Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Saturday, December 27, 2014
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Microsoft Develops RFID Alternative for 3D Printing 

For manufacturers, barcodes, electronic chips and RFID tags are key for tracking inventory and gathering meaningful data throughout the assembly line. And if the Internet of Things has as much momentum as experts believe, the role of ID tags is only going to expand.

But as additive manufacturing technology becomes more refined and more commonplace on the factory floor, there is a growing gap of products undetectable to tracking technology — until now. Microsoft recently revealed a technique for embedding “tags” within a 3D-printed object, allowing them to be scanned from the outside to gather encoded information.

Andy Wilson, principal researcher on the “InfraStructs” project, reveals that the tags are actually printed disruptions within the object, and can range from holes or extra material that, depending on their shape, relay different information.

According to Wilson, the work reflects the growing perception of 3D printing as being more than a rapid prototyping tool, which is particularly true at Microsoft Research. “We want to think about 3D printing more deeply and approach it as a research topic,” says Wilson.

As for what information will actually go into each device, the information could be as simple as a serial number or small program, or they could even used for interactive gameplay with a device like Kinect for Xbox. Using a similar system, this technology would make it even easier for robots to interact with the 3D-printed product, whether it’s on or off the assembly line.

The tagging system is designed to interact with a terahertz (THz) scanner, which are used in high-resolution volumetric imaging, such as what you see at airport security. For it to work, the scanner sends a signal between the frequencies of 300 and 3,000 gigahertz with a wavelength of one millimeter or shorter, which is considered safe to humans. The THz radiation pulse is then reflected back from each material face on both the outer and inner surfaces of the object being scanned.

“It has to do with the waveforms you get when the scan penetrates the object,” Wilson explains. “We are able to distinguish between transitions in the material, void or non-void, by measuring the reflection distance. We investigated a lot of the really early depth-camera technologies, and at some level, it’s all consistent with that line of research.”

Considering Wilson’s formative experiences with early depth cameras, the researcher’s leap in focus to 3D printing suddenly seems much smaller. In the end, he says he expects InfraStructs to have an impact beyond manufacturing. Hitting much closer to home, the ID tag technology could help to create a more interactive gaming experience, or perhaps fundamentally alter how we approach everyday computing.

“It opens up new possibilities for encoding hidden information as part of the 3D fabrication process,” says Wilson. “Down the road, a program reads the object, and embedded within the object are further instructions, perhaps even code that can be read and compiled to further interrogate the object. There’s been some work in this direction using RFID tags. We talk about ‘the Internet of Things,’ and I would argue this fits into that vision.

Until now, inserting electronic chips or RFID tags have been an option, but require an alteration to the manufacturing process that results in higher costs, and what now can be deemed ‘unnecessary’ complexity. Similarly, barcodes remain an option, although due to their external application, these can be removed or damaged.

At SIGGRAPH 2013, which brings together experts in the fields of computer graphics and interactive technique in Anaheim, Calif., Wilson will present his research on InfraStructs, as well demonstrating IllumiRoom, a living room inspired by virtual reality that projects images beyond what you see on your TV screen.

For those familiar with science fiction, you may be reminded of Ray Bradbury’s chilling short story, “The Veldt,” in which the virtual reality system of a children’s playroom becomes dangerously real. But for now, the applications of IllumiRoom are no cause for concern. The primary application for the technology will be most exciting for gamers, as the projections can extend the field of vision in their game to create a more immersive experience, and perhaps even help mold a faster, more competitive gamer.

But in light of Wilson’s work in manufacturing with InfraStructs, it’s possible that the technology could come into play for designers interested in a 3D CAVE system. But for now, Wilson’s ultimate course will clearly intersect the consumer market.

While the ID tags could help spur along the development of the Internet of Things, and help manufacturers to gather bigger, smarter data about their production process and the longevity of their products, a system such as this could be the ultimate way to ensure that your 3D printed product is the genuine article, rather than a seamless copy.

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