Technologies for quick & easy shopping


I’m sure I’m not the only one who gets annoyed at long checkout queues and unnecessary delays when shopping.  Recently I have been exploring the use of RFID tagging and other technologies to detect items and enable automated purchases.  We are becoming more familiar with the use of smartphones for banking transactions via contactless (NFC) and being connected everywhere we go.  All these technologies are coming together in ways that make our lives easier but at the same time it can be scary and leave us wondering if we are becoming too vulnerable to cyber crime.

Amazon Technology are exploring ways of changing the shopping experience by trialing a “just walk out” system of shopping nicely explained in their video.  I wanted to explore the technologies they were combining to enable this approach and found that a patent application filed about 4 years ago covers a range of the technologies they are testing in their Amazon Go stores.  As usual the patent application is written in broad terms that can be adapted to a number of scenarios and so the terminology refers to a “material handling facility” rather than a shop.

Date: 8 Jan 2015
Abstract:  This disclosure describes a system for automatically transitioning items from a materials handling facility without delaying a user as they exit the materials handling facility. For example, while a user is located in a materials handling facility, the user may pick one or more items. The items are identified and automatically associated with the user at or near the time of the item pick. When the users enters and/or passes through a transition area, the picked items are automatically transitioned to the user without affirmative input from or delay to the user.

The description in the main body of the patent indicates that the technology can have application in stores, warehouses, libraries, museums, rental centres, etc.

Key enabling technologies are RFID tagging of items, image capture, facial recognition, sensors, wireless networks.  Typical scenarios include a user entering a facility and being identified from a tag or smartphone device, selecting items and various methods are described for detecting when an item has been removed from a shelf and placed in a bag, a log of the items chosen is recorded and when the user exits the facility the transaction is completed – which can be that the user is charged for the items and the amount is deducted from their bank account.

It is possible to track the progress of this application in the Global Dossier and I can tell that the original claims have been rejected; revised claims have been submitted which seek to work around the objections made by the patent examiner.

Phil’s Comments

RFID technology is widely used as a tagging method and the cost per tag has come down dramatically in price through the developments in printed electronics.  Direct printing of RFID on packaging is also possible.  Reliable detection of passive RFID (no built in power source) is better than it was and so every item in a full bag of shopping can easily be detected as one passes a sensor.  This application indicates that a whole range of technologies needs to work together seamlessly to get an automated shopping system working.  The reliance on cameras to aid in the detection of users and items picked is actually higher than I expected, but is also reassuring in that it helps to increase security and offset the concerns that the system could be abused.  The Amazon Go shop in Seattle has been running for about 5 months now but is only open to Amazon employees – I will keep an eye open for updates on its progress.

Please contact me if you would like more detailed patent analysis of this technology area.



Kovio Inc. patents: Printed Electronics Devices at lower cost


The radio frequency identification (RFID) market is huge, already over £2 billion.  Within this market passive RFID is expected to be the prime candidate for printing but so far the main thrust has been the printing of the antennae.  Often silver inks are used but the price fluctuations of silver (currently very high) cause many companies to look for alternatives such as copper, aluminium and organic conductive polymers.  The expensive part of an RFID tag is the chip and there are not many companies who have tried printing the chips.  Kovio Inc. was the first using nanosilicon on a variety of substrates.

The real advantage of printed RFID is the potential to produce tags and labels cheaply, perhaps even being able to print them directly as is done with barcodes today.  Applications like library tags, that currently use high cost silicon memory chips, tend to use HF rather than UHF and I believe this is where the potential for printed RFID is to be found.

Kovio Patents

Kovio Inc. were recently granted a third patent in a series which all relate to methods for making devices such as RFID tags at lower cost.  The key phrase from their abstract is:

The present invention advantageously provides semiconducting thin film structures having qualities suitable for use in electronics applications, such as display devices or RFID tags, while enabling high-throughput printing processes that form such thin films in seconds or minutes, rather than hours or days as with conventional photolithographic processes.

Their recent series of patents are summarized in the table below:

The most recent patent can be viewed here and has 67 method claims, the earlier patents relate to the materials and the thin film structure.  The 7553545 patent is also interesting in that it details the linewidths and gaps that can be printed.