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   Technology StocksRFID, NFC and QR code Technologies

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From: Glenn Petersen5/30/2017 6:41:56 AM
1 Recommendation   of 1712
Slightly OT:

The rise of the QR code and how it has forever changed China’s social habits

It’s being used to encourage tipping at restaurants, receive cash gifts at weddings...even beggars are using it to collect handouts. The little barcode is driving China’s rapid shift towards a cashless society

Stephen Chen
South China Morning Post
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 May, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 May, 2017, 12:03pm

A little girl plays in a special QR code tunnel in a shopping mall in Nanjing. Consisting of 400 QR codes for brand products and creative games, the tunnel in this April file photo points to how the technology’s acceptance has changed China. Photo: Xinhua

On one of the hottest May days on record, Wang Jiarui walked out of school to see his grandfather, who had come to pick him up, standing in a sweat-soaked shirt.

The seven-year-old Beijing primary school pupil pointed at a nearby convenience store, proposing that his grandfather cool off with an ice-cold Coke. But the old man had forgotten his wallet.

No matter. Jiarui then took his grandfather’s smartphone and summoned to the screen a payment app with a QR code.

“He told me those black and white dots were money,” Jiarui’s grandfather, Wang Meng, recalled later, after that revelatory day in the heat.

“So I tried it [myself] and bought a pack [of cigarettes].”

With his mother’s permission, Jiarui helped his grandparents set up an account to let them buy things on the internet with a mobile phone using QR code scanning. He then showed them the technology could also work at a store counter just by presenting a QR code on the mobile phone to the cashier and letting them scan it to effect payment.

Placards on a seafood stall show various non-cash ways to pay, including QR codes of WeChat and AliPay, at a market in Beijing, in 2016. Photo: EPA

A QR code is a two-dimensional barcode with a random pattern of tiny black squares against a white background, capable of holding 300 times more data than a traditional one-dimensional code. According to internet consulting firm iResearch, payments made via mobile devices by Chinese consumers last year reached 38 trillion yuan (US$5.5 trillion, HK$43 trillion), more than half the nation’s GDP.

QR code scams rise in China, putting e-payment security in spotlight

Thanks to QR code’s rapidly increasing usage at off-line shops, the amount of mobile payments on the mainland is now 50 times greater than that of the US. Mobile payments in the US totalled US$112 billion in 2016, according to Forrester Research.

To consumer behaviour researcher Chen Yiwen, we are witnessing the dawn of “codeconomy”.

“China has started the transition to a cash-free economy faster than anyone could have imagined, largely because of the viral spread of two-dimensional barcode,” said Chen, a professor and researcher with the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. “It creates a new economy based on scannable codes.”

A restaurant in China has pinned barcode tags to the chests of its waiters and waitresses to encourage tipping. Photo: Handout

From big cities to remote villages, the codeconomy is already changing Chinese social behaviour, according to Chen.

Some restaurants have pinned barcode tags to the chests of waiters, waitresses and even chefs. Customers can scan the code to leave a tip if they are satisfied with service.

Umbrellas the latest trend in China’s sharing economy

Though the measure initially caused controversy after it was introduced last year as many people on the mainland tend not to be in the habit of tipping, customers are noticing a significant improvement in service and some servers are earning an extra 3,000 yuan in tips per month, thanks to the incentive the QR code seems to provide, the Beijing Morning Post reported this month.

Last month, a bridesmaid wore the code tag to collect gift money from guests at a wedding ceremony in Beijing, triggering a verbal fight between the bride and her red-faced, soon-to-be mother-in-law, China Youth Daily and other Chinese media outlets reported.

The bridesmaid with a QR code tag around her neck at a wedding ceremony in Beijing last month. Photo: Handout

A beggar in China has come up with an innovative way to collect his handouts. Photo: Handout

A beggar in Jinan, Shandong province, last month wore a QR code tag around his neck. He was mentally ill, according to mainland media reports, but the code allowed passers-by to give him money through a quick scan. Many other beggars on the street followed suit, according to reports.

The QR code has also helped expand the emerging sharing economy. To rent a bike, for instance, a customer needs only to phone-scan a barcode on the item and the bicycle will unlock itself automatically. Umbrellas and battery packs can be rented similarly, among other items.

Cars to batteries: is China’s sharing economy in bubble territory?

