Mister Beacon Episode #127
Understanding AIMFebruary 05, 2021
Success in IoT depends on understanding how the ecosystem operates. Auto-ID is a building block at the heart of IoT and AIM is the industry group that defines auto-ID standards. It does the things that companies on their own, even giants, can’t achieve.
“How is it ‘that virtually every person on the face of the earth has the ability to scan a barcode in their pocket’?
This week we have a peek inside AIM. For ‘nearly half a century, it has provided unbiased information, educational resources and standards to providers and users of these technologies’, Barcodes, QR Codes, RFID, and Bluetooth, to name a few. Sprague Ackley, Principal R&D Engineer at Digimarc, a contributor to AIM for much of his career, points out the many parts of our lives that auto-ID enhances: think of getting packages to your door just in the nick of time, making sure your COVID vaccine has been accurately tracked and traced, or the military receiving the materials they need under incredibly difficult conditions. Now that auto-ID is well established, AIM focuses on making it better, less expensive, more efficient, and deployed more broadly. Tune in to learn how you can leverage its resources, how it works, and its relationship to other groups like RAIN RFID, ISO, and GS1.
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The Mr. Beacon Podcast is sponsored by Wiliot, scaling IoT with battery-free Bluetooth.
Steve Statler 00:16
Welcome to the Mr. Beacon Podcast. It feels like the whole world is imploding. But we're still here talking about auto-ID technology IoT. And so I really appreciate your spending some time with us this week, I think is going to be a very useful and interesting show we're going to be talking about AIM, which is, well, let me ask our guest, Sprague Ackley. Can you? Sprague, I should say, Can you explain what is AIM?
Sprague Ackley 00:49
Right. So AIM is the, the industry group or, you know, consortium of companies that is, was put together in the early 80s, to expand the market for Automatic Identification. It started where, you know, a bunch of competitors got together and said, you know, hey, we're all, you know, printing in reading these barcodes, but, you know, the, the symbols that some of the people were making were slightly different than the ones other people were making. And we really should get together and, you know, make some standards. So they literally invented the barcode symbology standard, and formed aim to, to write these standards and to publish them. So the very first barcode standards, particularly for code 39, and interleaved 205, were developed by people in, in the important barcode companies of the time, and, and published as standards, and then all the companies, you know, used these standards. And so suddenly, we had, all the equipment was interoperable. And because those standards were put in the public domain, which was very radical at the time, you know, the barcodes at the time, you'd go to Company A and get their barcode, and then you'd be stuck buying all their equipment. And what we realized is, you know, it's much better to to, to own say, 10% of a market that is 1000 times bigger than owning 100%, of a tiny market. And that was a revolutionary idea that rocketed the barcode industry into prominence. At the same time, that aim was making standards for industrial applications, you know, like, the military and or hospitals or supply chain, stuff like that. The predecessor of GS one, it's called the Uniform Code Council, put a barcode symbology called UPC in the public domain, for the same reasons. And so the retail and the and, of course, they, you know, our printers printed these UPC codes, you know, for variable weight items in supermarkets. And our scanners were used to scan them. And the industry grew very, very rapidly, because it was all based on these public domain standards. And so, as ame grew more symbologies were invented. And ame was the clearinghouse for those standards. And the they set up a committee called the technical symbology Committee, which is still in place today, as the premier Technology Group, in the in the whole barcode world. And still to this day, we vet new technologies, we develop new standards, we answer technical questions, you know, from an industrial point of view. And an aim has grown from just being a developer of standards to growing many areas of the industry. So there's lots of groups that develop, you know, application specific implementations in the industry. Plus, aim as an advocate for, you know, potentially communicating with the outside world like for instance, if the FDA publishes some, you know, rule and launch input, you know, from a non biased source of information. They always come to aim. That's pretty much everyone does as the source of information for the barcode and RFID world, but from an unbiased perspective,
Steve Statler 04:59
So It's it's primarily barcodes and RFID anything else or
Sprague Ackley 05:07
you know, it these days, it's, it's everything pertaining to you know, why I call it Automatic Identification, but it's really, you know, much more than that, you know? Well, your your company is developing a Automatic Identification technology that and involves Bluetooth low energy to communicate some, you know, silicon to hold information and, and sensors to be in touch with the outside world. And this will greatly improve, you know, supply chain efficiency. And that's what aim is all about. So we are technology agnostic. Certainly, from a market size perspective, barcode is gigantic. And it's so gigantic, people don't even realize it, it is a market, you know, just so ubiquitous. Excuse me, RFID, of course, is growing wildly. And pretty much. You know, blockchain technologies are all part of that. And, you know, how, essentially, anything that improves, the linking of the outside world to the computer, is what I would call, you know, our bailiwick you name?
