The Next Wave of the Internet of Things Starts With RFID

As we head into the third wave of the IoT, in which everything is connected in an open ecosystem, RFID is emerging as a handy tool for tying objects, systems and networks together in a cost-effective manner.
By Bernd Schoner
Dec 11, 2014

For those of us able to read between the lines of the media coverage touting each and every consumer and enterprise device as IoT-ready, it has become clear that we're on the cusp of something very big. To most—consumers and businesses alike—the Internet of Things (IoT) is the latest technology acronym that represents a new computing paradigm for connecting everyone and everything together through the Internet. In reality, however, the IoT has been around for quite a while, at least in concept.

The first wave of the IoT was born out of the MIT Auto-ID Lab in the early 2000s, where Kevin Ashton coined the term, and where my colleagues and I started our RFID company, ThingMagic. The IoT was conceptualized as a means of understanding where each and every item in the world was located, by tagging everything with passive RFID tags. The vision was to have this lead to more targeted intelligence and better decision-making in the enterprise space (think of consumer-goods manufacturers and retailers understanding and optimizing their supply chain). Conceptually, this thinking was very progressive—and, perhaps, somewhat ahead of its time—as an infrastructure to support this level of connectivity was not yet mature.

Bernd Schoner
Today, we are well into the second wave of the IoT, in which much of the explosion of connectivity has been powered by advancements in location and wireless communication technologies, such as GPS, ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Plus, large investments by companies like Google (which, earlier this year, acquired smart thermostat maker Nest for $3.2 billion) are leading to hybrid solutions that have begun to bridge the ecosystems enterprises are creating, with more consumer-facing applications that are grabbing headlines.

The problem is, more often than not, each of these networks is siloed. Certain devices and sensors talk to other machines, but things are not generally able to communicate with all other things. The Internet enables people throughout the world to communicate with other individuals. The true IoT will need to enable objects and machines to do the same.

We are just at the beginning of a third wave of the IoT, which involves implementing the initial vision of connecting everything with everything else in an open ecosystem. ThingMagic, for instance, which is now a division of Trimble, offers a solution by which we partner with construction companies to outfit their job sites with an RFID-based application that connects and communicates with the people, equipment and materials contained in buildings under construction. Machines and equipment communicate with their operators, worker ID badges communicate with security personnel, emergency systems communicate with managers in the event of an evacuation, and so forth. This ecosystem is fundamentally enabled by RFID, and resembles exactly the IoT as it was conceptualized at the MIT Auto-ID Lab.

When the first RFID solutions were being built, systems involved expensive tags, expensive reader infrastructures and expensive middleware. But as Wi-Fi, cellular networks and cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) architectures become ubiquitous, we'll continue to see this kind of machine-to-human and machine-to-machine communication become increasingly affordable and easy to deploy.

Right now, the ideal of the IoT can best be represented by the modern-day smartphone. While it is still far from the ultimate connected device in its current form, it would certainly have seemed farfetched, less than a decade ago, to suggest that by this point in time, we would be able to pay our bills, navigate our cars, and video-chat by using a device that fits in a pocket. So the progress we've made in putting the capabilities of tens or hundreds of devices into a single device is indicative of how we're trending: toward devices and systems that unite a connected world around us.

Yet, reaching this next wave of the IoT, in which technology enables things to sense and adapt to changes in their environments to better suit our needs, will depend on solving the last-yard problem: We need to be able to communicate with even the smallest object, anywhere on the globe, and enable sensors in the most unlikely of places. For many of the billions of things that will require such connectivity, passive RFID is the technology that will allow us to tie objects, systems and networks together in a cost-effective manner. As the cost of tagging items has been driven down year after year, and as the infrastructure for connectivity is only improving, we are set up now to fully embrace the next wave of the Internet of Things. We had it right a decade ago—it just took until now for the world to catch up with that vision.

Bernd Schoner is the VP of business development and co-founder of ThingMagic.

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