to show up in a noticeable way in 2007. The Food and Drug Administration has issued a soft mandate that pharmaceutical manufacturers start placing RFID tags on their products by January 2007 to ensure authenticity.

Florida has passed a law requiring tagging on pharmaceuticals in 2007 as well. California is debating a similar law.

Retailers are interested in adopting the technology and conducting trials. Tagging individual items could cut down on DVD and CD theft. It could also help stocking at clothing retailers; employees with readers could scan shelves to find items stocked in the wrong place, or shirts picked up by consumers in one part of the store and later shoved onto a random shelf.

Building an infrastructure will take time, however. Impinj, cofounded by Caltech professor and tech luminary Carver Mead, designs the chips that go into the tag but doesn't manufacture the chips, tags or antennas. Third parties perform these tasks.

See more CNET content tagged:
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RFID is hard enough for the retailers to make work
RFID "Readers" generally need to be within 1'-3' to get a good read (for passive tags) and most of today's tags have issues with absorption from liquids (radio waves don't do well in water, for example) as well as with metal, interfering EM fields, directionality, etc., etc. That's why some retailers have had trouble getting over 85% or so accuracy at high read rates (ie on high speed conveyors).

Frankly, it would be a hell of a lot easier just to pick up your discarded grocery receipt-print-out than to get you to go through an RFID "portal" so someone could read your grocery RFID tags. If they're that close, they can see what you got anyway!

OTOH, I've seen an RFID tag combined with a temperature and vacuum sensor that would tell the checkout that your vacuum-sealed food had gone out of temperature range or that the vacuum seal had been broken and to not sell you the damaged item.

The bottom line is that, sure, responsible efforts need to be made to ensure security (preventing theves from changing the price of an item, for example) and the later privacy of consumers. But there are no black helicopters involved here. I remember the same sorts of hysteria when the barcode was introduced and even political cartoons depicting 1984-esque citizens with barcodes on their foreheads.... RFID has a long way to go to be viable for SKU/item level use (though it has many other good ROI uses right now). For the next couple of years at least, it's still going to be a carton or skid-level technology (not talking about the DOD applications or other areas).

- Patrick Seaman
patrickseaman.com
Posted by Patrick Seaman (1 comment )
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