Steve Statler 06:36
So a fairly trivial question, but what's the M in aim? So you have Automatic Identification, and,
Sprague Ackley 06:43
well, it started there. This is way too long a conversation for way too little of importance in my in my mind, but it started off as Automatic Identification manufacturers, and it had, you know, all the barcode manufacturers together, and then RFID manufacturers came in. And then, you know, we had members from the user community joining, and then we had members from the academic community joining. And we thought, Well, you know, and we're much more than just, you know, manufacturers pushing one particular technology, we're also about empowering the workforce in the supply chain. And, you know, we started to make these handheld devices that were extremely powerful, that could read barcodes and do computing. And so we changed our name to automatic information and mobility or something like that. Anyway, and now
Steve Statler 07:42
Mobility, is in there somewhere
Sprague Ackley 07:44
mobility is in there. And now, I think we changed it again to Automatic Identification matters.
Steve Statler 07:54
Sprague Ackley 07:55
which is a little, you know, tongue twister in English for, you know, anything to do with Automatic Identification is us. And, of course, Automatic Identification is very important. And that's why it matters. So that's, I think that's the latest name of the group.
Steve Statler 08:13
Wiliot just joined AIM, which is probably why we're having this conversation, but I had been aware of, of the organization for a while, but you know, now we're in production. And we're starting to really think about certification standards interoperability, and I'm like, man, we need to get with other people. And so aim, you know, that the relevance and the importance became very clear to me and so I've been learning about it. And I'm, I was thinking, wow, other people need to understand about this. So even though you're kind of, well, let's, let's summarize what aim is. So it's about standards. It's about human networking, kind of meeting other people in the, in the ecosystem that we all operate in, because we all need to collaborate and sell things and buy things...
Sprague Ackley 09:09
Not only collaborate for the current situation. But right, if there's anything I found out being in the industry for a while, as the people that are your competitors today, maybe you know, your customers tomorrow, and, you know, and maybe your boss, you know, the next day. So, it's it's really important to, to work together and and I would have to say the thing that, that I was told right at the beginning and I still am very, very passionate about today is the purpose of aim is to grow the whole industry. And it if the whole industry is growing and the whole industry is successful, you know, each individual company will grab their fair share, and by working together so that customers are Successful, if if a cut it, it doesn't help if a customer, you know, gets a competitive product and fails, they might come to you and you might get some short term business. But it's much better for everyone if if customers are successful, even if it's your competitor, because down the line, if the customer is really successful, they're going to need more equipment someday, and your competitor may merge with you may go out of business, and you may end up getting that business eventually. But if they were unsuccessful in the beginning and left in, you know, with bad taste in your mouth, that is not going to help you, and it's not gonna help them. So aim is there to make sure all customers regardless of the manufacturers that they go with, or the consultants or academic input, everything, everything that involves their success, is what ame is all about.
Steve Statler 10:57
And, and that sort of segues to the other aspects of the mission, which is this education and evangelism, which I think is, is really helpful.
