A Lot of Memory in a Dot

Yesterday, Hewlett-Packard unveiled a new wireless data chip smaller than a grain of rice that can, the company said, provide broad access to digital content in the physical world. Developed by the "Memory Spot" research team at HP Labs, the new microchip is a CMOS device smaller than 1.4 millimeter square with an antenna built right onto its silicon and enough writable memory and data access speed to make it capable of tackling real-world applications that RFID chips can only aspire to.

The HP announcement claimed that the Memory Spot chip could find use in the future in such varied functions as: storing medical records on a patient's wristband; fighting counterfeit pharmaceuticals; and adding security to identity cards and passports. The Memory Spot transfers data at 10 megabits per second and early prototypes store as much as half a megabyte of data, enough to capture a very short video clip, according to HP. Corresponding read-write devices for the technology can be built into electronics ranging from cellphones to cameras to PDAs—which also power the tiny chip through inductive coupling.

"The Memory Spot chip frees digital content from the electronic world of the PC and the Internet and arranges it all around us in our physical world," said Ed McDonnell, the chip's project manager at HP Labs, in Bristol, England.

The minute size of the Memory Spot enables it to be used on almost anything, especially in the form of self-adhesive dots. It varies from its well-known cousin, the RFID chip, in size, speed, and capacity. However, unlike RFID, which has a transmission range of about 15 feet (ideal for inventory tracking), the Memory Spot has a range of about 1 mm, which means they must practically come into physical contact with their reader-writers. This limits some applications but increases privacy and security.

"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 providing solutions in a number of vertical markets," Howard Taub, HP vice president and associate director of HP Labs, said.

He told the media that he expects the brainy little chips to initially retail for about a dollar (U.S.) apiece and that HP could scale up manufacturing to mass produce units in about two or three years, at which time the price point could eventually fall to as little as ten cents.

That's a lot of computing in something the size of a grain of rice—for a few pennies.

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