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HP's Memory Spot Chip Brings The Bits-To-Atoms Connection Closer

The chip joins technologies from RFID to smart cards in bridging the gap

The distance separating the digital world and the real world got a little shorter last week when Hewlett-Packard showed off a tiny wireless chip that can attach data to physical objects.

It comes with all the caveats of a lab prototype: uncertain costs, no customers, no ecosystem of products or applications around it. But the chip, called Memory Spot, presents yet another option--alongside the likes of RFID, smart cards, and wireless standards such as Bluetooth--for bridging the bits-and-atoms divide.

Memory Spot is similar to a radio frequency identification chip, whose uses include tracking goods in the supply chain. The big difference is that RFID chips store a pointer or reference to a database entry, while Memory Spot stores the data itself. HP's chip has 4 Mbits of memory, despite being about the size of the tip of a pencil. That opens a range of uses, from sticking the digital version of a document or photo to a printout for easy copying to storing medical records on a patient's hospital ID bracelet.

HP is pitching Memory Spot as a commodity wireless data node that will be easy and cheap enough--at $1 a chip, it hopes--that businesses and consumers alike will dream up their own brilliant uses.

Memory Spot doesn't raise the privacy concerns associated with RFID because of its limited range; since a reader has to almost touch Memory Spot to read it, unauthorized access is much less likely. The chip's onboard processor also can handle authentication and encryption. "RFID is a great technology but has security, data storage quantity, and implementation challenges compared to bar codes at this point," says John Halamka, CIO of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, which uses passive RFID tags on wristbands to identify babies in its neonatal intensive care unit and on containers of mother's milk to get the right milk to the right baby. "The HP device seems to address these challenges directly and holds great potential for use in the medical environment."

The tightening of ties between computer networks and unconnected objects has long been foretold. Xerox PARC researcher Mark Weiser championed the idea almost two decades ago. In 1998, HP Labs opened a showcase for ubiquitous computing called Cooltown (closed about three years ago). At Comdex 2002, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates introduced Smart Personal Objects Technology, or Spot, "aimed at improving the function of everyday objects through the injection of software." In its November report, "The Internet Of Things," the International Telecommunication Union predicted, "Eventually, even particles as small as dust might be tagged and networked."

Companies keep trying. Whirlpool, working with HP, Microsoft, Panasonic, and Procter & Gamble, last week began testing in Atlanta a new line of "smart" washers and dryers that call a homeowner's cell phone or send a message to the TV that a load's finished.

HP's Memory Spot, or some miniature storage like it, will have its place. "The phone has been ringing off the wall," says Howard Taub, associate director of HP Labs, though he declined to name the interested parties. Much must happen for Memory Spot to take off. Foremost, there must be an easy way for people to read the data. HP can add readers to printers, but the chip gets really interesting if readers are mobile--in cell phones, for instance. But that's precious turf for many budding new technologies.

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