But the QR code stoked farmers’ concern in remote villages when it was reported that county governments were exploring a plan to use the technology to tighten control and governance. By sticking QR codes on farmers’ houses, government inspectors could use a code scanner to find out family names and other information and whether the building they occupied was violating any laws.

A giant QR code is seen near a housing construction site owned by Chinese developer Vanke in Hefei in Anhui province in this 2013 file photo. The 6,400-square-metre QR code, formed from marbles and lawn, can be scanned by mobile phone to enable the phone to play audio and video content of nature, attracting home buyers. Photo: AP

Chen said what seems like disruptive technology today eventually will be diffused into society and become an element of normal life tomorrow.

“The younger generation in China will grow up in a world full of two-dimensional barcodes,” he said. “They may develop a new understanding of money.”

“Maybe, in their eyes, money [will be seen as] not just a means to purchase commodities and services, but also socialise.”

China’s internet giants throw weight behind sharing economy after endorsement by Beijing

Mobile payments began to grow in China as people increasingly used social media platforms such as WeChat to distribute the red money envelopes known as hongbao in Mandarin, or lai see in Cantonese, to friends and relatives in the traditional Spring Festival. Last year, the average WeChat user sent out 28 packets of hongbao every month, according to the platform. Much of the money was used to compliment a well-taken photo or well-written post.

Such behavioural changes are poised to profoundly affect the Chinese economy, according to Chen.

“When the credit card emerged, consumers were found to spend more than when they used cash. The QR code is even more convenient than the credit card, so we have good reason to expect it will increase consumption,” he said.

A two-dimensional quick response QR code is affixed to a tombstone in this 2013 file photo to offer smartphone users extended information about the person buried beneath in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. Photo: ChinaFotoPress

The QR code was invented in Japan in the 1990s, initially to track automotive industry-related goods. Efforts had been made in other countries, such as South Korea and Japan, to use it in consumer payment, but none has produced the level of success seen in mainland China.

In Western nations, as well, credit cards continue to be preferred over mobile payment, though people increasingly are using Apple Pay in the US.

How QR codes are adding a load more memory to loved ones' memorials

Xue Chengqi, a researcher specialising in human-computer interface at Southeast University in Nanjing, said the QR code’s China success is partly due to efforts by large Chinese internet companies such as Tencent and Alibaba to bring mobile-payment capability to every vendor.

“From supermarkets to street pedlars, the QR code has been accepted and is used by every merchant,” he said. “The technology is simple and easy to use. A transaction can be completed almost instantly in any place with mobile phone signal coverage.

“It is hard to resist. In other countries, there is no such user-friendly environment,” he said.

A photo illustration of a WeChat user scanning a QR code to retrieve a digital red envelope on the WeChat app on a mobile phone during the Chinese New Year period in Beijing. Photo: EPA

Compared to other cashless payment methods, such as the near field communication technology used by ApplePay, the QR code was not seen as safe. Scanning a malicious code could lead the user into a trap set by criminals. For instance, the code could take one to a website used for ill purposes such as stealing bank accounts or other sensitive information.

According to a March report in the Southern Metropolis Daily, about 90 million yuan had been stolen via QR code scams in Guangdong province alone. A suspect in the case replaced the legitimate codes of merchants with fake ones embedded with a virus programmed to steal consumers’ personal information.

Two-thirds of smartphone users now paying by mobile

Speaking at the National People’s Congress in Beijing earlier this year, Liu Qingfeng, deputy chairman of voice-recognition cloud-service provider iFlytek, told mainland media that “over 23 per cent of Trojans and viruses are transmitted via QR codes. The [difficulty] threshold to make QR codes is so low that fraudsters could implant Trojans and viruses into a QR code very easily.”

Some cybersecurity experts have estimated that a quarter of malware found on smartphones is transmitted through QR codes. But Xue said China can no longer turn back.

“Consumers have already developed the habit, and can use (the QR code) almost anywhere. These are the biggest attractions,” he said.

“The technology itself and security issue may be the last thing people considered.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
scanning the horizon of the cashless society

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From: Glenn Petersen6/6/2017 11:35:41 AM
   of 1712
Impinj and Everspin Memory Chips Could Be the Next Big Thing

Memory chips are gaining importance over venerable microprocessors. Two ways to play the trend.

