Symbol Technologies and Vue Technologies recently announced that they would jointly develop integrated item-level radio frequency identification, or RFID, solutions for both the retailing and manufacturing sectors.

The solutions will integrate Vue's RF networking technology and electronic product code (EPC) management software with Symbol's fixed and hand-held readers, tags and peripheral devices. Vue's TrueVUE platform is built on an extensible Web services foundation that lets users access third-party applications such as point-of-sale systems, the company said (see figure).

Alan Melling, senior director of business development for Symbol Technologies, said retailers are beginning to see the value of item-level RFID. “Previously, they didn't think they could afford to tag items,” he said. “We're not saying item-level RFID is going to sweep the market, but now there may be a business case for selected items.”

However, many retailers still can't afford it, according to Gerd Wolfram, executive project manager at Metro Group's “future store” in Rheinberg, Germany. Wolfram said in a statement currently posted on the retailer's Web site that the cost of smart chips would have to drop to “significantly below” 0.05 euros from the current 0.20 to 0.30 euros (roughly 25¢ to 37¢) in order for the company to RFID-tag items on a widespread basis. Furthermore, a 2005 study conducted by San Francisco-based R4 Global Solutions in conjunction with Vue pegged the current cost for individual tags at 20¢, with labels at 40¢. Consequently, most retailers are looking at RFID only to track pallets and cases.

But Melling believes retailers are beginning to change how they think about item-level RFID, becoming more realistic about how it can and should be used. While it doesn't make financial sense to tag very inexpensive items — “You're not going to tag a 20¢ pack of gum,” Melling said — items such as DVDs and clothing make perfect sense. For instance, when a pair of jeans in one size is placed on a shelf corresponding to another size, a customer might not be able to find the item. A similar result occurs when a popular DVD is not in its proper position in a sales rack — or worse, is stuck in the warehouse. In that case, the customer could assume that the store has run out of the item and decide to look elsewhere, and the sale is lost.

According to a research report issued last month by AMR Research, 60% to 70% of a DVD's lifetime sales will be accomplished in the first week of its release, so it is crucial that the staff knows when to replenish the supply. Out-of-stocks (OOSs) remain among the most vexing problems for retailers; the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that OOS levels average about 8% for non-promoted items and as high as 19% for high-volume promoted items, the report said.

“The distinguishing factors are the cost of the item and how much of a problem on-shelf availability of the product is,” Melling said.

Item-level RFID also helps retailers control internal shrinkage as product sometimes gets diverted on its journey from the warehouse to the sales floor, Melling said. “This system can help determine red flags,” Melling said. “It will give more retailers more information that can be used to determine anomalies.”

According to data cited by Vue, retailers lose about $50 billion annually because of lost opportunities created by OOS, while they lose another $31 billion each year to shrinkage.

Item-level RFID also is seen as having the potential to reduce labor costs and improve efficiencies regarding product returns. Many retailers already are putting greater effort into tracking returns in the hopes of reducing bogus transactions, which occur when a customer switches another item for the one actually purchased or uses the item prior to returning it.

Though the cost of the tags themselves continues to decrease as they evolve — and will continue to drop as adoption increases, creating volumes that will result in economies of scale — the amount and complexity of the data that item-level RFID systems must process continues to be vexing.

“The biggest problem with item-level RFID is that you want to get a lot of specificity about what is on any particular location on a shelf,” Melling said. “That takes a lot of readers and a lot of antennas, — basically one for each shelf.”

Although traditional RFID systems use one reader for every eight antennas — not economical except in a small number of high-ticket product categories — the Vue/Symbol system uses antenna multiplexing to enable a single reader to process input from hundreds of thousands of antennas, driving down both deployment and operational costs. The result is an “exponential” increase in the number of zones a typical reader can support, according to Tim von Kaeneo, Vue's senior vice president of project management and business development.

“Now a customer can employ a complete end-to-end solution that ties their dock door and portal readers in with their intelligent shelving systems and handheld RFID readers on one common platform, and scale at a level that previously was not possible and at a cost point that has not been attainable,” he said.

*spotlight: Asset tracking and monitoring

Nokia, others stage near-field-communications trial

Several key wireless infrastructure vendors announced a near-field-communications (NFC) trial that will let participating customers make contact-less payments and access mobile content from their wireless phones at Philips Arena in Atlanta.

