Will Wireless Rewrite the RFID Landscape?

 
 
By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 2004-10-13
 
 
 

Will Wireless Rewrite the RFID Landscape?


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 hes 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 its 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.

To read why the RFID tag shortage is a blessing in disguise, click here.

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 doesnt expect that to be a problem because of the chip price. He doesnt 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 companys 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 stores database.

To read more about whether RFID privacy fears are overblown, click here.

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.

Its 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, thats a lot more than the 20- to 30-foot range claimed by CheckPoint.

Next page: Distance is what is causing todays RFID problems.

Not Going the Distance


Lahore says the distance limitations are precisely what will cause the current RFID efforts to stumble. "Lets say that magically we somehow have item-level tagging today. Right now, it wouldnt help [retail IT] that much. Its so far away from the reader that it doesnt do any good," he said. "The range for a passive RFID is so short that you simply cant have readers close enough to all of our tagged items. The current RFID tags dont transmit very well at all."

To read more about practical and technological hurdles that self-checkout faces, click here.

Wouldnt such devices be highly susceptible to in-store tampering? Yes, which is why Lahore wants so many video cameras