Sprague Ackley 11:08
Yeah, sure. I mean, in the old days, you know, no one knew what a barcode was there, there was a lot of conferences, you know, to teach people what barcode was, and, you know, what's that called horizontal, I think, where, you know, we had people from every from hospitals and, and, and, you know, package carriers and, and post office, and everyone all come and it's gone. And what's barcode? barcode is a pretty well known now, even RFID, which was the new Oh, wow, thing, you know, 10 or 15 years ago, is pretty well known now. And so, really, what what aim has done is, is helped vert what verticals, you know, meaning areas that are using the technology, to, you know, come up with application support, to make them more successful, as the technology becomes more commonplace. I mean, who would have thought, you know, when I started that every year, like, virtually every person on the face of the earth has the ability to scan a barcode in their pocket, you know, it's just, it's just unbelievable. And that, you know, that kind of power can be harnessed through collaborating with, with an industry group, you know, to help educate people in the various areas on how they can use that, that power, you know, basically to, to make sure that whatever their customer is doing is successful, whether it's getting that package on your front porch, you know, miraculously, you know, three hours after you ordered it, to making sure that medication, you know, that the, that the COVID vaccine, you're getting in your arm has a complete cold chain pedigree all the way from its manufacturer to the point you're getting it. And it's barcodes that are doing that. And in some cases, RFID, to making sure that, you know, military deployments get the, you know, get the infrastructure and the, in the materials that they need to the right place at the right time. And under horrifically difficult circumstances. All of these technologies are completely integrated in Automatic Identification. Now, it's no longer you know, Oh, what's this new thing? It's, you know, how can we make it even better, less expensive, more efficient, and deployed more broadly, for the benefit of everybody involved?
Steve Statler 14:01
So let's talk a bit about what the how the organization is structured, because it's not just a monolithic group, there's How is it? How did the people work together as the working groups or application committees or what
Sprague Ackley 14:14
Yeah, sure. So. So ame has a small staff of three, three folks, that, you know, basically keep things running and keep the finances going, keep the computers going. And then a, you know, a few consultants here and there for, you know, particular projects, like, you know, what, when we change the ame logo, you know, for instance, made sure we did that all, you know, all well, but basically, it's all run by volunteers from the members. And I didn't, you know, I didn't get this. I don't know, I forget how many exactly what the total number of companies are in ame, but it's in the hundreds and in basically everyone who's a member of ame And basically, we are a small company, it's very inexpensive to join, if you're a huge company, it's a, it's a little bit more. So anybody that is a member of aim is free to join any one of the many committees, one of which, of course, is the technical symbology. Committee. And I personally would like to encourage anybody who is either already an a member or interested in joining ame to dig down into their, you know, the, their techie gurus that they all have inside their company, and let them join the TSC. One, it's a great experience for them to interface with, with all of my colleagues, so I have to say, are unbelievably smart and accomplished. And it's great for us to get new input, you know, from people that have, you know, they're super smart, high, high tech folks with, with a different background. So that's, that's the, the, you know, the biggest pitch I'm going to give is the technical symbology committee has been going, you know, since the beginning of aim has a great history, we, we elected a vice chair and a chair every year. So, if you do join, you know, and you're on the committee for, you know, four or five years, you're probably going to get tapped to help with the leadership, which isn't, it isn't that hard, because we all pretty much, you know, work together, it's not like some boss, you know, commanding us. So that's, that's a great, a great technical committee. One of the committees I'm on is called the IoT committee. And that's been really fun, where that's an application committee, where we try to, you know, Garner all of the, you know, maybe the latest technology that all of us in our various companies are working on, to help develop new applications for Automatic Identification that, you know, we're just not possible before. And IoT, of course, links, you know, sensors of the outside world, it, it, it marks things that are hard to mark, but marks them all so that they can be tracked and become, you know, interact basically, with a computer. And all the technologies, you know, that are potentially involved with the Internet of Things is, is is in the purview of that committee. So that's, that's been really, really fun. We have a track,
Steve Statler 17:42
To clarify, what is your role in aim? what's what's, what's your job today? And what what's it been in the past?