Using a Nokia 3220 handset with Philips' NFC semiconductor chips and ViVOtech software, season-ticket holders for the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers and the NBA's Atlanta Hawks who have Chase-issued Visa cards and Cingular Wireless accounts can make concession purchases by holding their phones near one of 150 radio frequency identification readers at the point of sale.

Tom Zalewski, Nokia America's head of payment and ticketing, said the NFC technology represents an “enhancement” of mobile RFID applications. With NFC, a mobile phone can act as a credit card, possibly holding multiple cards' information to act as a virtual wallet.

NFC technology also could be used to let user access content more flexibly, Zalewski said. For instance, a person near a movie billboard could watch a trailer of the movie on their phone, which could be followed with times for the nearest showings and the ability to buy tickets from the phone, he said.

Including these NFC capabilities will have “minimal” impact on the battery life of the phone, Zalewski said.

Erik Michielsen, director at market analyst firm ABI Research, predicted that more than half of all mobile handsets would incorporate NFC chips by 2010.
— Donny Jackson

Pryme Radio Products

The PTG GPS speaker microphone integrates a GPS receiver and a radio frequency modem with a remote speaker microphone. The solution brings location capability to hand-held radios, both trunked and conventional, without adding modems and GPS receivers to the radio, according to the company. The GPS microphone includes a man-down button that gives the exact location of a first responder, while users can watch the data in real time and create data files over the air. The device is fully programmable and configurable using Windows-based software. While secure functions require a direct cable to a PC, most routine functions can be programmed over the air, the company said.

RFID badge for lead retrieval

Lead-retrieval vendor Dietze Enterprises introduced the RFBadge, which is designed to let tradeshow exhibitors capture vital information from attendee badges without using cumbersome standard readers. Unlike bar codes and magnetic-stripe cards, the RFBadge system doesn't require line-of-sight or need to be swiped manually, the company said.

Each RFBadge contains an antenna or coil, a transceiver (including decoder) and a transponder (RF chip/tag) that is electronically programmed with attendee information. The RFBadge can hold all data, text and graphics used in traditional name badge applications, the company said.

Enhanced video surveillance system

Motorola announced that users of its Intelligent Video Surveillance and Control (iVSC) solution now are able to transmit video over wireless broadband networks via video applications developed by NICE Systems.

The iVSC solution, which rides over Motorola's 4.9 GHz mesh network, collects data from fixed and mobile cameras and lets on-scene personnel monitor real-time data. The recordings can be continuous or triggered by motion detectors, Motorola said. In addition, the solution is scalable and can be tailored to work interoperably with existing surveillance systems.

Dual-band Wi-Fi access point

Netgear unveiled the ProSafe dual-band wireless access point (model WAG102), which simultaneously supports 802.11a/b/g clients. The device supports both 5 GHz and 2.4 Ghz, 54 Mb/s radio transmissions and delivers transmission speeds up to 108 Mb/s in both 802.11g and 802.11a for up to 128 wireless clients, the company said. In addition, the device's security offering includes Wi-Fi Protected Access 2-Enterprise and 802.11i.

Ultra-compact two-way radio

Cobra Electronics introduced the LI 6000-2 WX VP and LI 3900-2 DX VP two-way radios, each of which is small enough to fit into a pocket, the company said. The Lithium ION GMRS radios provide up to 2662 privacy combinations and are available in 17- and 14-mile versions. Other features include silent paging.

In addition, Cobra announced it would enhance its existing line of radios with extended ranges of 6, 10, 12 and 15 miles.

‘Power-save’ certified access point

Atheros Communications said that its AR5002AP-2X dual-band, concurrent wireless LAN access point reference design has been certified for Wi-Fi multimedia (WMM) power-save by the Wi-Fi Alliance. The access point also has been selected for the alliance's WMM power-save certification test bed.

WMM power-save is designed to certify devices that provide robust battery power management for hand-held devices and other small mobile wireless devices.

Programmable transceiver chip

Fabless semiconductor start-up BitWave announced the development of the Softransceiver RFIC, a radio transceiver chip that can be used to communicate with different wireless protocols and frequencies via software programming changes.

BitWave's technology provides “the underpinnings of what cognitive radios will be in the future,” said Russ Cyr, BitWave's co-founder and chief marketing officer. Although the company initially is focused on the cell-phone market, Cyr said he believes Softransceiver also will be applicable in the data market — a universal data card that receives signals from EV-DO, HSDPA, Wi-Fi and WiMAX is possible — and in a public-safety market hungering for handsets that are interoperable and able to work with whatever frequencies are available.

