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Matt Reynolds - Bridging the gaps between the physical and digital worlds

Who is Matt Reynolds?

Matt ReynoldsAcademically, Matt Reynolds was born and raised at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's famed Media Lab, but the roots of his engineering interests go back much further. By the age of 10, he was already building and studying electronic circuits using an oscilloscope--a gift from his father who encouraged him to learn about math and science. "That early interest in science and engineering has stayed with me for a long time now," says Reynolds, who has worked with high school robotics competition teams through a program called For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) to offer them similar chances to get involved with science and engineering at a young age.

At Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, Reynolds's research focuses on creating innovative connections between the digital and the physical worlds, with a special focus on giving digital "vision" to robots and other devices. In the process, of course, such work offers the potential to provide an almost endless array of benefits for humans.

Reynolds' interests are broad, with past projects involving everything from monitoring weather conditions on Mount Everest to creating interactive art for the 2004 Athens Olympics. But a unifying thread in most of his work is the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags as a key enabling technology for bridging the physical-digital divide. These tags, whose use is becoming ubiquitous with decreasing costs, can be found in everything from library books to pets to construction tools. They can be as simple as a bar code on a box of crackers or they can perform an almost unlimited range of monitoring and computing functions. Reynolds is working to develop a range of applications for new tags that carry sensors and other tools, in the process expanding their capabilities from simply carrying data into becoming tiny, wirelessly-powered robots.

By providing object identity and location information about a given environment, RFID tags can actually give a form of sight to computers, with capabilities beyond human vision, including the ability to see around corners, behind objects, and in the dark.

Ongoing work in the Reynolds lab ranges from the development of RFID-based indoor navigation systems to guide robots that might help the handicapped or elderly live independently, to an RFID localization system for Duke's Home Depot Smart Home. Potential benefits of the RFID in a smart home environment include increasing the efficiency of climate control systems by heating or cooling spaces based on the number of occupants and their personal preferences, and allowing music from a person's iTunes library to follow them wherever they go. Ultimately, some of the same innovations driving these projects could be used to help people navigate in unfamiliar spaces, including aiding blind or disabled persons by informing them about the space around them.

"RFID tags are a fundamentally enabling technology for energy conservation, health care, telepresence, and entertainment," says Reynolds, "They can glue the digital world and the physical world together."

Robotics Research: A Complicated Game of Fetch

One example of Reynolds work to give electronic "sight" to robots is an ongoing project that he began with healthcare roboticist Charlie Kemp of Georgia Tech. The ultimate goal of this work is to develop the technologies and methods needed to allow robots to provide assistive services to people in their homes or other buildings, particularly the elderly or those with disabilities.

One initial step for the project is to use RFID-based sensors to enable a robot to locate a certain prescription medicine and bring it to a specific person. While the task may sound deceptively simple to a human, for a robot it poses several key challenges. First, the robot has to navigate effectively in an unfamiliar space. Then it has to be able to differentiate the proper prescription bottle from among several others that look exactly the same. It then has to grasp the bottle strongly enough to pick it up, but softly enough to avoid crushing it, then return it to a specific person. "These are hard problems," says Reynolds, "It's like teaching a baby to walk, read, and follow a map--it's a lot harder than it sounds."

In this project, the medicine bottles, obstructions in the room, and the final target destination can all be easily fitted with inexpensive, long-range passive RFID tags. These tags have a tiny silicon chip in them that can store information such as a location or identity. Passive refers to their ability to get power from the radio waves coming from the device that reads them, meaning the tags themselves require no batteries. Though such tags cost tens of dollars when Reynolds first began working with them, research by he and other engineers, coupled with advancing silicon chip technologies, has vastly reduced the cost of the technology. Today, the most basic tags cost less than a dime, making increasingly widespread use almost certain.

The prescription bottle project involves a three-wheeled robot with a single grasping arm. It uses one wide-angle antenna to broadly sense the room for the tag on the target bottle. Once it gets closer, it uses a higher resolution antenna to differentiate the correct bottle from among many incorrect bottles that look the same. Using similar techniques the robot can then return to a location marked by another tag. Ultimately, a person would simply wear a tag on a wristband to interact with such robots.