Sprague Ackley 17:49
Yeah, so Well, when I started long ago, you know, it was always technical, always the technical symbology committee was my role. You know, from the beginning. However, you know, back in the day, ame, would have these, these conferences, called scan tech, and that, in addition to just making the standards, we were encouraged to, you know, give talks at these conferences, that led to, you know, working with various universities to develop auto ID courses. And so I work with that, and ended up helping to develop a kind of a teach the teachers organization, called the teachers Institute, which is still going on every two or three years, where we get professors from all over the world, to come and learn them the latest about auto ID, so they can go back to their universities, and either add, you know, you know, a segment to their course on supply chain logistics, or their course on computer technology, or whatever. And in some cases, some universities actually have a full on course, dedicated to auto ID. So I've been doing a lot of work with education. And then, when Honeywell bought intermec, I was asked to be the representative on the board of directors for Honeywell. So I also I'm not a big business guy, I have to admit, I'm not that enthusiastic about sitting in the meetings and arguing over how much money we should allot to this thing and that thing, and what the dues structure should be in everything. wasn't really my thing. But, you know, it gave me a really great view of, you know, the details how you run a business, his aim is essentially a business we got it. You know, we got to take in more money than we put out. So that was really a good learning experience for me. So I've pretty much done mostly everything. One way or another idea.
Steve Statler 19:57
You can tell Let's go back to the membership structure see join. And it's very affordable if you're a small company, and reasonable if you're a large company, it doesn't really have all these tiers of membership, does it? Or can it can anyone do anything, it's not like it in the Bluetooth SIG, which is a fine organization. But there's definitely tears, and you pay a lot more to get in the top tiers. And
Sprague Ackley 20:23
no, no, you, if you're the, you know, small shop with, you got three people working there, and you're, you're making one little product, you know, and your annual sales, you know, hit $600,000, for the first time, you have just as much power in aim, as you know, the dude on the board of directors from the billion dollar company. So it is a completely flat organization, from a membership standpoint, you can join any committee that you want. And really your only limitation is how much how much enthusiasm you bring to the task. You can come in literally as a brand new member, and, and be making changes to technology standards, you know, the first week.
Steve Statler 21:13
So you mentioned the symbology committee and on barcodes done, is that is that there's more work to do?
Sprague Ackley 21:22
You know, barcodes is there, it's kind of a human thing. Yeah, I would say, well, it was actually 20 years ago, before the invention of QR code, actually, a prominent executive of a competitor, who shall not be named, made the statement that everything that has is needed in the barcode world has been invented, and there's gonna be no more standards, we're not doing anything else. It's all done. And, you know, it could have been done that, you know, pretty much the barcodes that were around in the, in the early 90s. If we did have a 2d barcode back then, which is called Data Matrix was, you know, slightly ahead of its time because we didn't have, you know, very affordable scanning technology. Now, of course, when you scan a, you know, a barcode with your phone, you're using a camera, essentially. And that's what's necessary for these 2d barcodes, including data matrix, and then an upstart called QR code from Japan, which now young people when they ask what a barcode, is, it it's a QR code. So, you know, who would have known and, you know, there's been a lot of barcode symbologies invented in, in recent times that have gained widespread adoption, pawns in code in China is becoming a, an international standard. And just recently, a color bar code from Germany called jab code is, is moving through the ISO process, and I could go on and on and on. So there was
Steve Statler 23:03
Your own company as well, like, Digimarc I mean, I don't know whether that's can be considered a barcode, but it's certainly an optical?
Sprague Ackley 23:10
no, it's a barcode, just a barcode, basically Digimarc you know, which is basically my, my current company is the inventor of a truly amazing barcode at, you know, every barcode that, you know, you're familiar with, and everyone watching this call is familiar with, is like, a particular little place, you know, it might be reviewing, as soon as, you know, that, the UPC code on the on the back of a, you know, item two. So I'm working on this I happen to have on here, you know, to a, you know, typical barcode that everyone he gets, you know, at home, and this is the data matrix here, and a code 128 there. You these things, you know, require cameras to be read, and their cameras are everywhere now, and every barcode scanner out there today scans this new barcode called digimarc. And what's different about it is instead of being in a small fixed space digimarc barcode is actually used the same technology as RFID spread spectrum technology, and it's all over. So, so one form of the barcode is like, looks like little dots, it looks like you're looking at the stars at night. And it's just tiny little dots and you can hardly even you don't even know it's there, basically. But, you know, you can take any little piece of that, you know, whole surface and read it. So it's credible in the face of damage, and has lots of error correction way, way more than regular barcodes. And I could go on and on and on and on, but I promised they wouldn't
Steve Statler 24:57
We will have a whole show about Digimarc.
