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."
While its more cautious counterparts are still testing the RFID waters, Metro Group is taking the plunge. The German retailer is investing heavily in an RFID system for tracking individual high-value garments and accessories. Metro says it's confident it will see a payback on the technology once it begins using the system. "We anticipate a significant return on investment for tagging high-value garments," says Dr. Gerd Wolfram, managing director, MGI Metro Group Information Technology.
The retailer has announced that it will co-develop the solution with Seattle-based Impinj, which will rely on its GrandPrix UHF RFID solution to provide real-time visibility into Metro's retail garment operations. This platform comprises Impinj's UHF Gen 2 Speedway readers with application-specific near-field antennas and item-level tags powered by Impinj's Monza UHF Gen 2 silicon chips. "Given Impinj's pioneering work in developing UHF Gen 2 RFID solutions, particularly for item-level tagging, and given Metro's leading role in adopting RFID to improve and streamline retail operations," says Wolfram, "it is only natural that we work together to develop a UHF RFID solution for tagging garments."
Item-level tagging is catching on with European retailers. Reno, Europe's second-largest shoe retailer, plans to have RFID technology in place at 700 stores in six countries by the end of this month. And Marks & Spencer says it has plans to tag every piece of apparel it sells.