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Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Memory Spot: Bitty Bytes

By Gary Anthes
August 20, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Hewlett-Packard LaboratoriesMemory Spot

Just 2mm to 4mm square, this wireless data chip can be stuck on, or embedded in, any object

An audio photograph  it was a good idea in concept, but it didnt quite work out in practice.

In the late 1990s, a researcher at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories glued a 1-in.-square circuit board to the back of a photograph and showed that it could play a recording related to the image when it was plugged into a special device.

Problem was, users didnt think of the electronic photo as a photo anymore, and the contacts on the circuit board were prone to breaking. It wasnt a good implementation, acknowledges Howard Taub, associate director of HP Labs in Palo Alto, Calif.

But the audio photograph got HP started down a path that led last year to Memory Spot. A tiny wireless device that can be affixed to almost anything, Memory Spot acts like a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag on steroids.

Wow Factor
Bitty Bytes

Just 2mm to 4mm square, this wireless data chip can be stuck on, or embedded in, any object.

The current Memory Spot chip ranges from 2mm to 4mm on a side, stores half a megabyte of information, and reads and writes via a built-in antenna at 10Mbit/sec. It also includes a digital microprocessor and analog circuits for RF signals.

Memory Spot requires no battery, receiving power via a process called inductive coupling, by which electronic devices can transfer energy through a shared electromagnetic field.

Taub says various parties, including the U.S. Army, are now evaluating Memory Spot. He says applications could range from animated postcards to ultrasecure passports and identity cards to medical records that could be updated by physicians and attached to patients hospital wristbands.

HP is working with the Near Field Communication Forum to see if Memory Spot readers might be put into cell phones. For example, you put a Memory Spot on a movie poster and then transfer and play a movie trailer on your phone, Taub says.

I was very impressed with it, says Tim Bajarin, president of San Jose-based Creative Strategies Inc., who was briefed by HP. It can bring intelligence to inanimate objects. It could be used in all kinds of things, not just RFID-type applications like inventory.

Memory Spot was invented by senior researcher John Waters at HP Labs in Bristol, England. Waters design goals included making a device that was very small, didnt require much power and had a fairly sophisticated processor.

The hard part was integrating all those things, Taub says. We used to have an expression: Faster, better, cheaper  Ill give you any two out of three. In the world we live in today, you want all three.

Memory Spot is just about ready for market, Taub says. In fact, he says, the business issues around commercializing it are tougher than the technical issues.

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