Sprague Ackley 25:02
Did you mark is a new barcode. And the thing about every barcode is that every barcode is invented, fills some area that wasn't being supported by the existing barcodes. So when I said it was like a human thing, humans, when they're faced with a challenge, come up with something new. And so that's why we have a lot of barcodes. You know, I would say that, you know, the main standardized barcodes, there's probably at least 15 or 20. And there's another 15 or 20, that are in, you know, it's common use that are in every barcode scanner. And there's probably another 50, you know, that those of us who are history buffs, you know, you know, they basically never made it to primetime. But all the barcodes that are there, when you buy a barcode scanner from any one of the manufacturers, you have a lot of options. And so you can pick the one that is the most efficient for your application. And if you're already doing something, you know, in an application that has a barcode, you can be sure that no matter what scanner manufacturer you go with, they're all going to be able to read that barcode, because it's, that's what standards are all about.
Steve Statler 26:19
Very cool. So we only got a few minutes late left, and I want to get through all of the groups that are working and also just tweezer apart the relationship between the organization, aim and all these other affiliated organizations like ISO and rain and stuff. So let's rattle through the other groups. Right. So another one about symbology. We talked about IoT?
Sprague Ackley 26:43
We talked about IoT, we have a track and trace group for that is developing white papers and helping people with the application of one of the biggest ones is fresh, fresh food and cold chain, which I alluded to earlier on. That's a huge one. It basically involves serialization, which is very powerful. Then we have the RFID experts group, which has been around almost 20 years for helping people with the applications of our RFID. You mentioned rain. Rain is a you know, basically a buddy, a buddy of ame. And anyone that joins ame gets a huge discount in membership fees for rain. So rain is an RFID marketing organization, helping to push applications of UHF technology.
Steve Statler 27:37
And they actually have had their President on this show. So someone
Sprague Ackley 27:42
Steve Holiday has been with he used to be an employee of aim. He comes from the mag stripe world way back when and probably embarrassing him by saying this. But he worked with standards and Mag right mag stripe is an RF is a technology. You know, it's another auto ID technology. You know, even older than barcode and then there is a completely separate group which is ISO. So ISO takes the ame standards and makes them International. And ame is involved with the the US Technical Advisory Group, the US tag for ISO. So if you join aim, you get a big discount on joining the US tag, which is then your route to a seat on an ISO committee. And the ISO committee for barcode is called sc 31, which is, you know, the Automatic Identification subcommittee. And I am on the workgroup one which is the barcode one. And then there's working for which is the RFID. Committee and then we have worked with eight which is applications of any type of Automatic Identification.
Steve Statler 28:53
But other than the discount, I thought the AMA actually had a role in kind of curating one of the inputs to the ISO process is that
Sprague Ackley 29:02
Yeah, I guess so. I think what you're referring to is the registration authority. So in RFID, there is a there are a couple of bits that are used in the UHF protocol to allow organizations to essentially issue numbers so that it maintains uniqueness. So one, you know, that everyone is familiar with just GS one, which is, you know, the folks that you know, make the barcodes on cereal boxes and a lot of other things that in order for that to be unique and all the world that has to be registered as a as an as an ISO acknowledged organization. And then there's also data encoding in the RFID world that has to be registered in a marriage stration authority for those types of things,
Steve Statler 30:02
that's interesting wasn't actually what I was thinking. But I remember watching this video with sock puppet puppets that was explaining how you get a, an ISO standard started and the message I took away was Steve Statler can't just decide I'm gonna, I've got an idea for an ISO standard and go to ISO but but I am can is kind of
Sprague Ackley 30:29
yeah ame can or you can come to ame and join the US tag or if you're in Germany, you would join din di n and you know if you're in Japan you join JSON every every country has you know their their national standards which for us is antsy Nancy standards in New York. And Nancy is basically our member organization to ISO and aim runs the group that feeds information into Anssi, which is gives us our voice in ISO pretty good.
