RFID-based enterprise intelligence
SixthSense is a platform for RFID-based enterprise intelligence
that combines RFID events with information from other enterprise systems and
sensors to automatically make inferences about people, objects, workspaces,
and their interactions, writes Nivedan Prakash
all are aware of the benefits that can be leveraged out of Radio Frequency Identification
(RFID) technology. RFID is basically an electronic tagging technology that allows
the detection and tracking of tags and consequently the objects that they are
affixed to. This ability to do remote detection and tracking coupled with the
low cost of passive tags has led to the widespread adoption of RFID in supply
Microsoft Research India has come up with a technology called SixthSense, which
is a platform for RFID-based enterprise intelligence systems. The vision behind
this is the workplace or home of the future where computing is extended to encompass
non-computing entities such as people, objects, and spaces to enable rich user
The technology comprises inexpensive tags that are attached to objects and readers
that are able to read these tags from some distance. In SixthSense, the researchers
have extended the domain of RFID to settings, such as the workplace, where there
is rich interaction amongst people and between people and objects.
SixthSense has been designed and developed by Venkat Padmanabhan, Principal
Researcher - Mobility, Networks and Systems Group, Microsoft Research India
and Lenin Ravindranath, formerly an Assistant Researcher in the same group.
Padmanabhan said, The idea of SixthSense is to use RFID technology in
conjunction with a bunch of other enterprise systems such as the calendar system
or online presence that can track user activity. Here, we consider an enterprise
setting of the future where people (or rather their employee badges) and their
personal objects such as books, laptops, and mobile phones are tagged with cheap,
passive RFID tags, and there is good coverage of RFID readers in the workplace.
The rationale behind coming up with this kind of technology is the underlying
fact that RFID is widely used to track the movement of goods through a supply
chainwhether it be pallets shipped between warehouses, cases delivered
to stores, or items placed on the store shelves, thereby optimizing inventory
management and yielding significant cost savings.
If you look at the technology trends, RFID has really taken off in a big
way in the world of warehouses and retail stores amongst others wherein you
can tag items and then track their movement through the supply chain. Although
its expensive, it is becoming cheaper. In the supply chain setting, there
is typically a linear flow of objects. The question we asked was whether RFID
technology could be used in an interesting way in a different environment like
an office building or an enterprise. Thats how we started off and we basically
realized that rather than working with RFID technology in isolation, it would
make sense to use it in conjunction with other enterprise systems that already
existed. This led to the SixthSense system, added Padmanabhan.
Understanding the system
idea of SixthSense is to use RFID technology in conjunction with a bunch
of other enterprise systems such as the calendar system or online presence
that can track user activity"
- Venkat Padmanabhan
Principal ResearcherMobility, Networks and Systems Group, Microsoft
The key components of the SixthSense system, including the
databases, inference engine, and applications, are run centrally by the enterprise.
This provides the (trusted) inference engine access to the complete set of sensed
data across all users, objects, and zones, allowing it to make effective inferences.
Likewise, the (trusted) application is allowed the flexibility of working with
a complete set of inferences (i.e., inferences pertaining to all users and their
objects), yet control what processed information is presented to the users to
In contrast, if the inference engine or the application were
run by individual users on their own desktop machines, privacy consideration
would restrict the set of information made available to these, and hence limit
The main components of SixthSense arethe RFID monitor
and other enterprise monitors like the calendar monitor, presence monitor, login
monitor, and cameras; the raw database wherein the RFID monitor and the other
enterprise monitors push data into the raw database; an inference engine that
operates on the raw database to draw inferences about people, objects, and workspaces;
the processed database which is populated by the inference engine with its inferences,
making these available to applications built on top of the SixthSense platform;
and lastly a set of APIs for applications to look up the inferences stored in
the processed database or to receive callbacks when new inferences are made.
Workings of SixthSense
SixthSense focuses on applying RFID to an enterprise setting, such as a corporate
office or university department. Unlike in a supply chain, an enterprise setting
involves rich interaction amongst people, between people and objects, and between
people and workspaces. For instance, people own objects such as books, cell
phones, and laptops, which they often carry around and sometimes misplace.
Here, SixthSense provides a platform for tracking and inferring such interactions,
and then exposing these to the higher layers via APIs that enable useful applications
and services to be built. In this manner, it raises the level of abstraction
for applications in this domain beyond tag-level events, akin to how RFID stacks
such as Microsofts BizTalk do so in the supply chain context. In short,
SixthSense represents a form of mobile computing applied to non-computing entities.
It assumes a setting where most people (or rather their employee badges) and
objects contain passive RFID tags, and that the coverage of RFID readers spans
much of the workspace.
Padmanabhan said, However, we do not assume that this tagging is always
cataloged systematically. Indeed, many objects present in a workplace may not
even belong to the enterprise (e.g., a users personal mobile phone). Even
if all objects and people were cataloged, this would be a manual process, prone
to errors, and furthermore would require updating each time a new object is
added or an object needs to be retagged because of the deterioration of its
old tag. Therefore, a key goal of SixthSense is to make all inferences automatically,
without requiring any human input. Even in settings where human input is available,
the inference algorithms in SixthSense can help catch errors such as the wrong
ownership information for an object being recorded in a catalog.
SixthSense incorporates algorithms that start with a mass of undifferentiated
tags and automatically infer a range of information based on an accumulation
of observations. The technology is able to automatically differentiate between
people tags and object tags, learn the identities of people, infer the ownership
of objects by people, learn the nature of different zones in a workspace (e.g.,
private office versus conference room), and perform other such inferences.
Mobility of people and objects is a key to the inference performed by SixthSense.
For example, tags attached to people are more likely to move, with less dependence
on other tags, than tags attached to objects. Likewise, the owner of an object
is likely to be the person who carries it around the most.
By combining information from these diverse sources, SixthSense records all
tag-level events in a raw database. The inference algorithms consume these raw
events to infer events at the level of people, objects, and workspace zones,
which are then recorded in a separate processed database. Applications can either
poll these databases by running SQL queries or set up triggers to be notified
of specific events of interest.
Some noteworthy points
SixthSense infers when a user has interacted with an object, for example, when
you pick up your mobile phone. It is a platform in that its programming model
makes the inferences made automatically available to applications via a rich
set of APIs. To demonstrate the capabilities of the platform, the researchers
have prototyped a few applications using these APIs, including a misplaced object
alert service, an enhanced calendar service, and rich annotation of video with
For future work, the goal is to deploy SixthSense on a more extensive RFID setup
that also covers shared spaces such as conference rooms and hallways. They are
also planning to refine their programming model, as they gain experience with