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Tiny Chips Could Change Our Lives

Back in the 1990s, a researcher at one of Hewlett Packard's labs in the United Kingdom got the idea of producing a talking photograph. Why not embed a chip onto a picture that would enable the person viewing the photo to listen to a message or sound at the same time?

The first prototypes were a bit crude, but the idea ultimately led to a prototype of what could be a revolutionary new line of products for the Palo Alto-based technology giant.

Monday, the company showed off some of its new Memory Spot chips. They're smaller than a grain of rice and have a built-in antenna and transmitter to transfer to wireless readers and writers.

So far, there are two versions in the labs. One stores 256 kilobits and a slightly larger though still extremely small version stores 4 megabits which is about a half a megabyte of data. That's not enough for a full-length movie, but it is enough storage for a very short video clip, a couple of 4 by 6 photos or up to an hour of sound.

The chips, according to HP Labs Associate Director Howard Taub, could be used for a wide variety of applications ranging from putting music samples on the outside of a CD case to storing a patient's entire medical record on a dot-sized section of a wrist band.

The chips are rewritable so a physician, for example, could use a PDA to update a patient's medical record right on that wrist band.

Taub envisions chip reading and chip writing devices built into future generations of cell phones, allowing people to use, create and update data on the fly.

Click here to check out Larry Magid's podcast interview of Howard Taub of HP Labs, talking about the many uses of the company's tiny new chip.
One example is a movie poster that contains a short trailer of the film. Someone could walk up to the poster, touch it with their cell phone and watch and listen to the trailer right there.

A would-be executive could record his or her entire resume on a business card, an aspiring model could include a portfolio of photos and a musician could have a sample set of tunes on a card or embedded into a paper resume.

The chips have an integrated antenna and a transmitter that's capable of transferring data in or out at 10 megabits per second -- about the same speed as a WiFi wireless network.

I had a chance to play with a prototype Monday at HP's headquarters in Palo Alto and watch as a staff person took a digital picture of a colleague and transferred that picture to a chip embedded into a laminated card.

He then handed the card to me and I walked over to another PC which had a reader that was able to read and transfer the data. The process on both ends was almost instantaneous.

At the moment, there are only a few prototype readers at HP labs but the company envisions an "eco system" which would involve readers built into a number of devices including PDAs, cell phones and laptop PCs.

There is also the possibility that HP might embed readers and writers into cameras and printers. Most digital cameras are already able to record sound, so why not embed the sound into prints that people could can listen to as well as look at?

Taub envisions chips embedded into stickers that people could apply to photos. But he doesn't rule out the possibility of HP embedding them directly into photo paper, along with printers that can write the data as they print the photos. That's one way to keep selling expensive consumables.

If this technology sounds vaguely familiar, it could be because you've already heard about RFID (radio frequency identification) tags that are now used in cargo containers and some products so that inventory can be scanned and cataloged.

Like RFIDs, Memory Spot chips store data and have a built-in radio transmitter but the similarities end there.

RFIDs store a very small amount of data – enough to identify and describe an object but not nearly enough for, say, a photograph. And they are able to transmit up to 15 feet, which makes them ideal for inventory control.

Memory Spots, on the other hand, can transmit only about 1 millimeter so the reader has to come into almost touching distance. That limits the applications but increases privacy and security because you don't have to worry about someone reading your data from across the room.

The Memory Spot has a fully integrated antenna that's part of the same silicon as the chip itself while RFIDs have attached antennas. Some RFIDs need a power source but the memory spot will never need any type of battery.

The power necessary to transfer data from the spot to the device is embedded into the reader. When the reader gets within a millimeter of the chip, it provides the necessary energy to transfer the data.

Taub expects the chips to cost about $1 each when they're finally commercially available. Don't look for these chips any time soon. They're at least two years away from production, maybe more, said Taub.

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid
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