HP develops tiny wireless data chip

— July 19, 2006

First there was VeriChip, the company that developed a human-implantable RFID chip the size of a grain of rice. And now there's Hewlett-Packard, with new "stick almost anywhere" chip technology that's 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 that's 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 HP's 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 that's 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 Spot's 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: HP's 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, aren't 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 there's the price differential to consider. HP said a Memory Spot chip could be priced at about $1, depending on the application it's being used for and the volume it's being sold at. RFID chip manufacturers are getting closer to the $0.05 price tag, though they're not there yet.

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 patient's wristband to providing the equivalent of audio and video Post-it notes to photographs.

But HP is also tapping the pharmaceutical industry's 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.

"We are actively exploring a range of exciting new applications for Memory Spot chips and believe the technology could have a significant impact on our consumer businesses, from printing to imaging, as well as provide solutions for a number of vertical markets," said Howard Taub, HP Lab's vice president and associate director, in a statement.

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