By Tiernan Ray Biography
Updated May 20, 2017 1:23 a.m. ET


In the world of computer chips, all glory goes to the microprocessor, and especially to the kind that Intel sells, which serves as the brains of your personal computer.

But there are many other kinds of chips in the universe of semiconductors, some increasingly more important.

This magazine argued in a 2015 cover story that memory chips may represent the most important kind of chip in years to come (“ Watch Out Intel, Here Comes Facebook,” Oct. 31, 2015). That’s because tasks that are taking center stage, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things, continue to place greater and greater emphasis on retaining and analyzing vast amounts of data.

We recommended Micron Technology (ticker: MU) in that article. The shares are up more than 70% since then, which probably doesn’t leave a lot of upside at this point. The good news is that there are two other companies worth taking a look at that are incredibly promising, Impinj (PI) and Everspin Technologies MRAM 1.2561274509803921% Everspin Technologies Inc. (MRAM). They are both small companies that recently came public, and a bet on their stocks is not without substantial risk.

But they offer genuine innovations that have been years in the making, real breakthroughs. That could position them at the forefront of the kinds of developments we highlighted in the 2015 story.

The memory chip is, as it sounds, the repository of data. It stores the ones and zeros so the microprocessor can do something with them. For years, the microchip industry has tried to find the perfect balance between DRAM, which is fast but doesn’t retain data, and flash, which is slower and more prone to failure, but which holds data when the power goes out.

So-called nonvolatile memory chips, an in-between solution, are one of the industry’s holy grails. “Nonvolatile memory is a big deal in almost everything you do,” says Carver Mead, the Gordon and Betty Moore professor of engineering and applied science, emeritus, at the California Institute of Technology. “You have to have it,” he tells Barron’s.

Mead was the CEO of Impinj when it was founded 17 years ago and is now an advisor to the CEO, Chris Diorio, a former University of Washington professor for whom Mead served as a mentor.

What they developed is a chip that can operate on fractions of a watt of power. It is built into “tags” that can be attached to any number of objects, such as your luggage when you go on a Delta Air Lines flight. The tag can then be scanned by a wireless reader situated tens of feet away, which retrieves the identifying data on the tag. On a Delta flight, you can use an app to actually see if your stuff is on the plane. No more lost bags, at least in theory.

THE KEY IS THAT THIS PARTICULAR nonvolatile memory doesn’t need its own power source. Instead, it is activated when the wireless signal from the reader strikes the receiving antenna. That means it can be added to a vast amount of objects for pennies per piece—retail items in a warehouse, clothes on a rack, driver’s licenses, and on and on.

Impinj is interesting because it is not a chip company per se, but a systems business. It sells the nonvolatile chips, the radio-frequency circuitry, the technology for the wireless reader, and the software that makes it all work.

Diorio envisions expanding uses as semiconductor technology continues to make circuits smaller and more efficient. “We can put more and more smarts into them,” says Diorio, so that every object will be able to express all kinds of information about its nature, its capabilities, and its contents.

Impinj went public on July 21 of last year. Since that time, it is up 128%. The company is growing fast, with sales expected to rise 30% this year, and it is already profitable. Like most startups, its stock, at $40.96, is pricey, trading for 78 times next year’s projected 53 cents per share in net income. If confidence rises and the multiple gets attached to projected 2019 earnings of 82 cents, you could be looking at a $63 stock.

THE OTHER OUTFIT, EVERSPIN, is not actually that young, even though it went public last year, on Oct. 7. The technology came out of what had been the chip division of Motorola, which was folded into Freescale Semiconductor and later spun out before Freescale was sold to NXP (NXPI).

Everspin’s chip’s speed is close to DRAM, but it keeps files when power is off, like flash, though it is more reliable; flash tends to break down over time.

Today, the company sells a part that is used in industrial equipment requiring small amounts of memory. Newer parts with greater capacity are being designed into data storage systems coming to market later this year or early next. Traditionally, such computers pass memory from DRAM to flash, but there is a risk that data will be lost in between. Extra circuitry and batteries are added to the storage systems to keep the data alive, driving up cost. By replacing DRAM with Everspin’s chips, system makers can save on all that extra stuff.

“For every $10 worth of DRAM it replaces, it also gets rid of $70 of batteries and other stuff,” says Richard Shannon, who follows the company for Craig-Hallum.

