RFID Journal Live 2023

From the standpoint of both applications and economics, Bluetooth Low Energy and RAIN RFID technologies are rapidly converging.

In short, that’s our key takeaway from the RFID Journal Live 2023 exhibition floor in Orlando last week.

Bluetooth Low Energy and RAIN RFID are both AIDC (Automatic Identification and Data Capture) technologies, and, perhaps fittingly, the AIDC industry was celebrating its 50th anniversary (AIM50) at this year’s conference. The core difference between the two is that the former is an active technology (beacons spontaneously transmit their identifier using self-sourced energy) and the latter is a passive technology (tags backscatter their identifier using energy supplied by readers). Historically, this difference has maintained a clear division in their real-world applications.

So what has changed? In this blog post we’ll examine three factors: costs, and sensing & real-time location capabilities.


When we founded reelyActive in 2012, active RFID tags (including the ones we developed) cost tens of dollars each while passive RFID tags were well under one dollar each. Economics clearly separated the applications of active and passive RFID technologies.

At this year’s conference, we congratulated the InPlay team in person on their contribution to the advent of the $1 Bluetooth Low Energy tag: at the time of writing, anyone can purchase their innovative IN100 IC for $0.40 each on DigiKey in a reel of 5,000 PCS!

reelyActive meets Reelables at RFID Journal Live 2023

And, at their booth, we discovered Reelables (of course we reely love the name!) which use that IC to offer printed Bluetooth Low Energy tags for logistics and supply chain in a form factor and process identical to that of passive tags. It’s not difficult to imagine the market gap that can fill, especially given the price advantage of Bluetooth Low Energy infrastructure, which may already be present, as we explained in our recent Infrastructure 4.0 post!

Speaking of infrastructure costs, the passive gap is narrowing too: at the conference we picked up a Chafon CF600 USB RAIN RFID reader for less than we’ve paid for some Bluetooth dongles!

Sensing Capabilities

The ability to sense environmental (temperature, humidity, etc.) and other factors has typically been the realm of active RFID technologies, given the cost and energy requirements of the sensors themselves. That is changing fast. At this year’s conference we saw examples from a number of RAIN RFID vendors, and even picked up samples using ASYGN’s AS321X IC which supports a variety of internal and external sensors.

RFID LED Labels at RFID Journal Live 2023

We were impressed too with live demos of RAIN RFID tags sporting LED tags that can be illuminated by reading a dummy address on the tag. For instance, the EDISON line of tags from Shanghai ReadFind IoT is sufficiently economical to imagine tagging individual folders, bins, or other containers throughout a facility, facilitating picking and replenishment by a human operator, saving time and avoiding mistakes locating the right item: it blinks!

RTLS Capabilities

Continuing on the theme of location, real-time location systems (RTLS), which facilitate the location of individual tags within a physical space or facility, have typically been the realm of active RFID technologies. That too is changing fast!

RF Controls RTLS & Pareto Anywhere open source middleware at the ESG-UQAM GreenUXLab

Since the 2022 conference, we’ve had the occasion to integrate our open source middleware with RF Controls’ RTLS technology for RAIN RFID on a number of client deployments, and to see for ourselves just how well their technology delivers to promise! Especially in high-ceiling environments, where their Smart Antennas shine, the value proposition and ROI for item-level tracking is unmatched, with performance rivalling Bluetooth Low Energy systems based on angle-of-arrival. Yes, passive RTLS!

It’s all AIDC

When reelyActive first attended RFID Journal Live in 2013, the RAIN RFID Alliance had yet to form, and Bluetooth Low Energy had yet to assume its place as a global standard for active RFID. Now, a decade later, we might argue that the need to explicitly distinguish between the two—or between active and passive RFID technologies altogether for that matter—may be more about technicality than practicality. 50-years on, AIDC is still AIDC, and for most end users, “labels that you can automatically identify, count and locate” surely resonates better than RFID, RTLS, BLE, RAIN or any other acronym we use in this industry!

And for that reason, we’re as proud as ever to be abstracting away those acronyms from end users (and integrators), fostering interoperability across vendors and technologies with our open source Pareto Anywhere middleware that simply provides real-time digital context: “who/what is where/how.”

RFID Journal Live 2022

When we first attended RFID Journal Live in 2013, reelyActive was not even a year old, and yet we proudly showed off the innovative real-time location system (RTLS) that we had rapidly developed based on our own proprietary active RFID (radio-frequency identification) hardware and reel technology. Back then, we were solving a hardware problem: offering hardware that was simple and accessible enough for any motivated developer to assemble into a solution.

Last week we attended RFID Journal Live 2022 and the co-hosted IEEE RFID conference on the eve of our tenth anniversary, and we proudly argued, in the tutorial that we presented, that RFID has become ambient data, with over 100 billion standard, radio-identifiable devices present throughout the spaces in which we live, work and play. Today we are solving a middleware problem: facilitating interoperability across vendors and technologies so that any motivated developer can assemble off-the-shelf parts into a solution.

Why did we transform from a proprietary hardware company to the stewards of the only open source middleware for context-aware physical spaces? In a word, standards.

