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Analog Angle Blog

Whatever Became of RFID?

As we turn the calendar to the New Year, it’s customary for bloggers (formerly known as columnists) and pundits to look back and cite what they think were the (choose one or more) best, worst, most innovative, most exciting products and developments of the past year, and attempt to predict the future. It’s also the season of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) where hope and hype combine to show us what the future may look like–or maybe not.

Rather than give you my subjective top-item listicle, I prefer to go another way (analog folks do tend to do that) and look at some of the more-hyped products and systems of a few years ago that seem to have not reached their hoped-for potential, or have largely disappeared from the market and attention. Sometimes you can learn a lot about the future by looking back, right?

The first one that comes to mind is RFID (radio frequency identification). Just a few years ago, the story was that RFID tags, both passive and active, would be everywhere. Some said that they would be so cheap and so useful that we’d find them on individual packages at the grocery, replacing the truly ubiquitous bar code. The real benefit would be with re-writable RFID tags which could have basic data added as the package was traveled, as a sort of personal record of the journey.

Image courtesy of Texas Instruments

Image courtesy of Texas Instruments

Some of the tags would have sensors for acceleration or temperature, and record if the package was dropped, or exposed to extreme temperatures (especially useful for foods such as fish, for example). From my selfish perspective, there would be lots of analog circuitry in the sensors, the RF link, and the RF readers—much of which could then be adapted to other applications, which is a normal consequence of a high-volume product development.

Did RFID everywhere happen, or at least make major advances? I’d say the answer is yes and no. On one side, we see RFID tags and connectivity used routinely in mass-transit passes, personal ID and keyless-entry systems, credit cards, “chipped” pets, warehouse pallets, and toll transponders. However, we are not seeing them on packages of toothpaste, nor does there seem any movement towards that level of application.

Why not? In retrospect, I think it’s easy to figure out: the cost of the tags and necessary support infrastructure (RFID readers, as a start) simply do not outweigh the benefits. The bar code is more than enough for retail and many other situations, and costs absolutely zero to print on a label. Even if you have to slap on a separate bar-code sticker, that’s still pretty cheap. There’s a well-developed system for assigning these UPC codes across the industry (or you can easily set up your own proprietary set) along with the many type of scanners to read the codes. For many situations, such as tracking that frozen fish and its temperature, the changes in the overall system are simply too costly and complicated.

My other example is 3D TV. About five years ago, that was the talk of CES and the industry. This enhanced video experience would be the next big thing in the home media center as well as movie theaters. So, does everyone have a 3D TV setup at home? Answer: hardly anyone does.

It seemed to me as if the industry was looking for “the next big thing” without any real sense of the genuine interest or demand from the customers. There were also issues of standards, how to watch, production costs of 3D, and more. There was no compelling reason to get 3D TV, and no one was saying it would change their viewing priorities. (Some sports events, with their “flying” cameras and sophisticated camera work, look almost 3D even though they not.)

Instead, TV images and consumers have gone in a two completely different directions: up to big-screen, high-resolution video, and down to small screens on smartphones. Neither is winning any 3D eyeballs. The only venue that is doing 3D with modest success is movie theaters, with special productions which have been specifically scripted and filmed for 3D effects.

Do you have any “favorites” among the many items which are being promoted as the next big thing, but will instead have a dedicated niche, but no more? Will the majority of smart watchers or fitness bands end up in the back of the drawer for most of their initially enthusiastic buyers?

References

The Long Life and Imminent Death of the Mag-Stripe Card

RFID Technology—A Technical Blunder?

The History of the Bar Code

Barcode History

Related

How the Analog Challenge Has Changed

Go active or stay passive?

Analog Angle

10 comments on “Whatever Became of RFID?

  1. JimALipman
    December 16, 2015

    The same reason any new TV technology that affects the viewing experience is much slower to be embraced than many manufacturers would like to believe – lack of suitable content for the new technology. How much 3D content is available anywhere – networks, streaming or other?


    Jim Lipman

  2. Victor Lorenzo
    December 18, 2015

    In the case of RFID we have been some movement with some adopters in Europe. Almost all bank/credit cards are now secured with dual interface HF RFID crypto chips. The magnetic band has been relegated to a secondary role, mainly for old toll machines, parkings and alike. I think they have made that step because dual interface modules are more reliable now than a decade before. The chip is embedded in the module and bonded to the contact interface (ISO7816) and directly connected to a primary antenna which is part of the same module. This antenna forms kind of a transformer with part of the antenna embedded in the plastic card. It has some minor drawbacks, but you don't have to worry anymore about using anisotropic adhesives or conductive gels for bonding the module antenna contacts to the plastic card's antenna. You could take a look at an implementation here: http://www.s-p-s.com/eboost-pay/.

