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Tracient Moves Forward with Vision of RFID Convergence

RFID Update's series of profiles of innovative RFID companies continues with this look at Tracient Technologies, which is positioning itself for applications where mobile computers and multiple RFID technologies converge.
Apr 08, 2009This article was originally published by RFID Update.

April 8, 2009—The compelling convergence of computing and communications pulled Tracient Technologies' founder and CEO Grant Pugh into the RFID industry, and pushes his firm to develop products that sometimes seem slightly ahead of their time. Need a device that can read both NFC and HF RFID tags, and has WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity? Tracient has developed one. Thinking about RFID applications that run from cell phones? Talk to Tracient. Have solution requirements outside the mainstream markets targeted by most RFID vendors? New Zealand-based Tracient has experience there too, having provided equipment and expertise for mines, vineyards, petrochemical facilities, as well as for traditional markets including retail, manufacturing and libraries.

Pugh has always worked at the crossroads of emerging technologies and applications. He worked on smart card designs in the 1980s. In the 90s he solved a problem for a customer by pairing the short-range infrared connection on a PDA with the infrared connection on a cell phone so its field service workers could transmit data from the field -- well before today's ruggedized, integrated computer developed for that task were available. When Symbol Technologies (since acquired by Motorola) introduced the first ruggedized handheld computer to run the Palm OS, Pugh was an enthusiastic supporter and rode the growing mobile computing wave for years. His development efforts evolved into Blackbay, which today has offices in London, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore, and according to Pugh is the largest mobile solutions provider in the southern hemisphere.

"I absolutely see parallels to the PDA, mobile computing and wireless communications technologies of the 90s to the RFID industry today. That's why I bought Tracient," Pugh told RFID Update.

After working through the early years of mobile computing and communication development, Pugh left Blackbay as adoption -- and revenues -- were booming. Tracient was formed in March 2007 when Pugh bought out Blackbay's development team.

"That's where RFID comes into it," Pugh said. Blackbay was involved in mobile computer development projects with RFID reading requirements. "We learned a lot about how the workforce needs to use mobile computers. They need very simple tools that help them do their jobs -- so simple they don't know they are using them. We came up with the concept of 'Mobile RFID for everyone.' We want to make RFID products that are easy for everyone to use and can be used by workers without a lot of skill or training."

Tracient has seven employees and is headquartered in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is focused on finding markets and applications where mobile RFID can make life easier for workers or enhance experiences for customers, and is focused on creating the products to enable it.

"User requirements always come down to weight, ease of use and battery. The challenge is to incorporate technology seamlessly with workflow so it doesn't really add to work during the day," Pugh said. "A lot of field trials done with large, rugged computers show the business case for RFID, but then there are real-world deployment issues because a worker simply can't carry around a two-pound device all day long."

Tracient develops products designed to eliminate that and other limitations. Tracient's products are mostly sold through resellers and have been most commonly used for asset tracking applications, albeit not always in common environments. Air New Zealand is giving its frequent fliers RFID tags to stick on their cell phones and uses RFID gear from Tracient to speed these loyal customers through check-in. The company believes multiple RFID technologies and mobile computers will be used in single applications. To date this is more vision than reality, but Tracient is involved in some promising retail trials.

"We have a very strong belief that NFC, HF and UHF will converge at the front of the store," Pugh said. He envisions consumers using NFC-enabled cell phones and/or RFID loyalty cards as part of interactive marketing applications, with RFID being used for store operations such as inventory management and cycle counting.

Pugh thinks consumer-oriented RFID applications will ultimately be a major market. "We're excited about leveraging the cell phone as a handheld terminal to get more information about things, not necessarily only for payment," he said. "There are parallels to other cell phone technology developments. Bluetooth has been around cell phones for a long time, but hasn't been leveraged to the full extent. On the other hand, cell phone cameras were adopted very fast. I think RFID is somewhere between the two."

Tracient plans to be there if and when cell phone and other mobile RFID applications take hold. "The RFID industry underestimates how long it takes for the general population to adopt new technology. I think it will happen [for RFID], but not as fast as people think. The evolution of these technologies can be as long as 20 years."

He's seen it happen, first with smart cards, then with wireless mobile computers. In each case Pugh shifted his focus as adoption of the technologies was reaching new highs. So when mobile RFID applications go mainstream, will Pugh move on again?

"Yes. Because I've always been interested in the convergence of technologies. When they do converge, I tend to lose interest," Pugh said. "There's always another technology out there that makes life easier for people."

But for now, that technology is mobile RFID. "That's the space where we at Tracient see ourselves for some time."
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