As a result, “this is not a commodity chip,” says Rajvindra Gill, with Needham & Co. “This is an application-specific part that is saving companies money on their total system cost.”

“Where it gets really exciting,” says Shannon, is when Everspin can replace the combination of DRAM and flash in mission-critical computing systems such as a database. Those machines have an appetite for far greater amounts of data, which means more-expensive parts from Everspin, boosting both revenue and, presumably, margins.

The company is expected to have only $43 million in revenue this year, and it is losing money. Matthew Ramsay of Canaccord Genuity says the stock is currently worth 14 times projected earnings of 85 cents per share in 2018, or $12, above a recent $9.90. But it could have a multiple of four or five times sales if its newer markets take off, he says, which would put the stock price well above $12.

The whole history of memory-chip technologies is laced with agony and ecstasy, so this is not for the faint of heart. But then, companies with true breakthroughs can be worth the risk.

TIERNAN RAY can be reached at:,

Follow @barronstechblog
Like Barron’s on Facebook
Follow Barron’s on Twitter

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From: Glenn Petersen6/17/2017 6:07:34 PM
   of 1712
Ripple effects from the Amazon/Whole Foods deal:

Impinj: Amazon Just One More Reason Not To Short It, Says RBC

By Tiernan Ray
June 16, 2017 4:48 p.m. ET

Mitch Steves of RBC Capital surmises Impinj's radio-frequency tags and related technology could get a big lift from Amazon's deal to buy Whole Foods, just one more reason he thinks you shouldn't short Impinj shares despite a 58% run-up this year.

Shares of Impinj ( PI) today closed up $8.94, or over 19%, at $55.71, bolstered by speculation that its technology for radio-frequency identification, or R.F.I.D., tag systems may get a lift from Amazon’s ( AMZN) announced deal to acquire Whole Foods Market ( WFM).

As I mentioned in my prior story, RBC Capital’s Mitch Steves, who has an Outperform rating on shares of Impinj, thinks there may well be a direct connection between Impinj and Amazon, having speculated back in December that Impinj’s technology was being used for Amazon’s “Go” concept stores.

Steves this afternoon followed up with a fresh research note, raising his price target to $59 from $50, and declaring that Impinj is on the “Do not short list,” even though Impinj stock is up 58% this year.

The Whole Food deal could take RFID systems to “scale” deployment, he thinks:

With the acquisition of Whole Foods there is potential for RFID technology to be rolled out at scale. Importantly, we think there are too many catalysts that could send the stock higher including 1) Kaiser; 2) new airlines; and 3) another major grocery store acquisition from Amazon. Net/net: while we do not anticipate a major announcement on July 18-20, we think investors should avoid shorting Impinj stock. Overall, Amazon and Impinj are not incentivized to announce a potential partnership given a pending $13.7B transaction (AMZN/WFM). We are increasing our price target due to higher conviction in step function changes to revenue numbers – new customers.

Steves thinks you don’t want to sell into this rally in Impinj:

With Impinj now up +13% on the news, we think the key takeaway is to avoid a short position. If Impinj announces any new catalyst another step function could occur. Key potential catalysts include: 1) Kaiser announces partnership with Impinj at RAIN Alliance; 2) Amazon and Impinj announce an official partnership; 3) a new airline announces a partnership similar to the Delta announcement - United for example; and 4) bank shots where if Amazon acquires another large grocery store we think it is clear there will be a price reaction from Impinj.

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From: Glenn Petersen6/23/2017 8:21:33 PM
1 Recommendation   of 1712
h/t Bill Hammond

IMO, a well-balanced Impinj backgrounder with quality links

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From: Glenn Petersen7/23/2017 10:28:39 PM
   of 1712
What once was unthinkable:

Wisconsin Company To Implant Microchips In Employees

Josh Rosenthal
ABC News
July 22, 2017 07:24 AM

A Wisconsin company is about to become the first in the U.S. to offer microchip implants to its employees.

Yes, you read that right. Microchip implants.

"It's the next thing that's inevitably going to happen, and we want to be a part of it," Three Square Market Chief Executive Officer Todd Westby said.

The company designs software for break room markets that are commonly found in office complexes.

Just as people are able to purchase items at the market using phones, Westby wants to do the sam thing using a microchip implanted inside a person's hand.

