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Alien Technology Seen in Chicago

At a conference this week, the world finally got to see the startups low-cost RFID tags in action.
Sep 25, 2002Sept. 24, 2002 -- For more than a year, Alien Technology, a Morgan Hill, Calif., startup, has been getting a lot of press based on its ability to mass produce microchips the size of a grain of pepper for low-cost RFID tags. At the Frontline Solutions show in Chicago this week, many of the first-day speakers dismissed the notion that the company could create an RFID tag that costs less than ten cents. On Tuesday, Alien finally showed off its product and outlined its pricing plans.

Alien executives demonstrated a passive 915 MHz RFID tag that is based on the Auto-ID Center's specifications, as well as passive and active tags that operate at 2.45 GHz and readers that can read all of the tags. Alien had readers set up at its booth on the show floor, and executives showed how they could read a 915 MHz tag on a package of Gillette Mach III razors from more than 12 feet. They also demonstrated how a tag on the top of a can of Maxwell House Coffee could be read, even when the metal bottom of the can was facing the reader.

The tag could be read because the antenna is designed to "couple" with the can, in effect turning the can into part of the antenna. Many people have said that metal objects interfere with RF signals, making metal objects hard or impossible to tag. The read range on the can was short -- only a few feet -- but the tag was read consistently.

"We now can demonstrate that we have the longest read range of product on the market," Jeff Jacobsen, Alien's senior vice president of new market development told RFID Journal. "We have the fastest anti-collision algorithm. Nobody out there can touch us."

Jacobsen said that Alien sold 300,000 tags to the Auto-ID Center's field test for 20 cents a piece. The company plans to drop the price by 2 cents per quarter, which means that by the time the Auto-ID Center launches its technology late next year, the tags would cost about ten cents. But strategic partners buying hundreds of millions of tags may get them for that price before then.

Alien also showed off a tiny RFID strap, a chip in a bow tie-like band that could be attached to an antenna printed with conductive ink. Alien is not focusing on the conductive ink antenna yet, because it would require manufacturers to attached the strap holding the chip during the manufacturing process.

But Alien envisions the ink being mixed with regular packaging ink to create antennas on boxes of cereal and other disposable packaging. It's an important technology because packaging can't be recycled if it has a large copper antenna attached to it.

Jacobsen says that within two years, Alien could be selling the RFID straps to packaging companies for about two cents if they are buying tens of millions per year. "With these things you could literally tag a pack of chewing gum," he said.

Alien plans to start offering demonstration kits with its tags and readers sometime next month. The company still needs to land its first customer and show that its technology can work in a real-world deployment. Stav Prodromou, the company's new CEO, is confident that Alien will prove the skeptics wrong.

"It's natural that people are skeptical," he says. "We've only just begun to show people what we can do."
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