HP's Memory Spot puts video, audio into photos

Hewlett-Packard researchers have come up with button-size computer that can stick on cards or any document. Photos: HP's computer on a sticker

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
4 min read
Hewlett-Packard Laboratories has squeezed a computer onto a sticker.

Memory Spot, a technology devised by the research division of HP, is a self-contained storage device with a radio and processor that sticks to photos, documents or cards. About the same size as a shirt button but thinner, a Memory Spot can be stuck onto the corner of a family photo: Wave a reader over it, and the spot will serve a video or audio recording of the subject of the picture to a nearby computer or cell phone.

HP Memory Spot

The idea behind the technology is to enhance real-world items like menus, advertising cards, travel brochures or photos. Paper, after all, remains a huge communication medium, but the amount of data it can hold is limited. DVD covers contain critical blurbs and stills from movies, but one of these tags could allow a producer to include previews and full reviews, said Howard Taub, the vice president of HP Labs.

"We have built a device that allows us to bridge the physical and digital world," Taub said. "We have made hundreds of these chips. The question now is the business question: 'How much will they cost? Where will they be used?'"

A Memory Spot on a document can hold exhibits or earlier versions. In addition, data on the devices can be erased and rewritten several times. That means hospital wristbands with a Memory Spot could contain complete patient records, as they can be updated.

The tags won't come out--if they do get released commercially--for a couple of years, and they might cost between 10 to 50 cents each, Taub said. But consumers should get a good amount of memory for the money, he asserted. Prototype chips now hold between 256 kilobits and 4 megabits of flash memory, and these chips were made on the relatively old 180-nanometer manufacturing process.

"There is no reason you can't go smaller (in size) and see higher capacities," Taub said.

Radio static
Memory Spots fit into an ongoing effort in the tech industry to fix a problem with RFID, or radio frequency identification, tags. In short, RFID tags cost a lot for what they do, which generally is spit out a number that can then be used to find information in a database. To get widespread adoption of such radio-based sensors, the sensors themselves are going to have to get cheaper, more intelligent or both, advocates say.

Intel Labs is experimenting with ways to add greater functionality to RFID tags, for example, so that RFID-tagged cargo can send out distress signals if the temperature changes or if the cargo is being tampered with.

With Memory Spot, HP is attacking both the functionality problem and the cost issues. The experimental chips transfer data at 10 megabits a second, a rate comparable with that of Wi-Fi. The amount of memory is also large enough to hold a significant amount of data, or at least more than a serial number. Unlike RFID chips, the Memory Spot chips, which include NAND flash memory can be erased and rewritten.

Thus, the chips will function like mini-computers rather than like passive tags.

"The basic conception of Memory Spot is similar to RFID tags, but we have data rates that are orders of magnitude higher, and higher capacity," Taub said.

Additionally, the chips should be cheaper to produce. Why? All of the components--the antennae, the processor, the capacitor and memory--are integrated into a single piece of silicon. The chip itself is about the size of a mark from a felt pen--the packaging turns it into a button-sized item.

In comparison, the antenna on RFID tags is attached rather than built-in, which adds costs. RFID antennas are also relatively large.

Taub, though, added that privacy is not as big of an issue. Because of the radio frequency the Memory Spots operate at, the reader has to be about a millimeter away to work.

How the technology will go to market remains to be seen. HP could either manufacture and sell Memory Spots itself, or it could license the technology to others. Like research organizations at other large companies, HP is more actively looking at ways to commercialize the inventions inside its labs. An intellectual property group formed inside HP three years ago has helped the company license labs technologies such as the DVD label-etching technology LightScribe. Between January 2003 and the end of 2005, HP quadrupled its licensing revenue.

Taub wouldn't say how HP might bring the technology to market, but he did acknowledge that the company has largely exited the chip business. The Memory Spot samples HP has on hand were, in fact, made by a foundry.

HP would also have to convince cell phone makers or computer manufacturers to include Memory Spot readers into their devices. The readers rely on the same radio frequency employed by Bluetooth, so the technological hurdles should be relatively low, Taub said.

"The harder part is getting governments to let someone use the frequency," he said.