"We'll come up, scan the item," he explained, while showing how the process will work at an actual break room market kiosk. "We'll hit pay with a credit card, and it's asking to swipe my proximity payment now. I'll hold my hand up, just like my cell phone, and it'll pay for my product."

More than 50 Three Square Market employees are having the devices implanted starting next week. Each chip is about the size of a single grain of rice.

Along with purchasing market kiosk items, employees will be albe to use the chip to get into the front door and log onto their computers.

Each chip costs $300 and the company is picking up the tab. They're implanted between a person's thumb and forefinger. Westby added the data is both encrypted and secure.

"There's no GPS tracking at all," he said.

No one who works at Three Square Market is required to get the chip implant.

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From: Glenn Petersen8/4/2017 9:36:02 AM
   of 1712
Dawn of the bionic age: Body hackers let chips get under their skin

By Tim Johnson
McClatchy Newspapers
August 03, 2017 6:16 PM

LAS VEGAS — If you’re prone to forgetting your card key for the office or your computer password, here’s a solution: Get a microchip implanted in your hand.

That’s what Brian McEvoyhas done multiple times. He’s got five implants, mostly for functional reasons but one just for fun.

“There’s a glow-in-the-dark implant on the back of my right hand,” said McEvoy, a 36-year-old electrical engineer from St. Paul, Minnesota.

For years, owners have implanted microchips in their pets to recover them if they go astray. Farmers use them in cattle. Now, humans are experimenting with subdermal microchips, which are the size of a large grain of rice, to make modern life easier.

Ever so slowly, a trend that began in the hacker community is moving toward the mainstream. A Wisconsin firm that specializes in designing company break rooms, Three Square Market, announced last monththat it was offering implanted chips to all its employees.

The chips will allow employees to “make purchases in the company’s break room market, open doors, log in to computers, use copy machines, among other things,” it said in a statement.

It can emulate every card in your wallet, so you can chuck your wallet away.

Many hackers gathered here for a recent global hacker conference, DefCon 2017, view implants as a way to interact seamlessly with a technological world and to enhance human senses. They await the day when microchips give humans the ability for echolocation, and to see infrared and ultraviolet light, enhance the capacity to smell, sense direction, even feel vibrations that reveal movement in the stock market.

It is a sharp departure from the use of implants, like pacemakers and insulin pumps, to restore function lost through impairment or ill health.

Tim Cannon, a software engineer who co-founded a company that sells implantable chips, Grindhouse Wetware, said some critics believe tinkering with the body’s capabilities is improper, even unethical.

“It tends to be viewed as something like hubris,” Cannon said.

But he doesn’t care. The coming years will be “about breaking through that barrier and saying it’s okay to want to be more than what biology offered you,” he said

Dozens of hackers lined up on a recent night at the DefCon conference to have microchips installed in the fleshy web between thumb and index finger of their hands.

The biohackers call themselves “grinders,” a term taken from a comic book by Warren Ellis. The technology they implant is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Most opted for a small radio frequency identification (RFID) or a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip suitable for subdermal use.

“This is my train ticket,” said an Australian hacker who goes by the name Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow, pointing to a spot on his hand where a chip containing a rechargeable rail token was implanted. He said he just swipes his hand, rather than a ticket, over a rail sensor.

Implantable chips will soon carry out the functions of credit cards and keys, he said.

“It can emulate every card in your wallet, so you can chuck your wallet away,” he said.

Some consumers fear that an implanted microchip will allow greater government surveillance, and only advances that “are spectacular can overcome that queasiness,” he said.

“If Johnny Depp puts one of these in his hand, they’ll be everywhere,” he added.

The public is certainly not there yet. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that seven in 10 Americans were “somewhat” or “very” worried about implanting a computer chip in the brain to improve concentration and the processing of information. The more religious the respondent, the less likely they were to favor such an implant, it found.

Cannon said the melding of technology and physiology can improve human experience.

“We need to stop pretending that we are perfect and the pinnacle of evolution,” he said.

Implanting a chip can cause discomfort.

“There will be some blood, some pain,” said Doug Copeland, who works with one of the handful of companies that offer implants, Dangerous Things, based in Seattle, as he implanted a chip in a client’s hand.

“A lot of people frown on this kind of thing but it’s really not anything much different than getting a body piercing or a tattoo,” said a California man, giving his name only as Keith.

Others asked if the implanted chips could allow government surveillance (they contain no GPS, so no), or cause problems if a patient undergoes an MRI test in a hospital (maybe not advisable).

