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 will run from Monday Sept. 15 through Wednesday, Sept. 17 and marks the official launch of the 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 Center 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 Corp., SAP AG and Sun Microsystems Inc.

VeriSign Inc., which manages key components of the Internet infrastructure, will announce a suite of EPC network directory services at the show, according to Jon Brendsel, director of product development for the Naming Directory Services group at VeriSign.

VeriSign will unveil three new services that will allow organizations 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 IP address. Using the services, companies will be able to use the Internet to track their products in the time between when they leave the manufacturing plant and arrive at the loading dock of a retail outlet, Brendsel said.

Unlike the much-publicized “smart shelf” trials, in which RFID technology is used inside retail outlets to provide real-time merchandise stocking information, companies will be focusing on trials outside the four walls of the retail outlet, he said.

Also at the show, Intel Corp. will announce a partnership with ThingMagic LLC of Cambridge, Mass., 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 can 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 are many practical and logistical challenges for retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 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 is a good place to start, he said.

“Ten years from now, who knows,” he said.

To illustrate the promise of RFID and EPC technology to the supply chain, VeriSign purchased 2,000 four-inch, RFID-equipped pallets, similar to those on which goods are 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 will 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, saying that the development of the EPCTM Network marks a shift from the systems of the past 50 years in which computers process information entered by humans. Through the wide deployment of EPC and RFID technology, the next 50 years will be about computer sensing.

Helping to set the “visionary” tone, 3Com Corp. 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 will grow imperceptibly, but will 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 is a good sign, he said.

“It’s indicative that everybody is taking EPC seriously,” he said.

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