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Impinj Claims RFID Tag Direction Victory

RFID chip and reader manufacturer Impinj a few weeks ago announced an upgrade to the firmware that runs atop its Speedway RFID reader line. Among a number of enhancements and added features, one in particular has reportedly roused the enthusiasm of Speedway end users: tag direction detection.
Nov 05, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

November 5, 2007—RFID chip and reader manufacturer Impinj a few weeks ago announced an upgrade to the firmware that runs atop its Speedway RFID reader line. Among a number of enhancements and added features, one in particular has reportedly roused the enthusiasm of Speedway end users: tag direction detection. With the Octane 3.0 firmware (and a few other off-the-shelf components), Speedway readers can determine whether a tag is "coming" or "going" as it gets read.

"When we were at EPC Connection, it was just amazing the reaction people had," Impinj's RFID reader product line director Mendy Ouzillou told RFID Update, referring to the recent conference in Chicago. "We literally had people tell us this is the missing piece they have been waiting for."

The significance is two-fold. First, it turns out that determining tag direction is quite the technological challenge. Second, the ability to do so dramatically increases the value of the read data, opening the door for ever more powerful RFID applications.

A number of techniques to determine tag direction have been attempted in recent years. One involves motion sensors on a door to determine in which direction it opens. Another technique uses little GPS modules, and another is based on infrared. Still another uses expensive RFID reader antenna arrays. All these techniques are cumbersome, and none are very accurate, according to Ouzillou.

"So our approach was, OK, how can we take off-the-shelf RFID components, using anybody's tag silicon, and detect the direction of travel of that tag?" The result was a solution that requires a relatively simple apparatus: Speedway readers running the Octane 3.0 firmware; standard far-field reader antennas; and tags that are both Gen2 certified and interoperable (currently just those tags based on Impinj or NXP chips, according to EPCglobal's list of interoperable tags).

So why such an enthusiastic response from end users? Ouzillou said that there are countless applications, across all verticals, where the functionality can be used. It will allow retailers to determine if a tagged good is moving into or out of a store, or if it is being brought out to the store floor or returned to the backroom. In logistics, distribution centers can see if a pallet is arriving or leaving. Manufacturers can tell if expensive industrial tools moving past a storage room door are being checked in or out. Same concept with tagged files at a law, government, medical, or insurance office. Corporate security applications will know if an employee is walking out of the building with a piece of expensive electronic equipment, or walking back in.

"You can imagine that knowing the direction a tag is moving -- into or out of an area -- enables a whole new layer of applications that wasn't possible before," explained Ouzillou. "All of sudden the value of that data goes through the roof."

Currently Impinj's algorithm works for tag populations of up to ten. That is, if more than ten tags are passing the read point, the performance will suffer. However, Ouzillou emphasized that this is only the first release of the algorithm, and that it will improve in later iterations. "This is the first generation of this particular functionality, and in its present state it is already pretty powerful," he said. "The functionality, the breadth, and the applications for which this will be used is only going to grow over time."

He noted that the algorithm is intellectual property which Impinj expects will be a key differentiator for its readers. "We view this as a pretty significant competitive advantage," he said. "To the folks that claim all the RFID readers look the same, I guess I would have to beg to differ. There really is a large amount of difference between one reader and another." When asked about the likelihood of competing reader vendors eventually offering tag direction functionality, he acknowledged that it was certainly possible, but that Impinj's lead is significant. "Impinj has set the standard. Other people may figure it out, but Impinj has the leadership position."

Octane 3.0 is an alpha release currently, but Ouzillou predicted general release in about six weeks. It will come standard on new Speedway readers, and be available as a free upgrade to existing customers that are still within their one-year upgrade agreement.
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