August 1, 2006
vertical focus | Consumer Goods

Coming soon to a store near you?

coming soon to a store near you?

An innovative new tracking technology may not be able to match RFID's blazing-fast scanning speeds, but it does promise to transform the retail shopping experience.

By John R. Johnson

Imagine walking into Best Buy to pick out a digital camera. As you enter the camera aisle, you swipe your customer loyalty card through a nearby reader and don a set of headphones. Instantly, an in-aisle monitor leaps to life, displaying a wealth of product information—everything from customer reviews and information on rebates and product availability to recommendations for accessories—all in your language of choice.

It may sound far-fetched, but that day could be closer than you think—perhaps just 18 months away. Right now, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' P1902.1 Working Group is investigating an exciting new auto ID technology that could make it all possible. We're not talking RFID, but about a gem of a technology called RuBee that's attracting plenty of buzz in the auto ID world. Some even say RuBee stands to give RFID a run for its money— although promoters of the technology say it's meant to complement RFID, not replace it.

RuBee vs. RFID
What differentiates RuBee from RFID is its composition. While a traditional 900MHz RFID tag is 99.99 percent radio signal and 0.01 magnetic/inductive, RuBee is just the opposite. And because it doesn't rely on radio signals, RuBee is unaffected by the liquids and metals that bedevil RFID tags (RuBee tags can be used underwater and underground). Their ability to function in the presence of steel makes them suitable for use on store shelves and shopping carts, which explains why many believe they'll prove ideal for item-level tagging. It's easy to see why retailers and manufacturers of high-end goods like electronics have high hopes for the technology.

Still, RuBee's promoters insist that it's not intended to supplant RFID. In fact, they see very little overlap in applications for the two technologies. In their view, RFID would still be the technology of choice where high-volume scanning is required. (RuBee can only handle about 10 reads per second. RFID UHF, by comparison, can handle 150 to 200 reads.) RuBee, on the other hand, might prove to be the ideal solution for tagging individual items of high-end merchandise.

"RuBee is a visibility tool, whereas RFID is a tracking tool," says John Stevens, chair of the IEEE's P1902.1 Working Group and chairman of Visible Assets Inc., which is marketing RuBee technology. "If you've got 50 items on a conveyor that need to be read in under a second, RFID will work," he says. "But if you have a product where you want access to internal records inside a warehouse and [want to] find out about its history from the day it was born ... that's visibility."

As for pricing, Stevens says there is no significant price difference between RuBee and traditional RFID. While RuBee's infrastructure costs can be significantly lower than RFID's, tag costs can be higher, depending on how much intelligence is built into the tag.

Interactive shopping
Though potential applications range from implantable medical devices to tracking exotic animals, many believe the real promise of RuBee technology lies in its ability to help create the ultimate "smart store"—a store where there is rarely an out-of-stock, where associates have electronic access to products under "lock and key," and where consumer loyalty cards allow customers to interact with products in a way that's not possible today. Smart stores would provide a perfect setting for RuBee, says Tim Baldwin, CEO of Visible Retail, a division of Visible Assets. "Not only does the retailer know that somebody is interacting with that product, but the customer interacting with it will be able to get information that is more context-relevant to them."

Thepossibilities haven't been lost on retailers. Already, companies like Best Buy and U.K.-based Tesco are examining the technology, with the hope of launching truly interactive "future stores" within the next 18 months, says Pete Abell, a veteran RFID analyst with IDC's Manufacturing Insights.

Asidefrom its ability to boost customer loyalty, RuBee may benefit manufacturers and retailers by reducing the likelihood of lost sales due to stock-outs. It may also play a big role in loss prevention efforts. For example, with RuBee, stores would no longer use the traditional locks and keys to control access to highvalue items. Instead, store associates would use smart badges to gain electronic access to secure storage areas. Those smart badges would provide retailers with a precise record of when the storage area was opened, the exact time a product left the secured area, and which associate pulled it out.

Goods studded with RuBees
Manufacturers are beginning to show some interest too. This summer, a major appliance manufacturer began to embed RuBee chips into one of its product lines to assure cradle-to-grave visibility for its products. Abell reports that technology providers like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Sony, Panasonic, Motorola and NCR are all actively testing RuBee.

Epson Electronics America has signed on to produce silicon for Visible Assets' RuBee tags. But the manufacturer has much more planned than just producing tags. The company could very well end up embedding RuBee in its own products, such as watches and printers.

"Our other divisions are very excited about the technology," says David Lamar, general manager of the IC Business Unit at Epson Electronics. "I don't want to limit our enthusiasm and our participation by saying we're just going to be the silicon supplier."

Although HP has no immediate plans to embed RuBee tags into its products, it is actively studying the technology. "We are in the very early stages of our investigation and we're interested in many different forms of RF technologies for different applications, and RuBee is one of them," says Salil Pradhan, chief technologist for RFID at HP. However, he stopped short of saying that HP would put RuBee chips in its products, saying it is "way too early" to talk of such decisions.

Not everyone agrees that it's too early to think about RuBee. RuBee networks are already being deployed in commercial applications, including smart shelves for high-value medical devices in hospitals and operating rooms, in-store and warehouse shelves for inventory tracking, and a variety of agricultural visibility networks. But it appears that the market potential has barely been tapped.

"I see it obviously doing very well in the healthcare market," says Abell. "And when you think about retailers like Best Buy, it is ideal for all of the product categories they carry."

So the next time you shop for an iPod, a cell phone, a printer or a plasma TV, you might not need to flag down a clerk. You may be able to get all the information you want from a tiny RuBee chip ... and it won't pressure you to buy an extended care warranty.

About the Author

John R. Johnson
John Johnson joined the DC Velocity team in March 2004. A veteran business journalist, John has over a dozen years of experience covering the supply chain field, including time as chief editor of Warehousing Management. In addition, he has covered the venture capital community and previously was a sports reporter covering professional and collegiate sports in the Boston area. John served as senior editor and chief editor of DC Velocity until April 2008.

More articles by John R. Johnson

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