HP Develops Tiny Wireless Data Chip

By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Posted 2006-07-17

HP Develops Tiny Wireless Data Chip

First there was VeriChip, the company that developed a human-implantable RFID chip the size of a grain of rice. And now theres Hewlett-Packard, with new "stick almost anywhere" chip technology thats even smaller than a grain of rice and carries a whole lot more data than any RFID chip.

HP announced July 17 that its Memory Spot research team has developed a tiny wireless data chip that can hold, in comparison to other micro technologies, reams of information. The chip, in experimental phase now, has a 10M-bps data transfer rate—as fast as a high-speed Internet connection—and can store information thats in audio, video, photo or document form.

The idea for the chips is to embed them or stick them to a sheet of paper, for example, (no mention has been made of human-implantable chips) to add audio-, visual- and document-based data to everything from postcards to photographs. HP said there could at some point even be a booklet of self-adhesive "dots" available to the public.

But HPs Memory Spots have a broader implication. The technology has similarities to RFID tags—the anticipated successor to bar codes that is being used (or considered) to track everything from shampoo bottles and pharmaceutical drugs to postal packages and farm animals.

According to HP officials who demonstrated the tags late last week to press and analysts, the Memory Spots can store about 250 times more data than RFID, can transmit that data about 20 times faster, and has some native security capabilities built in.

Where RFID and Memory Spots are similar is that data is stored on a physical chip—or a chip thats embedded in a tag, in the case of RFID—that has an antenna which transmits information. The antenna on an RFID chip is external and big by comparison—about an inch in length—whereas the Memory Spots antenna is embedded directly on the chip. Once that antenna on both an RFID and Memory Spot chip is tapped electronically by a reader device, the stored information can be accessed and read through a reader interface.

Memory Spot data transfer is similar to RFID. The two technologies differ, however, in several key areas: HPs Memory Spots have the capacity to store a lot more data—anywhere from 256K bits that can hold up to 15 seconds of video to 4M bits that can store up to 42 seconds—in working prototypes. RFID tags transmit a few hundred kilobits of data a second, according to HP officials, who said future versions of the Memory Spots could have more storage capacity.

The Memory Spot also comes with a computing brain that enables it to encrypt data, whereas RFID, for the most part, relies on so-called Gen 2-enabled software installed at the tag and reader level to provide some security measures. At the same time, the Memory Spots require a reader to be just about on top of it to extract data—about a millimeter away—whereas an RFID chip can be read from several inches to many feet away, a fact that has security and privacy advocates in an uproar.

RFID technology companies, however, arent in any imminent danger yet. The Memory Spots are at least two years from hitting the market—HP said it has no product plans right now but is in touch with its business units and potential partners—whereas RFID is, in many cases, in production along the supply chain (Wal-Mart and the U.S. Department of Defense are the most cited examples) and will soon be in U.S. households (the State Department will begin issuing RFID-chipped passports as early as next month).

Then theres the price differential to consider. HP said a Memory Spot chip could be priced at about $1, depending on the application its being used for and the volume its being sold at. RFID chip manufacturers are getting closer to the $0.05 price tag, though theyre not there yet.

Item-level RFID tags cost more than expected. Click here to read more.

HP said it is not positioning the Memory Spot as a competitor to RFID. Rather, the emerging technology is being looked at as applicable in a number of business and consumer areas, from storing medical records on a hospital patients wristband to providing the equivalent of audio and video Post-it notes to photographs.

But HP is also tapping the pharmaceutical industrys attempts at fighting drug counterfeiting, a potentially huge area for RFID, and as an add-on to ID cards and passports—another huge area for RFID with governmental initiatives under way in both the United States and Europe that utilize RFID. Howard Taub, vice president and associate director of HP Labs, said during a July 17 press conference that despite the Memory Spots similarities to RFID, HP is not targeting the technology sector as a competitor.

"Ive told my team, If someone can do it with RFID, were not even looking at it as an application," said Taub, in Palo Alto, Calif.

"This is high capacity, high bandwidth, where you need to store rich definition, media" information.

Next Page: Different applications.

Different Applications

Whereas RFID is being considered in the pharmaceutical industry to help drug manufacturers maintain a drugs "pedigree" or manufacturing roots, HP is looking at different applications.

For example, Taub envisions a Memory Spot placed on a pill bottle that has the recording of a doctors voice describing how to take the medication; or another spot on the bottle that carries electronically all the documentation that goes along with a prescription drug, such as warnings and drug interactions.

With the same token, Taub sees a potential market for electronic passports, given the Memory Spots capability to store different types of data.

"In principle, you could code a persons picture. You could make it encrypted—it could be the picture plus fingerprints plus a digital record of where a person travels," said Taub.

"There are some [RFID] chips that go into kilobits or a few mega bites, and if they wanted to store a persons hair color, physical bits, they could do more than a bar code. But they cant do pictures, audio, video."

There are other areas HP is looking into, for example adding Memory Spots to soldiers dog tags that would carry his or her entire medical history, or adding spots to a printer that will let users add media files to a photograph.

The idea is to target those areas that are going to be good business for HP, which develops high tech equipment including personal computers, servers, storage devices, printers and networking equipment.

On the software side HP develops operating systems, print management tools and networking tools.

Taub said HP Labs generally invests in the research and development of significant technologies that will be a boon for the company—generating anywhere from $1 billion in revenue annually, and up.

"Whats attractive about Memory Spots is there are so many possibilities, so many different places for HP to play," he said. "Being a part of the photography ecosystem could be important for us."

HP has, for the past year, been in talks with potential partners.

While Taub declined to comment on who the partners are, there are some natural extensions: chip manufacturers, reader and writer manufacturers (the ideal one being cell phone makers); USB manufacturers (there could be a plug in spot reader and writer) and PDA manufacturers.

At the same time HP Labs—which counts thermal inkjet printing and the 64-bit architecture behind Intels Itanium microprocessor among its inventions—partners with both HP business and a small group of customers, according to Hoovers Web site.

But there is a lot to consider before the spots actually hit the market.

Its not just lining up manufacturing partners, "its distribution channels and reliability," said Taub.

"Its so complicated to build a supply chain for these things that even if everything worked perfectly, it would be two years before were out the door."

Despite the delay in technology, some analysts believe its going to be a disruptive one for RFID—in certain areas.

"What this technology does is what weve been trying to get RFID to do all along, but it really wasnt designed to do," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, in San Jose, Calif.

"If RFID was a screwdriver and weve been running around using it to pound nails, [Memory Spots] are more like a hammer."

The reason: the spots are really more of a storage medium, whereas RFID is a means of digitizing the bar code thats designed as a way to very quickly do inventory and track stuff—supplies and people, according to Enderle.

"This is more of a storage medium—it puts a lot of data in a very small space and makes it accessible."

Editors Note: This story was updated to add information from HP Labs.

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