A strip of paper that speaks

A two-dimensional bar code can hold ten seconds of sound, allowing your pill bottles to talk back.

Now, your pictures can speak for themselves.

Labels That Talk, from Kailua Hawaii, has come up with software that lets consumers print high-density bar codes on strips of paper that store recorded voice messages. Scan the paper with a cheap handheld scanner--or a cell phone with a built-in scanner--and it plays back a message. The strip of paper you see in the picture can hold about eight kilobits, enough for a ten-second voice message, said Ken Berkun, president and founder.

"We're trying to get it to twenty seconds," he said.

Labels that Talk
This strip of paper holds about eight kilobits, enough for a ten-second voice message. Michael Kanellos/CNET News.com

The idea is to let consumer enhance their mementos with sound. "I have a daughter and I have photo albums," Berkun said, explaining how he came up with the idea for the company. Another large potential market lies in pharmacies and hospitals, which would put labels on medicine bottles. Thus, Mick Jagger, via your plastic prescription vial, could sing "You go running to the shelter of your mother's little helper" every time you go for a Paxil.

Hewlett-Packard is working on something similar called Memory Spot, which is a sticker that contains a NAND flash chip. Memory spot prototypes can contain 256 kilobits to 4 megabits of data, so you could store videos in them or additional pictures. Pictures and videos on Memory Spots could be beamed to a nearby computer or cell phone via an integrated networking interface.

Although flash costs continue to drop, chips invariably will always be more expensive than paper, Berkun said. HP, in fact, has estimated that Memory Spots could cost ten to 50 cents each when (and if) they finally come out. Labels will cost far less, says Berkun.

Other companies have experimented with talking bar codes too, but the bar codes typically contained canned messages from a vendor.

Labels that Talk wants to concentrate on making and selling the software to consumers and printer makers. The company is currently trying to line up partners to make scanners. Some cell phone makers, he said, are already in discussions with the company.

Although you don't see a lot of start-ups like Labels that Talk out of Hawaii, some believe the picture could change in the future. Ira Ehrenpreis, a partner at Technology Ventures, calls it one of the last untapped geographies for start-ups. His firm has made a couple of clean energy and medical deals in the state in the past few years. The state's somewhat generous tax credits offered to in-state tech companies help too, added Berkun.

 

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