Opening slide from our IEEE Internet of People 2017 conference presentation

In 2014 emerged three key standards:

  • a long-range passive RFID standard with the founding of the RAIN Alliance
  • a de facto active RFID standard with Bluetooth Low Energy exceeding 1 Billion annual device shipments
  • linked, structured data (for digital twins) with JSON-LD becoming an official Web Standard

Since then there have been over 112 billion RAIN RFID tags produced and there are currently 5 billion Bluetooth Low Energy devices shipping annually. The problem of standard, accessible hardware is very much solved: we can identify and locate 100 billion+ “things” across the planet! Moreover, with Google embracing JSON-LD and Schema.org to represent anything as machine-readable data, all those things can be associated with web-standard digital twins!

So what’s the problem? In a word, interoperability. Discussions about overcoming the challenges of interoperability could be heard on both the industry and research sides of the 2022 conference, especially in the latter. And that is why the Pareto Anywhere open source middleware that we’ve been developing and continuously improving for years is so relevant: it enshrines interoperability as an open technology architecture. And in the era of walled gardens, Pareto Anywhere remains in a class of its own!

Today, our optimism for an open, interoperable Internet of Things has been renewed. Not only are vendors and researchers discussing the issue, things (no pun intended) are actually changing! This month alone, we’ve integrated with Wiliot (as we hinted we would at RFID Journal Live 2018) and have no fewer than 4 integrations with supportive RAIN vendors/technologies in the works, the first having already been validated end-to-end!

Incredibly, it took 8 years since the three standards independently emerged for us to be able to demonstrate them all working together harmoniously!

We’re glad to finally achieve that milestone—and arguably the first to openly do so—which is symbolic as this RFID Journal Live may well be our last. The industry conference, which celebrated 20 years, has largely fulfilled its mandate of connecting the vendors and prospective users of an emerging technology which is now well established. Instead, we’ll be keeping pace with the next wave of innovation coming from the IEEE RFID conference, with passive BLE and universal web resolvers for digital twins among the many research topics shaping the future of ubiquitous machine-contextual awareness.

See you at IEEE RFID 2023, and, for the usual suspects, expect a live performance of “As Long as you Read Me” by the Backscatter Boys.

RFID Journal Live 2019

Oh the irony of human-entered data at an RFID conference. Ten years ago, Kevin Ashton, who coined the term “Internet of Things”, explained in RFID Journal:

We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information […] without the limitations of human-entered data.

Case in point, the badge: the surname and given name are reversed, with the latter mispelled misspelled as a result of human data entry during onsite registration from a paper & pencil form. Nonetheless, this is an excellent example for emphasising the potential of RFID and the IoT!

Indeed, at the co-hosted IEEE RFID event, I, Jeffery Jeffrey, presented a workshop entitled Co-located RFID Systems Unite! focused on this potential now that there are nearly 20 billion RAIN (passive) and BLE (active) units shipping annually. An open architecture for collecting, contextualising and distributing the resulting data is becoming critical, and I was pleased to hear this sentiment echoed on the RFID Journal side by Richard Haig of Herman Kay and Joachim Wilkens of C&A.

Also heard echoed was the prevalence of BLE (active RFID) throughout the conference. Literally.

This contraption which converts radio decodings into musical notes may seem odd at first, but over the past year we’ve learned that art is a powerful tool for conveying to a non-technical audience the prevalence and potential of RFID and IoT in our daily lives. A few attendees were invited to listen with headphones and walk around until they found a silent spot. None were successful.

And we can only expect such prevalence to increase with energy harvesting technology maturing. We were pleased to see Wiliot’s live demo of an energy harvesting BLE tag, making good on their objectives from last year’s conference. Inexpensive battery-free BLE will be key to RFID proliferating to all the physical spaces in which we live, work and play—the BLE receiver infrastructure is often already there.

Which came first: the RFID or the Digital Twin?

The concept of the Digital Twin has also taken off over the past year, and we were pleased to have the opportunity to ask Jürgen Hartmann which came first in the Mercedes-Benz car factory example he presented? His answer was clear:

“Without RFID, for us there is no Digital Twin.”

Ironically, our April Fool’s post from two days previous was about Digital Conjoined Twins where we joked that the digital twin resides in the optimal location: adjacent to the physical entity that it represents. Perhaps not so silly in the context of industrial applications highly sensitive to latency???

RFID projects championed by the organisation’s finance department?

That is exactly what Joachim Wilkens of C&A argued. The success of their retail RFID deployment was in direct consequence of the C-level being on board, but more importantly by having a business case championed by the finance department:

“This is not an IT project, this is a business project.”

While we’ve observed our fair share of tech-driven deployments over the past few years, we’re increasingly seeing measurable business outcomes. For instance, a recent workplace occupancy deployment delivered, within months, a 15% savings in real-estate. That is a business project—one the finance department would love to repeat!

