Chicago show heralds new "Internet of things"

In 1893, the World's Columbian Exposition brought millions of visitors to Chicago to celebrate the achievements and promise of the industrial age. One hundred ten years later, a symposium in the same city will highlight technology that may fuel the next 50 years of economic growth: a global network of intelligent objects.

The Electronic Product Code (EPC) Executive Symposium began yesterday and ends on Wednesday. It marks the official launch of the Electronic Product Code (EPC) Network, an open technology infrastructure developed by researchers worldwide.

The network uses Radio Frequency ID (RFID) tags to enable machines to sense man-made objects anywhere in the world, effectively creating an "Internet of things", according to Kevin Ashton, executive director of the Auto-ID Centre at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, which is hosting the show.

RFID tags enable products to passively identify themselves to RFID readers, replacing bar codes which must be physically viewed and scanned by a human.

"This is the starting pistol for this new technology which is moving next week from research to reality," Ashton said.

The Symposium will introduce EPC technology to an audience of corporate executives, explaining how the EPC network works and how to implement EPC technology in corporate supply chain networks, according to the Auto-ID Center.

The gathering has the backing of major technology companies including IBM, SAP and Sun Microsystems.

VeriSign, which manages key components of the Internet infrastructure, would announce a suite of EPC network directory services at the show, director of product development for the naming directory services group at VeriSign, Jon Brendsel, said.

VeriSign will unveil three new services that will allow organisations to manage EPC data using the Internet: ONS Registry, EPC Service Registry and EPC Information Services.

Together, the new services will create a registry, similar to the Internet Domain Name System (DNS), that link an EPC with an Internet Protocol (IP) address.

Using the services, companies would be able to use the Internet to track their products in the time between when they left the manufacturing plant and arrived at the loading dock of a retail outlet, Brendsel said.

Unlike the much-publicised "smart shelf" trials, in which RFID technology is used inside retail outlets to provide real-time merchandise stocking information, companies would focus on trials outside the four walls of the retail outlet, he said.

At the show, Intel will announce a partnership with ThingMagic to deliver a new generation of RFID tag readers . The new generation of readers will be built on ThingMagic's Mercury4 Platform and use Intel's IXP420 XScale network processors, improving the power of the readers so that they could process multiple RFID protocols simultaneously, the companies said.

When it comes to practical applications for EPC technology, the focus at the Auto-ID EPC Symposium will be on the supply chain, according to Ashton and others.

While the technology has the potential for wide applications, there were many practical and logistical challenges for retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores, an early champion of RFID technology, to implement new technology, Ashton said.

Concentrating on the management of large units such as cases of goods and pallets of cases was a good place to start, he said. "Ten years from now, who knows," Ashton said.

To illustrate the promise of RFID and EPC technology to the supply chain, VeriSign purchased 2000 four-inch, RFID-equipped pallets, similar to those on which goods were shipped worldwide, Brendsel said.

The company will distribute them to show attendees, who can scan them at the booths of different technology vendors such as IBM and Sun. At the end, attendees wiould be able to review the exact path the pallet took around the show floor and see what time it passed through each booth, he said.

Ashton sees the Symposium in historic terms.

He said the development of the EPCTM Network marked a shift from the systems of the past 50 years in which computers processed information entered by humans. Through the wide deployment of EPC and RFID technology, the next 50 years would be about computer sensing.

Helping to set the "visionary" tone, 3Com founder, Robert Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet, and Internet luminary, Esther Dyson, will give keynote speeches at the Symposium, according to Auto-ID Center.

Like the Internet, use of the EPC Network would grow imperceptibly, but would eventually become an indispensable part of modern life, just like e-mail, Ashton said.

Widespread adoption of the technology might have to wait until RFID tags can be mass-produced cheaply and efficiently, he said.

In the meantime, the presence of large technology companies at the first-ever EPC Symposium was a good sign, he said.

"It's indicative that everybody is taking EPC seriously," he said.

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