Steve Statler 31:09
And then the last thing I wanted to ask you about was GS1, you touched on this earlier, but what's the relationship other than the I think there's a discount that you can get to join GS1, but
Sprague Ackley 31:21
I don't think there's a discount to join GS1, I can't speak for GS1, but I don't think membership in ame helps you or vice versa there sorry about that. But we we are have collaborated since the beginning. You know, GS1 comes to aim, when they want help with the user community education they want, you know, they send their folks over to ame when it's well who do I buy my scanners from and go to aim and aim will give you, you know, information on all the manufacturers. And a lot of people, technical people and marketing people, a lot of people involved in ame are also very much involved in GS one, GS one is a user organization. So they they're made up of each individual country has its own member organization in that country. And then there's a global GS1 organization, and, and a lot of people in GS1 is a member of ame. And there's a lot of collaboration, you know, back and forth with GS1 and ame. But it but we have different roles. GS1 is, you know, sales numbers, and is their customers are the big manufacturers, you by far their biggest area is of course, you know, retail, but their huge footprint in healthcare and many other industries. And, and all of the people that you know, get their numbers from GS1, also participate in, in making sure GS1 standards are adhere to, which is the data, you know, I mentioned, I was I worked a lot with data encoding. So that's the data encoding side aim is we're the guys that like, you know, print and read the barcodes or or encode the RFID tags and make the chips or, or what have you. So that's the it's a collaborative relationship, very long standing collaborative relationship.
Steve Statler 33:28
Awesome. Well, I know a lot of our listeners, viewers, solution designers, entrepreneurs, solution architects, and it's one thing having an idea, but you know, how do you actually bring it to life. And I think tapping into understanding the standards, understanding the ecosystem, are essential. And I think ame can really help with that. And so
Sprague Ackley 33:53
any, if you're not very much, you don't even have to be a member, you if you have questions about standards, or anything that we've talked about here, get on the ame website and ask him a question. And if it I'll say if it's a techie question, and the folks that aim, you know, I mean, if it's something simple, you know, like, what's a linear barcode? They don't need to bother us, but if you come up with some question, you know, what, what, you know, how do I increase the error correction level and data matrix, you know, or, or something involved with, you know, I have a problem with my verifier failing my simple because of modulation. Our aim will send the question over to the people in the organization that can answer it, and you'll get an answer from aim not from a manufacturer, you'll get a you'll get a fair, unbiased technical answer if it's a technical question. If it's a marketing question, you'll get fair information from all that all the manufacturers. So feel free to interact with aim as a non member for any types of questions you have about the industry or standards or whatever.
Steve Statler 35:03
Wonderful Sprague. Thanks very much for giving up your time to tell us about all of this. It's been very fun. And it has
Sprague Ackley 35:10
been fun. Thank you very much. And I have to say, personally, you know, I get to learn a lot about your technology, and it's super exciting. And to whoever's out there, I don't I don't I you know, I don't know. But please feel free to Oh, you know, I should tell you what the website is here. What is it? Aim global aim global.org. Aim glba l one word that no spaces no periods.org. And that is the place for automatic identification information. And your you know, welcome to participate as much as you can.
Steve Statler 35:57
Sprague, Thanks so much. And look forward to talking to you on another occasion about Digimarc.
Sprague Ackley 36:03
I'll very much look forward to that at some super exciting stuff there for sure. Thanks very much, Steve. Appreciate it.
Steve Statler 36:15
Are you into music?
Sprague Ackley 36:18
You know, I've never I don't have the talent to play music. I used to joke, you know, I'm really good at playing my stereo. So I really love listening to music. For sure. It's a huge part of my life.
Steve Statler 36:32
Yeah, same with me. I have a guitar, which I occasionally tried to play, and it just frustrates me. But it does make me appreciate the people that can So who do you like listening to what's if you had to choose your, your three top records, what would they be?
Sprague Ackley 36:49
Well, I like listening to everything. You know, I listened to mostly rock music, but I love listening to classical and going to the symphony, I really miss going to concerts in general, for sure. But particularly Symphony and, and jazz, and you know, and I love, you know, folk and and if, if I'm having trouble pulling in radio on the, on the east side, I even listened to country western stations, you know, anything that that has? You know, it's the sound, I just love the sound.
Steve Statler 37:29
So if you've got three tracks on your trip to Mars, what's the first one that you would choose?
