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

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

July 21, 2006

6 Min Read

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.

The key standards group is the 80-company Near Field Communication Forum, formed in 2004 to ensure interoperability among short-range wireless devices. It wants a standard that complements other wireless standards such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, ZigBee (for sensor networks), IrDA (infrared), and RFID, letting devices connect with a single touch. Members include MasterCard, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Texas Instruments, and Visa. And HP, as of last week.

There are many competing approaches for connecting the digital and real worlds. One of the simplest is cell phone text messaging. Companies can put a Short Message Service code on an object; when the user sends a text message, he or she gets back information about that location or product. Bar codes could do the same if cell phones and other devices had readers. HP Labs is working with Vodafone and Gavitec to put bar code readers in mobile phones in a trial called Active Print, running since early last year to deliver location-based content through U.K. newspapers and movie posters.

At Microsoft, the fruits of its Spot initiative have been wireless-enabled watches, which can receive information such as headlines and weather data through MSN Direct subscriptions. IBM's contribution to the Internet of Things includes helping companies monitor hospital equipment, pipelines, and cargo with wireless devices, RFID tags, and GPS sensors. With IBM's help, the U.K.'s Norwich Union offers car insurance based on where a person drives, using an in-car system that sends GPS data wirelessly back to the company.

Some wireless atoms-to-bits efforts show promise. RFID-based toll payment systems have taken off, and 10 million MasterCard PayPass contactless payment cards are in use, accepted by some 32,000 merchants worldwide.

Where's The Money?

Chip To Chip



Data capacity

Transfer rate

Radio range


Innovative though such services may be, is there enough commercial value to warrant building an interconnected world of everyday things? "If it costs too much to network all those things, then it's not going to happen," says Jon Adams, director of radio technology at Freescale Semiconductor, whose products include RF chips that support ZigBee wireless sensing and control. "Also, there's this consistent concern that the cellular providers are going to want to extract their tithe from any kind of transaction that takes place." Though Memory Spot doesn't have to be connected, the $1 estimated price still could relegate it to boutique or novelty use, like recordable voice chips on greeting cards, Adams says.

Sanjay Sarma, CTO at RFID equipment maker OATSystems, sees Memory Spot fitting between RFID at the low end, in terms of simplicity and cost, and smart cards, which have memory and processors.

HP has ideas for how its rice-sized chip might be used. But it's also banking on tech-savvy people finding unimagined uses, as they have for Web technology and GPS devices. But first HP faces years of evangelism to persuade partners to build the hardware and software needed to read and write data to and from the chips.

The tech industry is building a better bridge between the digital and real worlds, and innovations like Memory Spot show the progress. The Internet of Things is coming--companies must be thinking of ways they and their customers will put it to use.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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