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RFID’s Forgotten Man

The RFID leader that time virtually forgot
By Mark Roberti
Apr 01, 2006—David Brock, principal research scientist at the MIT Laboratory for Manufacturing Productivity, is almost unknown in the world of radio frequency identification. Yet it was Brock who came up with the concept of embedding tags in physical objects to link them to the Internet as well as for the Electronic Product Code concept.

From 1989 to 1996, Brock worked on a Lockheed Martin project called SIMNET, which networked 10,000 Silicon Graphics servers to create a simulation of the Earth for military purposes. One big problem with SIMNET was there was no data input from the real world. “It was all virtual,” says Brock, “and I thought what you really need is a system architecture that lets you put information from the real world into the simulation.”

MIT's David Brock
He came up with the idea of using simple RFID tags with just a serial number and then linking them to a database. He proposed a numbering scheme called the Electronic Product Code and a complete infrastructure for how information about tagged objects could be stored in Internet databases and retrieved. He and colleague Sanjay Sarma founded the Distributed Interactive Systems Center (DISC) to begin doing applied research on the concept. Brock and Sarma met a Procter & Gamble (P&G) brand manager named Kevin Ashton, who was trying to find a way to use low-cost RFID to reduce out-of-stocks. Ashton convinced P&G, Gillette and the Uniform Code Council (now GS1) to put up funding for their research. DISC was renamed the Auto-ID Center, which later became the Auto-ID Labs.

The rest is history—except Brock’s role isn’t a well-known part of it. His background was in artificial intelligence and robotics. When he got funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for another project related to surgical robots, he decided to split his time between work on the DARPA project and the Auto-ID Center. Over time, his original vision of a system for tracking items with ubiquitous RFID tags and networking technology was replaced by a more commercial approach that served the business needs of the companies that backed the Auto-ID Center.

Brock switched to his primary interest, the data infrastructure. He now heads the MIT Data Center, where he’s creating a new software language that would enable computers to share data in any format. If his M language catches on, Brock could still wind up a household name.
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