July 27, 2006

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Fancy a spot of memory?
Tiny sticker will affix data to just about anything
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

What can hold up to four megabits of data, has an antenna built in, will drive privacy advocates positively bonkers and is smaller than the fairies dancing on the head of a pin?

If you said, “Why, HP’s new Memory Spot, of course,” congratulations! You don’t have to read this week’s column. Have fun with the sudoku.

For the rest of y’all, the Memory Spot is not a cool new gadget you can rush out to the store and buy. It was just announced by HP last week and its initial uses aren’t yet clear, but it could be a serious competitor to RFID tags (radio frequency ID). The basic idea is that each spot can store a small amount of data that can be read by passing an external device over it. The spot can be embedded in just about anything, from a hospital patient’s wristband storing his medical file to a printed photograph holding a voice recording of the person pictured.

What makes the Memory Spot so attractive over RFID, which has similar potential, is its too-good-to-be-true combination of smaller size, higher storage capacity, faster data transfer speed and cheaper production cost. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s not saddled with RFID’s reputation as a Big Brother enabler. When a company like Wal-Mart wants to put RFID chips in everything it sells as an inventory control measure, it sounds perfectly reasonable, but when consumer groups point out that every piece of clothing you own would have one (or more) chip in it, making your every movement within range of an RFID reader trackable, well, it can be a bit disconcerting.

Memory Spots will surely evoke the same reaction, though HP has tried to allay fears by stating that their range is only one millimeter, compared with RFID’s 15 feet. Still, if their vision comes to fruition, chip readers will become as ubiquitous as cell phones — because they’ll be built into cell phones, as well as lots of other consumer electronics. Photo printers will be able to embed audio right onto your photographs. Televisions will start playing previews even before you can get your DVD out of its Memory Spotted case.

With a reader on your cell phone, though, you could potentially walk up to an advertisement and have it play a little video clip for you. Or get directions by tapping on a spotted point on a map in a tourist information center. Personally, I think the greatest use could come at the bar: imagine dispensing with all that small talk shouted over hip hop by just scanning each other’s trendy plastic bracelets containing MySpace profiles. No more ring checks!

HP doesn’t anticipate release of Memory Spots for another two to five years, but when they’re out, they could cost as little as a dollar each. They’ll likely have increased storage capacity as well, and their 10 megabit-per-second transfer rate may well increase. The chips are powered by induction, using the shared magnetic field of the reader, so they require no power source of their own.


Comments? Thoughts? Discuss these articles and more at hippoflea.com

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