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A Network for Everyone

The Auto-ID Labs at MIT is working to create open standards that will facilitate the adoption of RFID.
By Stephen Miles
Oct 01, 2006—People often ask what is happening at the MIT Auto-ID Labs, birthplace of the radio frequency identification specifications that were adopted by EPCglobal. We have been conducting research focused on developing the infrastructure for the "Internet of Things," the EPCglobal Network that will enable companies to track goods through the global supply chain and exchange data.

In particular, we have been modeling a variety of network use cases, provided by our sponsors, that demonstrate the need for lightweight, flexible standards that will enable data to be exchanged in a common format the world over. The labs hosted two events recently that highlighted the importance of such standards in building secure, scalable and reliable networks.

The Technology Day@MIT event brought together members of EPCglobal's board of governors, including senior executives from Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, Novartis, Procter & Gamble, Sony and Wal-Mart. The meeting featured presentations from MIT researchers, including their studies of Six Sigma supply chains.

Robert Metcalfe, MIT board member, Auto-ID Labs advisor and the inventor of Ethernet, opened the day with a chalk-and-talk lecture about the opportunities created by open standards. He explained how the TCP/IP protocol became the de facto standard for the Internet, rather than the proprietary LAN architecture, by enabling many different companies to develop applications for the Internet. He encouraged the group to develop flexible protocols that will facilitate the adoption of RFID, and to establish a core set of intellectual property-free specifications on which companies could build products.

After the morning's theoretical sessions, the group visited several laboratories at MIT to explore ways in which technologies could be used to connect lab research to the Internet of Things. At the Broad Institute, where cancer scientists are conducting the largest genetic-sequencing operation to better understand the human genome, researchers presented an idea to automate the manual lab-prep phase by tagging vials with RFID identifiers that would link to the information sources from which the samples originated.

The second event—the EPCglobal Software Action Group EPCIS Interoperability Workshop—was unique in that it brought together participants from North America, Europe, Japan and Korea to test final standards for exchanging data in a common machine-readable format based on EPC Information Services (EPCIS) specifications. EPCIS is an interface specification for accessing Electronic Product Code data over a network. The interoperability tests were important because the EPCIS specifications are entering "last call working draft" status prior to ratification and their publication by EPCglobal. Participants were successful in both transmitting data and querying EPCIS events between systems.

The MIT Auto-ID Labs research team is developing open-source EPCIS tools to enable companies to validate both EPCIS-compliant data streams and their ability to query across multiple platforms, including Linux, Java and .Net.

Stephen Miles is a research engineer at the MIT Auto-ID Labs and cochair of the RFID Academic Convocation. Illustration by Alex Nabaum.
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