Monday, July 17, 2006

HP reveals tiny, tiny wireless chip

HP reveals tiny, tiny wireless chip discusses a new chip designed by Hewlett-Packard engineers. The article has one important feature, a visual demonstration of the tiny size of the chip. It is a device between 2mm and 4mm square, which can hold between 256kb and 4mb of memory, plus an antenna, plus wireless communications capability of transmitting 10mb/second. The visual demonstration shows it circled by pencils, demonstrating the chip is slightly larger than the size of a pencil tip.

That's tiny.

And, to think, the 4mb of memory is just the beginning. With further development it no doubt can hold far more memory.

The HP Newsroom has more information in the press release.

Power comes from inductive coupling with the read write device. It doesn't have any CPU of its own, it is merely a memory storage device. In use it will be similar to the RFID chips, but the memory size makes them very different animals. The standard RFID chip merely stores a 128=bit number, letting it serve as a digitally readable barcode. In fact, that's all Walmart wants of the RFID chips, digitally readable barcodes.

HP sees further uses, so let's examine what they claim in their press release.

Some of the potential applications include storing medical records on a hospital patient’s wristband; providing audio-visual supplements to postcards and photos; helping fight counterfeiting in the pharmaceutical industry; adding security to identity cards and passports; and supplying additional information for printed documents.

Medical records...? Hurm, I suspect there's a lot more data in typical medical records than 4mb. A typical x-ray is gonna be many megapixels of data, for example. Plus, it isn't described how the data is updated into the chip. As the patient goes through the rigors of being in the hospital, doesn't that add data to their records? Shouldn't those records in the wristband be updated?

I would think the normal RFID chip would be perfectly adequate for medical records access in a wristband. One would embed an RFID chip into the wristband, then a reader can access the number and use that as a key to bring up records on a computer screen. Since the network can store far more data than 4mb, this makes the accessible medical records far more comprehensive.

Audio-visual supplements ...? now here's something that's rather interesting. Later in the press release they discuss these ideas:

  • Audio photo: Attach a chip to the prints of photographs and add music, commentary or ambient sound to enhance the enjoyment of viewing photos.
  • Digital postcards: Send a traditional holiday postcard to family and friends with a chip containing digital pictures of a vacation, plus sounds and even video clips.

One can imagine a printer that automatically downloads data into one of these chips and automatically glues the chip onto the paper as it is being printed. e.g. an MP3 file could be transferred into the chip. Then HP could sell a gizmo that reads the chip data, like a digital picture frame, playing back the MP3 sound.

Sounds like a natural for HP and how they've basically become a printer company.

Document notes...? Perfect photocopies...?: The press release offers these two explanations:

  • Document notes: A Memory Spot chip attached to a paper document can include a history of all the corrections and additions made to the text, as well as voice notes and graphical images.
  • Perfect photocopies: A Memory Spot chip attached to a cover sheet eliminates the need to copy the original document. Just read the perfect digital version into the photocopier and the result will be sharp output every time, no matter how many copies are needed, and avoiding any possibility of the originals jamming in the feeder.

Again this implies an easy capability to record data into one of these chips and easily glue the chip to paper as the paper passes through a printer.

It does sound useful to have the paper be digitally readable and useful to a photocopier. As they suggest, sometimes photocopiers jam and it's frustrating. One can imagine a printer (again, HP has become a printer company) that lets you copy documents without having to have a scanner in the printer. Instead it would have a memory spot reader, and read the data off the paper printing whatever it read. Sounds cool.

But, what about photocopying of ad-hoc documents? Suppose you're at lunch with colleagues and scribble some brilliant ideas on a napkin or similar piece of scratch paper? A photocopier that can only read these chips would be unable to copy that brilliant idea. You need some kind of scanner to do that.

And, this document notes idea ... if you scribble on paper with a pen, how is the document notes chip supposed to know what you've scribbled on it? Or is the idea that the chip will hold editable document data, and then you re-record new data onto the chip? It's rather confusing here.

Counterfeited pharmaceuticals...? I guess they were thinking supplements and went for a different kind of supplement. Uhm, I don't follow them on this one.

In the press release they did suggest: Counterfeit drugs are a significant problem globally. Memory Spot chips can contain secure information about the manufacture and quality of pharmaceuticals. When added to a drug container, this can prove their authenticity. A similar process could be used to verify high-value engineering and aviation components.

But, like the medical records, I don't see how the memory spot chip is an advantage over a regular RFID chip. If data can be recorded onto these chips with the ease required to sell a consumer printer that automatically records data into a chip and glues it onto paper, then doesn't it seem that this isn't a very strong counterfeiting deterrent? Wouldn't it be trivial to record any data you want into one of these chips?

Security passes...? Same story ... They claim: Add a chip to an identity card or security pass for the best of both worlds --- a handy card with secure, relevant digital information included. Just how easy will it be to produce one of these chips with any data you want on it? Hence, how easy would it be to produce a forged security pass?

I should note in passing that Sun Microsystems, the company I work for, sells the Java Card concept. Our employee badges are Java Cards. It is a simple RFID system, and you hold the employee badge up to a reader, the reader communicates with a computer system, checks your RFID number, and uses that to determine whether to open the door or not. Each door has individualized access control so that the company security can be controlled down to individual rooms.