Copeland said he’d been through airport checkpoints numerous times and never been flagged: “Unless you show it to them, they don’t know it’s there. And if you show it to them, they say, ‘What the hell?’”

Some high-profile proponents of implants include Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla cars and SpaceX, who said last year that humans must reach greater symbiosis with computers in order to stay relevant in a world of artificial intelligence.

But the trend toward implants carries risks, warned Walter Glannon, a Yale-trained bioethicist who teaches at the University of Calgary, Canada. Studies have not yet determined “whether implants are safe,” he said. Even if safe, a social minefield may lay ahead.

“They would raise ethical questions about fairness and unequal access to devices that could give some people a competitive advantage over others. Unlike the drugs used for cognitive enhancement, implants would not be so accessible over the internet and would not be cheap. Many people would not be able to afford them,” Glannon said.

“This could be an unfair advantage.”

The threat that microchips could be hacked, possibly monkeying with people’s cognition or perception, is also a latent threat, he added.

For now, though, experimenters like McEvoy see no harm in what they do. The shielded tiny tube with a phosphorescent layer that he had implanted on the back of his hand is just for fun. It works like the dial of a watch that glows in the dark.

“There is no battery or switch so it is continuously bright. It's possible to see in a dark room and I have shown it to people while at bonfire parties,” McEvoy said.

Manufacturers say implantable chips with greater memory and more “out of the box” functionality – such as starting a car, or measuring body functions such as blood sugar and oxygen levels – may be in the offing soon.

Eventually, said Meow-Meow, an implant could save lives.

“It can call an ambulance for you before you have a heart attack,” he said.

Tim Johnson: 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4

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To: Glenn Petersen who wrote (1679)8/4/2017 9:51:00 AM
From: Savant
   of 1712
Hmm, prolly inevitable....however..saying they're .'encrypted & secure'?...until they aren't
...could give 'body hackers' new meaning, as they chop off your hand to get your money chip...
as for giving some people an 'unfair advantage'...who the H ever thought life is fair..
Trying to make life 'fair' for a fool's me a cynic.
Never was, & likely, never will be.

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To: Savant who wrote (1680)8/4/2017 10:06:56 AM
From: Glenn Petersen
   of 1712
The day that I started this board 14 years ago I posted five articles about privacy concerns, and those addressed the use of external chips. I have also posted a number of articles over the years about fundamentalists who felt that a chip implant was akin to the "Mark of the Devil." We have come a long way.

It won't be long before we are implanting chips on people with references to their medical history. Having cared for parents who were unable to effectively articulate their medical histories (Parkinson's and Alzheimer's), I would have been receptive to the idea of tagging.

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To: Glenn Petersen who wrote (1681)8/4/2017 10:26:42 AM
From: Savant
   of 1712
I'm not against it, per say, however having a 'money chip' implanted? Not so sure about that.

Medical history would be v.good, if they can update as time goes by.

I'm fairly certain there are still fundamentalists and others that are, and always will be, against implants.

That's the nature of the beast....(humans).

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From: Glenn Petersen8/26/2017 6:27:20 AM
2 Recommendations   of 1712
Drones relay RFID signals for inventory control

System could save retailers billions lost through faulty inventory records

Date:August 25, 2017

Source:Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Summary:Researchers have developed a system that enables small, safe, aerial drones to read RFID tags from tens of meters away while identifying the tags' locations. The system could be used in large warehouses to prevent inventory mismatches and locate individual items.

MIT researchers have developed a system that enables small, safe, aerial drones to read RFID tags in large warehouses at a distance of several meters, while identifying the tags’ locations with an average error of about 19 centimeters. (stock image)
Credit: © petrovk / Fotolia

MIT researchers have developed a system that enables small, safe, aerial drones to read RFID tags in large warehouses at a distance of several meters, while identifying the tags’ locations with an average error of about 19 centimeters. (stock image)
Credit: © petrovk / Fotolia

Radio frequency ID tags were supposed to revolutionize supply chain management. The dirt-cheap, battery-free tags, which receive power wirelessly from scanners and then broadcast identifying numbers, enable warehouse managers to log inventory much more efficiently than they could by reading box numbers and recording them manually.

