Impinj Announces Commercial Availability of Its xArray UHF Reader

By Claire Swedberg

The device, now being offered by multiple solution providers, is designed to provide always-on inventory monitoring and real-time location data about tagged items, without the high cost of an active RFID system.

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Seattle-based RFID company Impinj today announced the full commercial availability of its new xArray reader, designed to track the locations of items or individuals in real time via passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Gen 2 RFID tags. With its integrated antenna, the xArray reader can enable users to track the locations of tagged items or people within about 1.5 meters (4.9 feet), similarly to a traditional real-time location systems (RTLS)—but at considerably less cost, since passive UHF RFID tags are less expensive than the battery-powered active tags. Impinj calls the xArray device a gateway, because it includes a reader and an antenna, as well as software to identify the location from which a tag is read.

Impinj has established at least 30 certified partners to resell the xArray around the world, in some cases with their own RFID software. Many of these partners have already developed complete solutions that are in trial deployments or in use by customers. This past spring, Impinj embarked on an early limited release of the xArray, providing the units to a select group of systems integrators and end users to test and install.

The xArray reader

Eighteen months ago, Impinj publicly unveiled the xArray (see Impinj Unveils New UHF Readers for RTLS Applications, Embedding in Other Devices), and demonstrated the device at last year’s RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibit, where the xArray impressed the RFID Journal Award judges (see Best in Show: RFID Gets xArray Vision). Since then, several retailers, health-care facilities, manufacturers and logistics providers have been testing and using the xArray at their facilities, in conjunction with software from Impinj-certified partners. (None of these users were willing to be named.)

The xArray is an 18-inch-square device with a built-in Impinj reader, which is an enhanced version of the Speedway Revolution R420 reader, with an integrated antenna array, explains Craig Cotton, Impinj’s VP of product marketing. Although similar to the R420 reader, he says—including support for a Power-over-—Ethernet connection—the xArray has a more powerful processor and greater memory.

If installed at a 15-foot height, the xArray creates a 40-foot diameter read field, within which it creates eight sectors (each subdivided into six more read zones), as well as another read field layer immediately below the antenna, with a 10-foot diameter, that is also divided into zones—in this case, four. Altogether, the reader captures the locations of tags within 52 horizontal and vertical read zones via beam steering—an RF beam that cycles around the xArray’s 52 zones.

Users can then employ a solution that would typically provide an electronic map of their facility, and the xArray location data would indicate where on that map each tagged item is located. The solution could also include an alerting system that would notify users if, for example, a tagged item or person was not where it should be, a specific type of product was depleted on a store shelf, or a component used in manufacturing needed to be replenished in order to ensure that the manufacturing process was not delayed.

The new readers, priced at $3,300 apiece, are available through a subset of Impinj’s reseller partners that have completed some Impinj training to become certified xArray channel partners. Many are already developing and offering solutions, including American RFID Solutions and InSync Software.

In addition, Impinj has formed what it calls select partnerships with several companies to further expedite the xArray reader’s adoption. Nofilis, one of those select partners, has modified its CrossTalk software to leverage the data generated by an xArray device, according to Martin Dobler, the company’s CTO, and is offering CrossTalk to Impinj-certified partners that may then incorporate the software into the xArray solutions they provide to their own customers. The goal is to enable these Impinj-certified partners to go to market with xArray more quickly, instead of having to develop their own software to support the new device.

Impinj’s Craig Cotton

Nofilis is also offering what it calls the CrossTalk xArray Test Package. The test package, available free of charge, is designed for proof-of-concept deployments and consists of pre-configured CrossTalk software that companies can use in conjunction with one or multiple xArray readers to map tag locations in real time. What’s more, the system can identify the direction in which tags are moving—for instance, through a portal.

Brand and retail marketing solutions firm inMotion released its latest content-management system (CMS) software platform, known as inMotion Ui7, in August 2014, which accommodates read data culled from xArray readers. InMotion provides software solutions that maximize theater, says Frederick Bleckmann, the company’s VP of development. The RFID-, beacon- or other technology-based solutions “enable customers to explore products and brands,” he says. The systems are used to bring visibility to brands regarding what consumers do around their displays, as well as provide content related to products on display. “Our long-term relationship with Impinj has grown to a partnership with the xArray. The focus is bringing RFID-based data to brands within the brick-and-mortar retail environment.” Several of inMotion’s customers are already using a total of 12 xArray devices, he notes.

Bleckmann says the gateway “is a more effective tool” than traditional UHF RFID readers “for less investment,” because it doesn’t require that antennas be mounted separately from the reader and then be adjusted to achieve the best read accuracy for that specific environment. Instead, he adds, an xArray gateway can be up and running without a great deal of time required for installation. According to Bleckmann, inMotion, Impinj, Creativesystems and UHF inlay manufacturer Smartrac will be demonstrating the xArray at this year’s National Retail Federation (NRF) Big Show convention, being held in January 2015.

Creativesystems, another of Impinj’s select partners, had added support for the xArray to its Creativeretail software—a cloud-based platform that enables retailers to track the locations of tagged goods and view the data using an app on an iOS device. João Vilaça, Creativesystems’ CEO, says many of its customers have begun testing or permanently deploying the xArray reader in conjunction with Creativeretail, typically installing the gateways at locations where tracking the movements of goods is especially useful, as well as using handheld readers at other locations, such as in the back room or other sections of a store. In most cases, Vilaça says, retailers are going to want a solution that combines the xArray and handheld readers. The xArray allows users to know the movement history of goods, in order to help with business analytics and shrinkage reduction. However, he adds, handhelds may be more convenient for store employees to use in certain scenarios, such as identifying goods moving from one location on the sales floor to another.

Nonetheless, the xArray was designed to reduce—if not eliminate—the need for handheld devices, and to allow store managers to know, in real time, which goods are mis-shelved or need to be reordered, without requiring the sales staff to walk around the store while carrying handheld readers. The xArray device also provides information that has not been available with traditional UHF RFID solutions, Cotton reports. Retailers that have tested the xArray with software from an Impinj partner, he says, “are seeing data from the system they’ve never seen before”—for instance, how often shoppers try on a particular garment in a dressing room.

Most retailers who have tested or installed the xArray reader to date had already used conventional EPC Gen 2 RFID readers for inventory management, he says, but the resulting data in those cases is limited, since they require a worker to walk through the store with a handheld unit. With handheld inventory counts, the store knows what inventory it has onsite at that time, but the xArray’s RTLS functionality provides considerably more. For instance, the retailer knows not only where a tagged item is at a particular moment, but also where it has been—for instance, being taken into a dressing room, but not being sold. If a shopper buys a product that is on display at several locations within the store, the management knows from which display the item originated.

For retailers already using RFID with handheld readers, Cotton adds, there will be a period of adjustment as they see the benefits that xArray’s “always on” capabilities can bring to their company.

That may not be the case for health-care facilities that rarely use passive RFID solutions. At hospitals and other such facilities, management’s concern is often centered on locating assets quickly, as well as on identifying the movements of patients and personnel, in order to improve efficiency and patient throughput. To accomplish this goal, hospitals have typically relied on RTLS solutions involving active RFID tags. The active RFID tags can be very expensive, Cotton says, and do not always provide the read accuracy and reliability that users want, according to systems integrators who have discussed the technology with Impinj.

In the manufacturing sector, factories that are currently employing active tags or have set up RFID reading portals for periodic read events can now gain real-time location data regarding work-in-progress or warehouse management. Nofilis indicates that its manufacturer customers are interested in using the xArray gateway to locate materials and goods in real time, and to identify the direction of movement within portal environments.