October 13, 2004

Will Wireless Rewrite the RFID Landscape?

By Evan Schuman, eWEEK

Updated: With dramatically greater range and faster deployment—and with item-level tagging possible by next year—one former Boeing engineer thinks wireless may solve retail RFID headaches.

Claiming the wireless ability to read tags that are literally hundreds of meters away, a retired Boeing engineer thinks he can deliver item-level tagging years faster than can conventional RFID and with technology that is much more readily available.

The claim is an appealing one for an industry that has fast-and-then-faster requirements for RFID deployment, but is also dogged by low read accuracy, tag shortages and item-level deployments that seem to be perpetually five years away.

The engineer, Henry Lahore, spent years at Boeing developing wireless systems for the Pentagon, often using classified technology. Some of those wireless techniques have now been declassified, allowing Lahore to launch RespectRFID Systems LLC , with its RespectRFID product. (Respect stands for RFID Enhanced System for Preventing Employee and Customer Theft.)

Lahore has a provisional patent application filed, but is being cautious in how many of the technical details he's willing to discuss. That caution makes it difficult to determine precisely how unique his wireless concept is—other vendors have already unveiled wireless RFID systems, including CheckPoint Software Technologies and Sensormatic—and whether it's feasible.

But this much is known: RespectRFID operates at 2.4GHz and claims global acceptance for countries that "permit microwave ovens." A key part of the package are lots of integrated ordinary video cameras to bolster the anti-theft and tamper-proof capabilities.

RespectRFID will use Wi-Fi frequencies, but not Wi-Fi standards, Lahore said. The new approach will replace passive UHF EPC tags with tags that weigh either 3 grams or 5 grams and that have 1.5-inch-long very thin toothpick-like antennae. The 3-gram chips will have enough battery power to run for two years, he said, while the 5-gram version will be able to function on its own power for about 10 years.

Although cold temperatures for perishable storage could shorten that battery lifespan, Lahore doesn't expect that to be a problem because of the chip price. He doesn't see the per-tag price dropping below 20 cents, which pretty much limits the tags to products selling for more than $20. But if volume gets high enough, those prices could potentially drop much lower.

The company's argument is that the ability to use lower-cost antennae and transceivers will offset the higher per-tag cost.

RespectRFID is also designed to minimize privacy concerns. The tags are programmed to become unreadable as soon as the purchase is completed, although store personnel can change that setting. Unlike other RFID approaches, the RespectRFID tags will not house information that would identify the product, store or purchase date, Lahore said. It will only have an ID number that is identifiable only with the store's database.

In a novel approach, Lahore plans on using the sales contract language to legally prevent stores from immediately displaying ads based on customer preferences. That same contract language will also be used to prevent stores from tracking customers after they leave the store, he said.

It's that range difference that—if true—sets RespectRFID apart from its rivals. Lahore said in an eWEEK.com interview that the readers could "typically" work at 100 meters (roughly 300 feet), while his Web site claims "hundreds of meters" of range. Either way, says Gartner Principal Analyst Jeff Woods, that's a lot more than the 20- to 30-foot range claimed by CheckPoint.

Lahore says the distance limitations are precisely what will cause the current RFID efforts to stumble. "Let's say that magically we somehow have item-level tagging today. Right now, it wouldn't help [retail IT] that much. It's so far away from the reader that it doesn't do any good," he said. "The range for a passive RFID is so short that you simply can't have readers close enough to all of our tagged items. The current RFID tags don't transmit very well at all."

Wouldn't such devices be highly susceptible to in-store tampering? Yes, which is why Lahore wants so many video cameras—about one every 150 feet—integrated into the system. "Every tagged item has a unique number on it, and each item transmits its unique number approximately every 5 seconds," he said. "I'm monitoring every tag in the store. If one fails to report for its census, I'm going to focus the camera on that area." The camera would actually show the images from 5 to 10 seconds earlier, to depict the action at the instant the signal was interfered with.

Gartner's Woods, who specializes in RFID issues, said the differentiating part of Lahore's claims involve the approach to signal processing at much lower power levels.

Another RFID expert—Hassanali Namazi, the CEO of Intelletto Technologies in Canada, and who has no involvement with RespectRFID—reviewed some of Lahore's specs. "I think there is a good possibility that this is not entirely hype," he concluded.

Namazi was most intrigued by the proposed use of the microwave segment. "The microwave frequency range does have advantages. For example, it allows the user to overcome the obstacle of having to use an active RFID tag to gain read distance," he said. "It is a technique called backscattering, in which the transponder will simply reflect back the energy as it receives it from the RFID reader. To my understanding, this technique does not eliminate the need for a battery in the tag for long-range reads, but it reduces the battery usage and therefore lengthens the battery life."

Another RFID expert is Mark Gaynor, an assistant professor in the Information Systems department at Boston University. Gaynor applauds the wireless approach but cautions that this kind of wireless RFID implementation may have usage limits, as Lahore has conceded with his "costing more than $20" comment.

"I have a very flexible definition of RFID and would even call the Mars land rover a big RFID tag. I also see wide applications for these more expensive active tags. We are working with a new technology at BU called 'smartdust,' which is next-generation RFID technology with a CPU, radio and sensors," Gaynor said.

"But I see a large line between the applications for active versus passive," Gaynor added. "Adding the power costs a lot and makes the whole package much more complex. I can never see an active tag on a pair of shoes, but can see one on a flat TV where the tag would have a sensor to detect if it has been dropped."

Gaynor pointed to the new European currency as another example where a battery-powered RFID chip wouldn't likely work. "Some applications will drive the technology choice. For example, Euros will have RFID tags embedded within them. I just can't see an active tag for this. Or smart cards that control access because you want the card to be close to the reader."