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HP Spots New Opportunities for Passive RFID

HP Labs has developed a prototypical passive tag that's long on memory, short on range and suitable for both business and consumer apps.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jul 18, 2006The passive RFID tags used to track consumer products in the supply chain have often been referred to as "bar codes on steroids." This week, HP Laboratories, Hewlett Packard's research arm, unveiled a prototype of a tiny tag might be considered a passive RFID tag on steroids. This device, the Memory Spot, is a memory-rich, passive 2.45 GHz RFID transponder containing a microprocessor, can hold up to 4 megabits (500 kilobytes) of data and has a 10 megabits-per-second data transfer rate. Because the transponder operates at such a high frequency, its antenna can be small enough to be incorporated into the chip, which would lower the Memory Spot's manufacturing costs relative to tags made by attaching the chip to the antenna.

Memory Spot tags are designed to transmit large amounts of data at close range (approximately 1 millimeter), while EPC Gen 2 and other passive UHF (900 MHz) tags in the supply chain are made for transmitting small amounts of data at a distance of up to 30 feet. Howard Taub, vice president and associate director of the labs, says Memory Spot tags are not intended to compete with tags optimized for use in the supply chain. Today's EPC Gen 2 tags hold 96 bits—though plans for extended memory tags will expand that to 256 bits—and can transfer data at a rate of 640 kilobits per second.

According to Taub, the Memory Spot tag would be a good fit for a number of different business applications for tags carrying large amounts of sensitive data that should be protected and read from a short distance. These include tags embedded in passports and encoded with travelers' biometric data, or others attached to pharmaceuticals with authenticating data used to fight counterfeiting. The chip's microprocessor supports data encryption.

Recent demonstrations of the tags at HP Labs, however, have focused on consumer applications. HP showed the tag in use as a means of adding words to a photograph: an audio file of a child singing a short tune was encoded to a Memory Spot tag adhered to an image of the child. When an interrogator was brought within the Memory Spot's 1-millimeter read range, the interrogator picked up the song and played it. HP Labs is also considering how the Memory Spot—which has an adhesive backing—could be used as a digital note pad to replace or augment such documents as travel brochures and owners manuals for consumer electronics products. They could also be used as digital postcards, complete with movies and audio snippets from vacation. "These things could be sold like a book of stamps. People could peel one off, attach it to something and then add data to it," says Taub.

According to Taub, the cost of the tags will depend on the quantity HP is able to produce, as well as the business model used to sell them. Memory Tags sold as stand-alone devices would likely cost more than those sold for use in a specific consumer product, such as a camera. Still, he mentioned $1 per tag as a possible price point for the example of Memory Spot tags being sold like stamp books.

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