Through the Food and Drug Administration's recent prescription drug pedigree program, it's increasingly likely that all prescription drugs will come in containers equipped with RFID tags that will include such information as the medicine type, the person for whom it's prescribed, any special storage requirements, and its expiration date. The goal for the regulations is to allow drugs to be tracked and authenticated, for instance to cut down on prescription drug thefts. Though the FDA didn't anticipate use of the tags by service robots that could become available in coming years, the tags will now be present to be exploited.

Leading the Way: Navigation for Robots and People

Reynolds's eventual goal is to develop RFID-based systems that will allow human and robot navigation throughout entire buildings. Several commercially available service robots include crude navigation capabilities, but these leave much to be desired. The popular Roomba robotic vacuums from iRobot Corp., for instance, don't really navigate around your home. Instead, they use randomized algorithms to try to cover as much reachable floor space as possible. To do that, these devices have to bump into and back away from everything in their path. They have no way to sense what's coming before they bump into it, and they have no way of remembering where they have traveled before.

Navigation in unobstructed outdoor environments is today a relatively straightforward problem because the Global Positioning System (GPS) is available to aid a wide range of autonomous vehicles to navigate air, land, and sea. But, GPS signals don't work well indoors because even if they do penetrate inside a building, they tend be very weak and to bounce around, greatly degrading the accuracy of GPS positions when compared with outdoor measurements.

One scenario for accomplishing effective indoor navigation would be to use RFID tags to provide information similar to what a GPS unit receives from satellites. Because the tags now cost less than a dime, a home could be easily fitted with strategically placed passive tags (which require no batteries) in fixed locations in the home, such as doorways and stairways. A robot could then be programmed to process the signals from these tags to determine its own location and to find objects or places of interest, and it could build a map of obstructions it finds, such as furniture or other stationary objects, relative to the fixed tag locations.

"That approach gives you the beginnings of an indoor navigation system that would be pretty universal," says Reynolds. For instance, some of his colleagues are interested in applications beyond robotics where a blind person might use a device that allows them to tap into the RFID tag infrastructure to better navigate in their home or an RFID-tag equipped building. The system could also be set up with tags for movable objects, such as people and pets. While for most people that might sound intrusive, such a system could provide huge benefits in certain situations. One example would be a caregiver checking on an elderly parent's location throughout the day to make sure everything is OK.

But there are also countless potential applications for robotics and navigation that would appeal to the young and healthy as well. In general, says Reynolds, the idea is to find robotic solutions to tasks that people find dirty, dull, or dangerous. Various groups are exploring ways RFID and related technologies might also be used to simply provide convenience, or help in other ways such as reducing environmental impacts of human activities. A team of Duke students working with Reynolds is already exploring a tiny subsection of such options at The Home Depot Smart Home, located on Duke's campus in Durham, NC.

Get Smart: A Home that Thinks

SmarthomePart of Reynolds's vision for ways that humans could more effectively interact with the digital world is taking shape at The Home Depot Smart Home project. The Smart Home, a Duke student residence, is a test bed created for exploring a wide range of home technologies, some of which involve RFID.

One student-led project at the house, involving graduate student Vidhan Srivastava (MEM '08) and undergraduates Andrew First and Xiaodi Huang (both Pratt '10), involves developing a Smart Home-wide "e-Locator" system for residents volunteering to carry an RFID tag on their keychain. A group of receivers and a computer in the house can track the tag's position to determine in what room the person is. By interfacing this information with the Smart Home's other smart systems, the e-Locator system can, for instance, adjust thermostats to more efficient settings in rooms where no one is present, and then turn up heat or air conditioning as needed when people arrive.

The students are currently looking into the possibility of having specific people's music follow them. The locator system would make a person's iTunes files available on the sound system in whatever room they enter.

Volunteers can also choose to have their location posted on their Facebook page. Though some people would obviously prefer such information not be publicly available, others enjoy sharing their location and current activities with their friends or the world at large. "Different people see value in different kinds of information," says Reynolds, "and different people have different settings for that privacy knob where they feel comfortable."