“You could now build a single public-safety radio that's small in size, low in cost, yet works on all the different things that are going on out there — one at a time — simultaneously,” Cyr said.

BitWave plans to begin producing the Softransceiver chip in volume during the first half of 2007, when the company expects the chips to appear in cell phones.

Ortivus North America

GoTrack is a Java-based program that can be loaded onto select Java- and GPS-enabled cellular phones as an economical alternative to the standard “black box” automatic vehicle location equipment installed in first responder vehicles. GoTrack-assigned vehicles appear on a computer-aided dispatch map, where they can be tracked and analyzed for better dispatch decisions. The solution costs about 70% less than other AVL solutions and cuts fuel costs and improves response times because dispatchers can notify the unit closest to an incident, the company said.

RF Neulink

The NL900 and NL2400 are stand-alone wireless data transceivers that can be set up in minutes to virtually cut the cables between RS232/RS485/RS422 devices, according to the company. The small, portable units are designed for use in mobile or temporary settings and are powered by a 1000 mW/900 MHz or a 200 mW/2.4 GHz radio. Both use a proprietary communication protocol to provide secure local data transmissions that remain reliable over distances of up to 20 miles line-of-sight (900 MHz), the company said.

Also available is a version of the NL6000 RF modem that offers 6 watts of output power. Available frequency bands include 136 MHz to 162 MHz, 148 MHz to 174 MHz, 400 MHz to 420 MHz and 450 MHz to 470 MHz. Standard features of the modem, which is configurable for telemetry and mobile data applications, includes narrowband (12.5 kHz channel) and wideband (25 kHz channel) operation with data rates of 12 kb/s and 22 kb/s, respectively. Signal-to-noise ratio is -115 dbm.

Enhanced mobile mesh routers

Nova Engineering announced the addition of unidirectional link detection and avoidance (ULDA) to its NovaRoam mobile routers. The ULDA feature lets NovaRoam routers deployed in a mesh network architecture to automatically discover unidirectional link conditions prior to establishing a new route. Once bad routes are detected and designated, the routers avoid them as they continue to search for a bi-directional link, the company said. The result is increased network uptime, higher throughput, longer communication range and more stable operation, according to the company.

TETRA interoperability platform

Under the name of parent company Tyco Electronics, M/A-COM announced that its IP-based VIDA Network Platform now supports the TETRA digital standard commonly used by public-safety entities in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

At a fundamental level, the VIDA platform transforms all voice traffic on given networks — regardless of air interface or frequency used — into packets on an IP backbone, allowing “cooperative communications” and smooth migration paths between legacy analog systems and state-of-the-art digital communications. M/A-COM has used the strategy successfully in North America, most notably in winning the contract to build a wireless communications network for first responders in the state of New York.

John Vaughan, vice president and general manager for Tyco Electronics' wireless systems business, said the primary challenge for his company was maintaining all the signaling information associated with TETRA that supports various features that customers want. He added that Tyco Electronics, in the near future, would include VIDA in multiple bids to deploy TETRA systems.

Extreme wideband antenna

Fractal Antenna Systems introduced the UGS extreme wideband antenna, which integrates a single fractal antenna into an unattended ground sensor node, which allows it to be deployed to less than 3 feet tall, the company said. It also features a raised phase center design that minimizes ground losses while improving radiation pattern and launch angle. The antenna is contained in a 2.5 inch diameter radome to minimize visual and RF detection. It is designed for use in electronic warfare and signal intelligence applications.

P2T service

Cingular announced that it has added push-to-talk service to its cellular offering. The carrier said its P2T coverage area is the largest in the U.S. The service lets users know when other P2T subscribers are available and lets users create pre-determined talk groups or create them on an impromptu basis. It also converts P2T calls to cellular calls; the function works on calls of up to 20 participants, effectively creating mobile conference calls, Cingular said. Two P2T handsets initially will be available: the Samsung d357 and the LG F7200.

No-solder connector

Times Microwave Systems recently introduced the EZ-200-NMH-D no-solder, easy-crimp connector, which replaces the EZ-200-NMH. The new connector features a combination hex/knurl-coupling nut, which lets technicians tighten the connector by hand or with a wrench. The connector now is manufactured with tri-metal plating, rather than silver, which eliminates tarnishing while improving electrical performance, the company said. In addition, a ridged landing area on the back end of the connector provides better grip and sealing of the heat-shrink boot, which provides better strain relief and weather sealing.