Sprague Ackley 37:36
Yeah, well, obviously, I could go hot totally highbrow, you know, and, you know, pick something like this st. Saul Symphony for Oregon. But it you know, I grew up listening to, you know, the radio, and one of my very first experiences was listening to the Beatles. And, you know, they made a huge impression on me. And, and I'd have to say, you know, I love all their music, but yesterday is just a great palette makes me think about all the all the things, you know, maybe I could have done better in the past. And plus a I actually remember the words to that, mostly, I think. So I'd say that that would be one.
Steve Statler 38:33
And it's one that he wrote in his sleep. Isn't that the one that Paul McCartney writes, he kind of woke up and
Sprague Ackley 38:40
had it in his head.
Steve Statler 38:41
Wrote it down and then went back to sleep again. And then I haven't heard
Sprague Ackley 38:45
I haven't heard that story. But, you know, it's certainly pretty simple. It's pretty simple, but very, you know, very powerful. And along those lines, the, you know, another great rock band from that time, it's still still putting out music today is the Rolling Stones and a great anthem. And also one that I I also liked the lesson, too, is you can't always get what you want. Which is, you know, very true in life. But, you know, sometimes it's good to appreciate what you have. And, and I think for me, I'm just I'm much happier. appreciating the awesome things that, you know, I have in my life, my family, great place that I'm lucky enough to be able to live. I've been super lucky in my career. And so I guess, you know, that plus, you know, many great memories of the 1000s of times, I've heard that song. And then finally, another one from that same period when I was a little kid, my parents You know, showed me a movie that they saw when they were a kid, which is the Wizard of Oz. And the great ballad, Somewhere over the rainbow. Snow chokes me up a little bit when I hear it. But what that makes me think about is the future and how, you know, there's, there's always infinite possibilities for the future. And and that's just a song that that, you know, inspires me to, to dream and to imagine, and to, you know, paint the picture for the future of where I want to go so that I can step into that picture. And so there you go, there's my three songs, pretty popular songs.
Steve Statler 40:48
I love all of them. And I think you're what you just said is, I think very typical of technologists. You know, we, I don't know whether we all tend to be hot, a glass half full, but we see how things could be with this new stuff. And I think he kind of captured that in that in that song choice. So let's just talk a bit about your I mean, so you live in, in Oregon, now that you is it, would you say is it Portland or Beaverton because digimarc
Sprague Ackley 41:22
digimarcon. Beaverton, which is about 10 or 15 minute drive from my house here. And in the city of Portland, I'm in the city limits in the south end of Portland down by the river. It's called South Portland. And growing up an East Coast though I always think of it as the other Portland. I went to college in May, and hung out in Portland a lot. But this one is the is the one where, you know, we're close to the mountains, we're close to the ocean. We have, you know, very mild climate, it really never gets particularly cold or particularly hot. And it's just a very pleasant place to live all year round. And just great.
Steve Statler 42:09
To see a mountain you can ski and about an hour and a half, you can be on the slopes.
Sprague Ackley 42:14
Yeah, less than an hour, I could be scan and then, you know, an hour later, I could be paddling on the river, you know, right near my house. And then, you know, another hour to the in the other direction I can be surfing. So God love that.
