The Incredible Shrinking Chip

By Jessica Rivchin — July 26, 2006

RFID's days may be numbered, according to the proponents of HP's experimental Memory Spot chip, which is smaller, faster and can hold "thousands of times-- more digital data than an RFID chip, according to HP Labs.

The Memory Spot is based on the CMOS chip (a low-power integrated circuit design) and is roughly the size of a grain of rice. The chip can be embedded in almost any object and retain 256 K to 4 MB of data--enough to store a short video clip, several images or "dozens" of pages of text. Data can then be accessed by a read-write device incorporated into a cell phone, PDA, camera, printer or other handheld device. The chip requires no battery and is powered through inductive coupling--a process where data is pulled from one device by sharing an electromagnetic field with a second device.

"Basically," says Howard Taub, VP and associate director of HP Labs, "you could run your phone over a chip embedded in a movie poster and see the film's trailer, or save an entire document to a Post-it."

The chip also has a 10Mbps data transfer rate, which is 10 times faster than Bluetooth and comparable to Wi-Fi speeds.

While the chip is similar to RFID in many ways, there are also several notable differences, including the range necessary to grab data. According to HP, information on RFID chips can be read over relatively large distances, while Memory Spot readers must be-- positioned closely-- to access the data stored on the chip. "It has some of the characteristics of RFID, but it has very different bandwidth magnitudes," says Taub.

According to Taub, chip usage could span across all verticals. "We've envisioned a whole variety of things for it. Office, home apps, security applications." Also, since chips are really difficult to replicate, it would be good in pharmaceuticals--like on a medicine bottle. People have come up with just about any field of endeavor in which to use it. "The chip could also make a huge impact in the security sector, especially with passports or other forms of photo ID requiring data too large for an RFID tag," says Taub.

However, not everyone is a fan. Kevin Ashton, VP of marketing at RFID provider ThingMagic and co-founder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center at M.I.T., feels that the chip's comparisons with RFID are unfounded--and that it will not be a replacement for RFID. "The HP thing is an RFID chip with a lot of memory" he says. "I'm slightly baffled, because an RFID tag is not really a great way to carry around a lot of information due to its low bandwidth and its [close] range, which is less than that of a barcode. [The chip] may be useful in some areas-- but it's not clear to me what the benefit is."

It's not surprising that the Memory Spot's tiny size makes it an easy target for ubiquitous security concerns; however, the majority of industry experts are excitedly anticipating the chip's arrival. HP has yet to say when the chips will become available, but analysts predict a minimum of two to five years.

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