    Some stores like Decathlon have adopted RFID too, thought at early deployment days they were having some issues (it hapened to me a couple times in a store near Barcelone).

    The biggest advantage I was expecting to see in action at 2015 was the printed electronics RFID tag, mainly for mass transportation, but we still have to wait.

     

  3. wiliamarthur
    December 22, 2015

    Did not know such technology even existed. Looking forward to it.

  4. Victor Lorenzo
    December 22, 2015

    The idea behind this technology is arrive to very cheap mass production using special inks with standard printing machines (offset, inkjet, etc).

    In the case of RFID, some proof of concept test runs have been conducted with limited success. In 2008 PolyIC (http://www.polyic.com) presented some samples (https://www.rfidjournal.com/purchase-access?type=Article&id=4248&r=%2Farticles%2Fview%3F4248).

    They are still active at present and are able to create several basic printed components (http://www.polyic.com/technology/devices.html).

    Thinfilm's technology is also very interesting (http://www.thinfilm.no/technology-innovation/manufacturing_3/).

  5. ippisl
    December 26, 2015

    Actually rfid use case you talk about: “item level rfid” is availble in a few large chains:

     

    Fast forward to 2015. A growing roster of US retailers have embarked on now item-level RFID programs, led by Macy's and American Apparel but with other action at Walmart, JC Penney, Kohl's, Dillard's and a few others, in various stages of deployment. JC Penney, for example, was on a path to have full RFID reading capabilities across all of its stores across almost all product categories a few years ago before abruptly bringing the program to a halt in 2013 amidst financial and cash flow issues.

    Now jumping on that item-level tagging bandwagon is Target stores”

    it's from “RFID and AIDC News: Target Stores Latest to Jump on Item-Level RFID Bandwagon” , if you want more info.

  6. Scott Elder
    December 26, 2015

    I wonder what impinj would have to say about this.  http://www.impinj.com

  7. Victor Lorenzo
    December 29, 2015

    Good point Scott. impinj is on the UHF tags market, but other more successful ones are NXP, Infineon and Sony in the HF tags and secured ID devices, especially for for banking and all sorts of access control systems. AMS and TI have something to say too, but mostly in the reader ICs or NFC transceivers side.

  8. Victor Lorenzo
    December 29, 2015

    We distinguish two major types of RFID, UHF and HF. HF RFID tags use near field interactions (magnetic coupling) while UHF RFID are based on far field interactions.

    I think HF RFID technologies have succeded in their primary purpose, mostly, but UHF RFID tag technologies have failed.

    Major interest from retailers and others is the ability to make a full inventory under almost any circumstance “in volume”, not individually as most HF RFID systems operate. For example, an arbitrary customer fills the shopping cart with all sort of items, placed at will, carelessly, and passes by the reader which collects their IDs and generates the bill. All pilot tests I knew off failed due to relaiability issues, the dependence on the spacial relation between reader and tag antennas and the effect of water, metal and other conductive media becomes very important when working at UHF.

    Nevertheless, any representative from any UHF RFID (tag/reader/solution) manufacturer will say the opposite of what I said here and argue with numbers (perhaps billions of silicon dies sold).

     

    The are other usage scenarios like luggage handling automation in some airports that have had a limited success, but codebar based solutions are still far more realiable than UHF.

     

  9. didymus7
    January 6, 2016

    Just wait a couple of years and you'll be able to write the same thing about IoT.

  10. Andy_I
    January 27, 2016

    “The only venue that is doing 3D with modest success is movie theaters, with special productions which have been specifically scripted and filmed for 3D effects.”

    You're joking, right?  3D movies are for the most part a cruel joke on viewers.  Hardly any movies today are scripted and filmed for 3D.  (Can you name some?)

    Most 3D movies were created by digitally manipulating flat 2D images to make them appear  as if they were 3D.  Some people get headaches when watching these fake 3D projected movies (e.g., most of them).

    That being said, our cable TV system has some 3D channels available.  So the technology is there to bring 3D into the home.  There just isn't any decent program material yet … and maybe never will be.

    Some sporting events today are actually shot and broadcast in 3D.  Doing this requires a whole different set of camera and editing techniques.  One of them being far fewer “cuts” between shots.  Your brain needs several seconds to re-accustom itself to a new camera angle after a cut, when in 3D, so you want to stay with the same camera view for quite a bit longer than they usually like to do.  Calibration of the cameras is another major issue.  (I think IEEE Spectrum had an article about this, some years ago.)

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