Steve Statler 42:29
So. So you ended up in a really nice place. And you've had a really interesting career. He started off as a physicist, how did you get from being a physicist to dealing with auto ID technologies,
Sprague Ackley 42:41
having studied physics and I and although I'm called a physicist a lot, I don't I don't have a PhD. So I'm not technically a physicist, but I, I have a master's in physics and did a lot of research in that area. Well, I moved to Seattle, from the east coast, right after graduate school. For all the reasons I just described. It's wonderful about Portland, it's equally wonderful about Seattle. And I, I looked around for a job, you know, and I saw this little company that made barcode stuff, and I knew barcode, you know, use lasers. And I knew a lot about I know a lot about lasers, and you know, how they work and all that stuff. And so I figured, I'd be all ready for my interview. It turns out, they didn't ask me anything about lasers, they were really interested in their manufacturing processes. Particularly on the west coast. You know, there's lots of mechanical engineers, lots of electrical engineers, lots of engineers, and very few kind of generalists. And so with a physics background, they asked me, Well, you know, what can you do with physics, I basically said, like, anything, you can do anything. And they had problems with glues and plating, and wire bonding, and hardening, all these things that, you know, require magnetization that require, you know, really understanding of the basic phenomenon in order to, you know, fix the manufacturing problems they were having. And so they hired, this is intermec. It used to be called interface mechanisms. When I started it is intermec. That's correct. And they made little light nickel light pens, they, they are ones and you would, you know, scan them across the barcode. They made printers, which are impact printers back then form font impact printers. So, you know, one smack would would form a whole barcode character, you know, with the letter underneath it. And so the processes involved with making those industrial devices basically electronic devices, involved, all the things I mentioned. It was all a mess. And although, you know, the electrical engineers would just try to add more capacitors or whatever, and the mechanical engineers just put clamps and on everything and really took, you know, the understanding of the, you know, the fundamental physics of it. And to make progress in which I did very, very, really, quite quickly, in a couple of years, I had solved all the manufacturing problems. And I went to my boss, David LA, who was famous in the barcode world, you know, and said, you know, what's the biggest problem that the company is facing? And he said, Well, our biggest problem is we have, we make printers and people, you know, send them back because, you know, their, their scanner isn't working. And when it's really was the scanners fault, and we make scanners, and they'd send the scanners back and say, You can't read my barcode when it was, you know, most often, you know, once everything was holding together, it was the it was the printing. And they had verifiers at the time that were really not based on how scanners worked. And so they would, they would pass, you know, horrible looking barcodes that didn't read at all, and they would fail beautiful barcodes that, you know, read great. And so he said, this is our problem. And that got me into the technology of the company. Whereas before I was involved in putting it together. In he basically said, you know, what, what do we need to do? And I said, Well, we need to make, you know, basically a barcode scanner, that is 10 times more accurate and repeatable than any scanner out there in any verifier out there. And we need to, you know, be then that will you, we will use that to analyze the barcode. And that will be the definitive solution. And he just smiled and said, Okay, go do it.
Steve Statler 47:06
Sprague Ackley 47:07
So, off I went. And that led me into developing the, the method that is used today to measure print quality, and I got into the standards groups because of that, to show them how this all worked. And I, of course, was a young whippersnapper at the time and learned a huge amount from the great minds of the industry at the time, and been working, you know, kind of outside the company on standards and symbologies and stuff to make the whole industry successful. And then inside the company to make my company successful, you know, generally with, you know, new ideas and inventions and you know, pushing the limits of the printing and the scanning capability.
Steve Statler 47:51
So inspect, became Honeywell got bought by Honeywell, is that right?
Sprague Ackley 47:56
Yeah. So So intermec was really, in either the leader of the industry in the early days, and then in in the top, you know, two or three companies pretty much throughout my career. And we were all, you know, battling mightily for market share. But, you know, in the standard side, we all met and, you know, made sure that everyone had a level playing field, because we knew that we'd all do much better if we grew the industry, which we did. And yeah, so I don't know, about six or eight years ago, Honeywell was acquiring numbers, many small companies and assembling them together to form you know, kind of a, a big barcode company. And that's when they gobbled up. intermec
Steve Statler 48:53
and have you got into RFID as well, or has that been more than a barcode?
Sprague Ackley 48:59
No, you know, it's not I didn't mention RFID but intermec bought the IBM RFID technology, the UHF technology. I don't know maybe when was that the late 90s. Somewhere in there? Yeah, so for 20 years, I've been involved with RFID I'm certainly not an expert in the you know that the chips and the, the, you know, the RF protocols and such However, in graduate school, I did a huge amount of work in in RF and, and even in some jobs I had working in the two to four gigahertz range. So I pretty pretty familiar with that whole area. But I did do a lot of work in RFID with the data encoding, and that was kind of my expertise and then also hanging around with RFID guys, we did a lot of CO inventing and some really cool things that sometimes blended barcode and RFID technology together. So it was a really fun, really fun environment.
Steve Statler 50:06
Excellent. Well, very good. Great to chat with you about that. Appreciate it.