U.K. Startup Debuts High-Performance Handheld EPC Gen 2 Readers

PeopleVox claims its new handheld EPC Gen 2 interrogators enable retailers to accurately read the tags of hundreds of closely packed garments in less than a minute.
Published: March 2, 2009

PeopleVox, a U.K.-based startup company focused on RFID solutions for retail and supply chain applications, has unveiled its first product—a series of lightweight handheld RFID interrogators that supports the EPC Gen 2 standard. Designed to help retailers accurately and quickly take inventory, the readers can scan up to 350 RFID-tagged garments within 40 seconds, the company reports, even if those garments are stacked or hanging tightly together on racks.

The PeopleVox PVX-50 is designed to be integrated with mobile handheld devices, such as Motorola‘s CA50 wireless bar-code scanner, a handheld with voice, text messaging and wireless bar-code scanning capabilities, all via wireless LAN. The PVX-50 snaps into the CA50, adding EPC Gen 2 functionality. Thus, retail clerks can employ the handhelds to regularly check inventory via RFID, as well as receive and send text messages, or make phone calls. A manager, for instance, could send a text message to clerks out on the floor, thereby alerting them to a new promotion, or directing them to move merchandise from one area of a shop to another.

PeopleVox’s PVX-100 RFID reader

The PeopleVox PVX-100 is a standalone RFID reader incorporating its own display screen, LED indicators and input buttons. The PVX-100 contains Bluetooth technology so it can easily communicate with a variety of other handheld devices, such as Compaq’s iPAQ and Motorola’s MC70, both of which combine the functions of a cell phone, PDA and computer. “There are lots of handhelds with Bluetooth already in use at retail stores,” says Jonathan Bellwood, PeopleVox’s managing director, “and the PVX-100 allows those retailers to easily add RFID capability to their existing systems.”

James Stafford, head of RFID adoption for Avery Dennison‘s information and brand management division, recently tested the PVX-50 to determine how well it would perform with a variety of the company’s EPC Gen 2 labels. Prior to joining Avery Dennison, Stafford initiated and headed up U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer‘s RFID program until 2007. Marks & Spencer has had an aggressive RFID initiative, which includes tagging individual clothing items (see Marks & Spencer to Tag Items at 120 Stores).

“Avery Dennison produces over 90 percent of RFID tags used in the apparel industry,” Stafford says, “and in relation to that, we are very interested in the equipment people need to use to read our tags, so we constantly review this type of equipment. There has been a gap of high-performance handheld devices for some time, and we are very excited to see this device from PeopleVox, which we hope will be the first of a new generation of handheld RFID readers with the necessary power.”

Avery Dennison tested the PeopleVox interrogators with a variety of its own tags, including the AD-824, on both hanging and stacked clothes, and has plans to conduct additional trials as well. “Testing is still in its early stages, so I don’t want to quote quantifiable results, but our initial tests are very encouraging,” Stafford explains. “A lot of readers we test fail to give that level of performance at this early stage. This is an exciting development, and will create new opportunities for RFID in the apparel market.”According to Bellwood, the PeopleVox reader can scan 350 items in less than 40 seconds, with 99.99 percent accuracy. “No one believes us when we say 100 percent, but it was 100 percent when we tested it,” he notes. “And we do need to account for tag defects.”

Both the PVX-50 and PVX-100 are lightweight, each weighing approximately 650 grams (22 ounces), and are ergonomically designed to prevent stress injuries and fatigue. The interrogators’ patent-pending antenna design has been balanced to control and limit the amount of power required—the system can operate at about a half watt of power—and the RF signal shuts off immediately when the reader’s button is released, thus extending battery life. The battery can last for three hours, PeopleVox reports, scanning approximately 5,000 items.

“What we have done with the pattern of the antenna field means that the operator doesn’t have to do a lot of rotation with the wrist,” says Andrew Dean, PeopleVox’s chief engineer, “because that can be very tiresome.” Before joining PeopleVox, Dean worked with Marks & Spencer, designing and helping the retailer implement a device that it now uses to conduct inventory twice weekly.

“The [PeopleVox] reader is really designed to read tags in a high-density environment, because the tags are packed together on hanging garments,” Dean explains. “Retailers want accurate reads, without requiring intervention, such as sliding the garments on the rack or angling them in a way to get a read. Our reader does not have a linear or circular antenna. Instead, it fires the field in exactly the right pattern to read the hanging tag. So even if you have stacked garments, you just have to go on the side [of the stack] to get the reads. The pattern created by the antenna is key.”

The PeopleVox interrogators can be tuned to support the different UHF frequencies dictated by regulations in North America, Europe and Asia. “We’ve made sure we can tune for the different global frequencies, and we’ve balanced the antenna field pattern for each,” Dean states. “We haven’t just produced a general antenna that has a broad enough field that can accommodate all the different frequencies.”

Both the PVX-50 and PVX-100 are available now for pilots and testing, and PeopleVox is currently planning several tests with retailers in Europe. The expected price for the units, the company reports, will range from €2,000 to €2,500 ($2,546 to $3,182).