In the future, Reynolds would like to try tying the e-locator system to the increasingly popular virtual world called Second Life where people create online personas that live and interact with other "Residents". The locator system could map a person's real activities and movements directly into Second Life.

Beyond the Lab: ThingMagic

ThingMagic logoBesides his academic research, Reynolds also has extensive experience developing commercial RFID technologies. After completing his Ph.D. at MIT, he became chief technology officer and cofounder with five fellow MIT students of a startup called ThingMagic Inc. Based a block away from the Media Lab in Kendall Square, the Cambridge, Mass. company develops and markets commercial RFID systems for a client list that includes many Fortune 500 companies.

Though he has stepped back his activities with the company since returning to academia in 2007, Reynolds has been involved in all aspects of designing multiple generations of advanced RFID systems. One of his key roles was in working to advance tag readers from initial versions that were pizza box-sized and included a staggering 1,500 different components, to a device about the size of a cellphone, with the actual RFID components only one inch by two inches.

ThingMagic's main products are RFID tags, readers, and associated systems for tracking assets in factories, warehouses, and vehicles. For example, companies with extensive supply chains can place inexpensive tags on pallets of products from peanut butter to paper towels and then easily check what stock is in a warehouse, or track a particular pallet's path from the warehouse to its final delivery at a retail store.

The company's newest system, announced recently, involves a partnership with the Ford Motor Company and DeWalt tools. Beginning with the 2009 model year, Ford is offering an RFID package on its F-150 pickup trucks that allows users to easily keep track of any tools or equipment fitted with RFID tags. At the beginning of a workday, the truck's tag reader system can alert the driver or a central office if a preprogrammed list of needed tools is in the truck. At the end of the day, the system will sound an alert if any gear has been left at a jobsite.

Past Pursuits: From Norwegian Sheep Herds to Mount Everest

Reynolds has been involved with a number of projects that, it's safe to say, don't fall within the normal bounds of computer science.

In 1998, when climber Pete Athans arrived at Mount Everest's South Col in preparation for a summit attempt, he and his team brought with them an odd assortment of electronics. The package included four weather probes, for which Reynolds designed the satellite telemetry system. These had the ability to run autonomously through the entire May to September climbing season and send data back to researchers via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's ARGOS satellites--the first time seasonal weather data was ever collected on the famous peak.

In keeping with the high altitude theme, in 2000 Reynolds also designed GPS tags that allowed sheepherders in Norway's Lyngen Alps to monitor their sheep remotely. The sheep were fitted with tags that could relay information via radio signals to wireless data uplinks placed strategically at areas where the sheep congregate.

Renaissance Pursuits: Interactive Digital Art

To his commercial and academic pursuits, Reynolds also enjoys adding art on occasion. Not surprisingly, his artistic pursuits explore ways that humans can interact with a digital environment.

In 2004, the City of Athens commissioned Reynolds and his colleague Meejin Yoon, a designer and architecture professor at MIT, to produce a unique electronic sculpture for display at the famed Acropolis during that year's Summer Olympics. The installation, called "White Noise/White Light", is a field of fiber optic wheat stalks that produce sound and light in reaction to people as they walk through the sculpture. Reynolds designed the sensing system and the other electronics needed, and was able to attend the Olympics as well.

Another artistic pursuit involved helping create a unique digital tracking stage and a series of virtual musical instruments for master jugglers and musicians The Flying Karamazov Brothers. Their show "L'Universe", which toured from 1999 to 2002, included a digital stage system that tracked the Karamazovs as they juggled and played virtual instruments based on their body movements and position on stage.

More recently, another piece of Reynolds's work, also co-developed with designer Meejin Yoon, was on display at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art last year. Dubbed the "Defensible Dress," the piece is a dress fitted with metal spines that raise when someone approaches. "It's a crowded world and people are not always friendly," says Reynolds with a smile, "you may want to be more of a porcupine sometimes."

Overall, Reynolds says, "in an increasingly digital world there will be ever more digitally enabled everyday objects that perceive and react to people, whether they enable new capabilities for smart machines, provide means of artistic expression or entertainment, or simply make work easier and safer for people." Reynolds looks forward to shaping that world by developing the fundamental technologies to make those applications possible.