May 1, 2007
Column | rfidwatch

The end of "hide and seek"

By DC Velocity Staff

The next time Jack Bauer and his colleagues on "24" want to track down insurgents suspected of plotting a nuclear attack, they might want to call ThingMagic. The Cambridge, Mass.-based RFID reader developer may have just what they're looking for. At RFID World in March, representatives from ThingMagic demonstrated an RFID application that could be used for locating people.

The application, which combines open architecture technology from Google Maps with RFID, wasn't developed as a crime-fighting tool. It was prompted by an emergency that forced the evacuation of ThingMagic's headquarters last summer. The company's staff was unexpectedly separated by several stairwell exits, making it hard to account for everyone. The incident—and some work on location awareness and asset-tracking applications with customers—led ThingMagic's engineering team to apply the company's Mercury reader technology to an internal application for the headquarters office.

"We integrated a system of Mercury5 readers and antennas, employee RFID badges on lanyards, and our office floor plan, with Google Maps," says ThingMagic CTO Yael Maguire. "This demonstration application allows us to track staff wearing the badges and record their location history within our office space. We are able to quickly locate every employee and guest in the event of another building emergency—or preparedness drill—that requires fast, full evacuation. But there are many other uses for an application like this, notably tracking assets."

The technology would seem a natural fit for public safety workers and first responders like firefighters. If firefighters were equipped with RFID badges, for example, their whereabouts could be tracked inside a building, provided RFID readers were in place.

ThingMagic has no immediate plans to market the system, which is in a pilot phase at its headquarters, where several Mercury5 readers have been installed. A half dozen employees have volunteered to incorporate UHF RFID tags into their access badges. Kevin Ashton, vice president of marketing for ThingMagic, stresses that the system isn't being employed to track the whereabouts of employees or their productivity.

"The technology is moving very fast and we wanted to show what you can do with RFID now,"says Ashton."A couple years ago it would have been very difficult to read a passive tag around somebody's neck as they moved through a building."

Despite the system's potential for use in security- and safety-related applications, there is bound to be fallout from privacy advocates who see the use of RFID in office buildings as a threat. "Any time we step forward and talk about tracking people, there will be concerns raised," notes Russ Klein, research director for Aberdeen Group's enabling technology practice.

"If you are trapped in a burning building, the last thing you want is privacy," says Ashton. "At the end of the day, privacy concerns are about what [information] is being captured and what it is being used for."

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