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Gen2 RFID Versus the New Hewlett-Packard Chip

Hewlett Packard made headlines this week with its announcement of a tiny, wireless microchip capable of relatively high storage and data transfer rates. It seems like a Gen2 tag on steroids, and indeed some articles about the chip are calling it a competitor to RFID. Not likely.
Jul 18, 2006This article was originally published by RFID Update.

July 18, 2006—Hewlett-Packard made headlines this week with its announcement of a tiny, wireless microchip capable of relatively high storage and data transfer rates. It seems like a Gen2 tag on steroids, and some have already predicted that the technology will become an RFID competitor or even, gasp, killer.

Called Memory Spot, the chip measures 2 to 4 millimeters square, about the size of a grain of rice. At 10 megabits-per-second, it offers speedy data transfer comparable to WiFi. And with the potential to store half a megabyte of data, one Memory Spot chip could hold a short video, a few pictures, or substantial amounts of text. Like passive RFID, it harnesses the incoming reader signal to power the data transfer and so does not require a battery. The announcement does not provide specifics on the read range, except to make clear that it is quite short; the reader must be "positioned closely over the chip".

Memory Spot is a read-write technology, which allows for very interesting possibilities for consumer applications. Indeed, quite a few of the hypothetical uses conceived by HP are consumer facing, like "audio photos" enabled by attaching a chip loaded with audio to a physical photograph. Others, however, are targeted at the enterprise and supply chain. Pharmaceutical tracking is cited in particular, which begs the question of whether Gen2 vendors should feel threatened by what appears to be leaps and bounds ahead of today's passive RFID capabilities.

The answer, in a word, is no. While the Memory Spot's capabilities are impressive and its potential intriguing, it is not about to turn the RFID industry on its head. Here's why:
  • Two years away. It will take a minimum of two years for the technology to be commercially available. HP's announcement was for a prototype, not the real thing. In the company's own words, it is "experimental".
  • It's very expensive. Howard Taub, vice president and associate director at HP Labs, offered one dollar as a rough estimate of what the chip might cost in volume. That's twenty times more expensive than the volume pricing many are predicting for Gen2 tags in 2008.
  • There are no standards. As the RFID industry knows all too well, new technologies need standards to achieve widespread adoption. The Memory Spot is an HP invention and therefore proprietary. If it stays proprietary, the technology will probably only penetrate isolated, niche applications. If HP pushes for a standard, that will add even more time to widespread commercial realization of the technology.
  • Where's the ecosystem? Adoption will require vendors other than HP to offer products based on Memory Spot. That means the company must convince a vast array of technology manufacturers to develop such products. Taub was quoted as saying, "The hard part is building the ecosystem. You have to get your readers and writers, and I don't know how long it will take me to convince the cell phone companies to do this. How long has RFID been around and it's still not completely built out?"
  • Read range. One of the key characteristics that piqued the interest in UHF RFID (on which Gen2 is based) was its generous read range of dozens of feet. If Memory Spot requires very close proximity for a tag to be read, it would be a non-starter for high-volume supply chain and retail applications.
None of this is meant to belittle Memory Spot, which, if it does reach commercialization, would likely accelerate the realization of the Internet of Things, a goal that everyone shares. But these points should assuage the concerns of those in the EPC-focused sectors of the RFID industry that this new technology will most certainly not encroach on Gen2's turf any time soon.

Read the Memory Spot announcement
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