But the scale of modern retail operations makes even radio frequency ID (RFID) scanning inefficient. Walmart, for instance, reported that in 2013 it lost $3 billion in revenue because of mismatches between its inventory records and its stock. Even with RFID technology, it can take a single large retail store three months to perform a complete inventory review, which means that mismatches often go undiscovered until exposed by a customer request.

MIT researchers have now developed a system that enables small, safe, aerial drones to read RFID tags from tens of meters away while identifying the tags' locations with an average error of about 19 centimeters. The researchers envision that the system could be used in large warehouses for both continuous monitoring, to prevent inventory mismatches, and location of individual items, so that employees can rapidly and reliably meet customer requests.

The central challenge in designing the system was that, with the current state of autonomous navigation, the only drones safe enough to fly within close range of humans are small, lightweight drones with plastic rotors, which wouldn't cause injuries in the event of a collision. But those drones are too small to carry RFID readers with a range of more than a few centimeters.

The researchers met this challenge by using the drones to relay signals emitted by a standard RFID reader. This not only solves the safety problem but also means that drones could be deployed in conjunction with existing RFID inventory systems, without the need for new tags, readers, or reader software.

"Between 2003 and 2011, the U.S. Army lost track of $5.8 billion of supplies among its warehouses," says Fadel Adib, the Sony Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, whose group at the MIT Media Lab developed the new system. "In 2016, the U.S. National Retail Federation reported that shrinkage -- loss of items in retail stores -- averaged around $45.2 billion annually. By enabling drones to find and localize items and equipment, this research will provide a fundamental technological advancement for solving these problems."

The MIT researchers describe their system, dubbed RFly, in a paper they presented this week at the annual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Data Communications. Adib is the senior author on the paper, and he's joined by Yunfei Ma, a postdoc in the Media Lab, and Nicholas Selby, an MIT graduate student in mechanical engineering.

Phase shift

Relaying RFID signals and using them to determine tags' locations poses some thorny signal-processing problems. One is that, because the RFID tag is powered wirelessly by the reader, the reader and the tag transmit simultaneously at the same frequency. A relay system adds another pair of simultaneous transmissions: two between the relay and the tag and two between the relay and the reader. That's four simultaneous transmissions at the same frequency, all interfering with each other.

This problem is compounded by the requirement that the system determine the location of the RFID tag. The location-detection -- or "localization" -- system uses a variation on a device called an antenna array. If several antennas are clustered together, a signal broadcast toward them at an angle will reach each antenna at a slightly different time. That means that the signals detected by the antennas will be slightly out of phase: The troughs and crests of their electromagnetic waves won't coincide perfectly. From those phase differences, software can deduce the angle of transmission and thus the location of the transmitter.

The drone is too small to carry an array of antennas, but it is continuously moving, so readings it takes at different times are also taken at different locations, simulating the multiple antenna elements of an array.

Ordinarily, to combat interference, the drone would digitally decode the transmission it receives from the tag and re-encode it for transmission to the reader. But in this case, the delays imposed by the decoding-encoding process would change the signals' relative phases, making it impossible to accurately gauge location.

All radio systems encode information by modulating a base transmission frequency, usually by shifting it slightly up and down. But because an RFID tag has no independent power source, its modulations are detectably smaller than those of the reader. So the MIT researchers devised an analog filter that would subtract the base transmission frequency from the signals that reach the reader and then separate the low-frequency and high-frequency components. The low-frequency component -- the signal from the tag -- is then added back onto the base frequency.

Frame of reference

At this point, however, another problem still remains. Because the drone is moving, the phase shift of the signals that reach the reader result from not only the drone's position relative to the RFID tag but also its position relative to the reader. On the basis of the received signal alone, the reader has no way to tell how much each of those two factors contributed to the total phase shift.

So the MIT researchers also equip each of their drones with its own RFID tag. A drone alternates between relaying the reader's signal to a tagged item and simply letting its own tag reflect the signal back, so that the reader can estimate the drone's contribution to the total phase shift and remove it.

In experiments in the Media Lab that involved tagged objects, many of which were intentionally hidden to approximate the condition of merchandise heaped in piles on warehouse shelves, the system was able to localize the tags with 19-centimeter accuracy while extending the range of the reader tenfold in all directions, or one hundredfold cumulatively. The researchers are currently conducting a second set of experiments in the warehouse of a major Massachusetts retailer.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Original written by Larry Hardesty. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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