IoT: the next generation

What will we discuss in our RFID Journal Live 2029 blog post when the IoT celebrates its third decade?   That may well be in the hands of the next generation.   Since we began attending the co-hosted IEEE RFID and RFID Journal Live in 2013, we’ve observed a slow but steady shift in demographics. A younger generation—one which grew up with the Internet—is succeeding the generation instrumental in the development and commercialisation of RFID. On the showroom floor, we’re talking about the Web and APIs. At the IEEE dinner we’re discussing industry-academia collaboration to teach students about applications and ethics. And in the IEEE workshops, ASU Prof. Katina Michael took the initiative to invite one of her undergraduate students to argue the (highly controversial) case for implantables, effectively ceding centre stage to the next generation.

RFID's next generation is coming of age

The final print copy of RFID Journal we received back in 2012 is entitled “RFID’s Coming of Age”. Today I would argue that RFID’s next generation is coming of age. 1999 saw the emergence of the terms IoT and Web 2.0. Might we expect 2019 to mark the emergence of the term RFID 2.0?

RFID Journal Live 2018

Five years ago, reelyActive attended its first RFID Journal Live conference. Back then, we had pioneered simple, accessible cloud-connected active RFID. It’s easy to forget that in 2013 Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) had not yet established itself as the de facto standard for active RFID, nor had the RAIN RFID alliance been formalised.

This past week we were back in Orlando for the industry’s largest event, now as world-leaders in BYOD RTLS. And for those like us who haven’t given up on the dream of pervasive RFID, of Kevin Ashton’s Internet of Things, and of ubiquitous machine-contextual awareness, there’s plenty to be excited about in the coming years!

Wiliot: indefinitely identifiaBLE consumer goods

What if the mobile phone in your pocket — and your connected appliances at home — could automatically recognise the consumer packaged goods (CPG) you own and use?

That’s just one of many potential applications when Wiliot‘s batteryless Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) chip hits the market. By harvesting the 2.4GHz energy emitted by nearby WiFi & Bluetooth devices, and even microwave ovens, this chip will transmit periodic identification/status messages over a range of first meters, then, in a second generation, tens of meters.

Imagine the product lifecycle of, for instance, a sofa with this embedded chip. Its transit from factory to showroom is easily tracked and optimised. Not only can it be located in real-time on the showroom floor, shoppers can effortlessly retrieve information about the product on their smartphones. The connected home automatically recognises the sofa from delivery to disposal [enter your favourite smart home use cases here]. And, upon disposal, the material contents of the sofa can be automatically retrieved from the web, optimising recycling and reuse.

Never once in that process was there a battery to change/charge.

Technology such as this will be a key driver of the pervasive sharing economy (just add couch-surfing to the sofa example). And our platform is ready to recognise Wiliot’s chips and relay their messages the moment they hit the market.

EVRYTHNG: one web address standard to rule them all

What if every product existed on the web, accessible via a standard web address?

Pick up an item close to you right now and you’ll almost certainly find it has one or more identifiers (bar code, serial number, etc.). For instance, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a pair of jeans I purchased at an Orlando outlet was EPC/RFID-tagged — but its bar code number 50001231818 is meaningless to me (and even to Google)!   So, how does one connect product identifiers to the web?

We finally had the opportunity to physically meet EVRYTHNG, a startup we’ve been following online since the earliest days of the IoT hype cycle. And it was outstanding to learn that not only will their standardisation efforts with GS1 wrap up in the coming months, but OEMs can already link their products today: one code, one web address.

Ourselves having focused over the past few years on the plethora of BLE devices and their identifiers, in 2016 we created Sniffypedia which serves a similar purpose (and provides our competitive edge in BYOD). It is exciting to see how today the EVRYTHNG platform has evolved to make the digitisation of products accessible to the average business/OEM. As a result, not only will more products exist on the web, actually finding them on the web via their physical code — or in our case via radio-identifiers — will be straightforward thanks to this new translation standard.

MonsoonRF: lighting up the RAIN

What if real-time inventory were as simple as pointing a light at the shelf/rack?

A few months ago we were delighted to share Light hears ahead of its time. A few days ago we were delighted to find that commercial lighting systems are also integrating long-range passive RFID readers! Charles from MonsoonRF showed us how their track light could simply be pointed at a wall of tags to enable real-time visibility and inventory. The collected data is shared over WiFi.

How many engineers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

The answer may very well be none, and if so, that’s a major leap forward for pervasive passive RFID infrastructure. Imagine setting up a retail store for real-time inventory simply by pointing lights wherever items are on display!

In summary

In 2018, we can expect to see prototypes of consumer packaged goods that can be identified almost anywhere and anytime, a definitive standard for translating such identifiers into web addresses, and the early adoption of lighting infrastructure to detect and locate the billions (eventually trillions) of radio-identifiable items common in our daily lives.

Back in 2013 we were convinced this would happen, although we didn’t know exactly when or how. The fact that it is happening validates the purpose of our Pareto platform: converting the radio packets from any device (BYOD) captured by any infrastructure (BYOI) into a real-time contextual event data feed which embraces the standards of the web and can be distributed to all concerned parties. In other words, to observe the real-world like the web.

There’s no shortage of grey hairs at RFID Journal Live: there are people who have invested lengthy careers in what collectively falls under the “Internet of Things”. As we said,

for those like us who haven’t given up on the dream … there’s plenty to be excited about in the coming years!