Posts Tagged RFID

Printable electronics

Xerox silver ink is a breakthrough for printable electronics
Xerox silver ink is a breakthrough for printable electronics

Xerox announced this week they’ve developed several breakthroughs in the printing of low-cost electronic circuits. Most notably, this includes their development of a silver-based conductor ink and significant improvements to their previously-developed semi-conductor ink. These advances will make circuits possible on a wide range of materials, including plastics, film and textiles. The process is scalable so it could be used to create everything from low-cost miniature circuits to large video displays. Because the new silver ink can be delivered at sufficiently low temperatures (140°C), it won’t melt plastics, which was a previous obstacle. Finally, the process uses ink-jet technology and doesn’t require clean room facilities such as those needed for silicon chip manufacturing.

Xerox has already begun aggressively marketing the new technology which I believe will make a significant impact, both in established industries and in entirely new uses. The ability to print on fabrics should make wearable electronics really start to take off. Custom large-scale, flexible video screens and signage will become feasible. Sensors capable of detecting all manner of airborne pathogens and toxins will eventually become widespread.

Given the relatively inexpensive setup costs this will bring about in time, I’d expect a significant open source movement to build around printable electronics. Not only will this yield all sorts of innovations, but it will eventually make many consumer devices more affordable. Think RepRap for electronics.

But to me, by far and away the most exciting aspect of this breakthrough is the promise of low-cost RFID tags and sensors. Once these are in widespread use, every item in a warehouse, every book in a store, every piece of furniture in a home will be able to convey information about its location and state. Your refrigerator will be able to poll its contents, generating a shopping list or identifying items past their use-by-date. The possessions in your house could be easily inventoried and recorded for insurance purposes, in case of theft or fire. Misplaced items could be located in an instant.

In a word, everything in our environment would become more intelligent. And that’s only the beginning. Wireless communication to a central server or internet services could allow a failing device to arrange it’s own repair. (Obviously, with over-ride options by the owner.) Sensors along roads and buildings could assist in everything from collision avoidance to giving directions to tourists. Gradually, additional features and processing would be added to each device, creating an ecosystem of interacting, inter-communicating electronics.

Of course, there will no doubt be considerable privacy and security issues to contend with, not to mention all kinds of new scams involving counterfeit RFID tags, false information, misdirection and so forth. But to be honest, I don’t see us foregoing the functional and marketable benefits because of such concerns. We’ll just have to build methods and measures and legislation to deal with the possible downsides of the technology. Because in the end, smarter really is better.

Vanishing computers

Computers are disappearing. 

Now before you panic (or in a few cases, jump for joy), what I mean to say is computers are disappearing from view.  They’ll still be here, more powerful and in greater numbers than ever.  We’ll just not be seeing a growing proportion of them.

Consider:

Intel 80 core research chip
Intel 80 core research chip
  • Last year Intel unveiled a postage stamp-sized 80-core research chip as powerful as a 1996 supercomputer which at that time took up 2,000 square feet.  The new chip requires about 1/10,000th as much power as that supercomputer did. 
  • Wireless technology is available in more of our environment at continually increasing transmission speeds.  The recent auction of 700Mhz spectrum will allow for the delivery of a wide range of new software services via wireless.
  • GPS and other positioning technologies are being developed with greater degrees of accuracy and granularity at ever-lower cost.
  • RFID is becoming increasingly capable.  Identification, sensor-integration, data storage, firewalled access and encrypted communication are just some of their current features.  Grains so small they qualify as powder can be embedded in just about anything imaginable.  Even under your skin.
  • Cloud computing is taking off.  With its growth, more and more of our processing needs can be off-loaded to distant, unseen servers, which will provide processing-on-demand and greatly reduce wasted processing cycles.
  • Display technology is shrinking.  Texas Instruments recently demonstrated a prototype DLP pico-projector which is small enough to fit in a cell phone.  Wearable displays and retinal projection technology will become increasingly available in the near future. 
  • Emotive headset
    Emotive headset

    Several companies have recently demonstrated the ability to translate thoughts into commands that can be used to control games and other applications.  Emotiv Systems plans to ship its first-gen neuroheadsets in late 2008.

All of these technologies are becoming increasingly capable even as their cost is plummeting.  This is how technology works.  Many of us can remember when a not very sophisticated calculator cost as much as a current-day PS3.  And that’s not even in adjusted dollars.

So how does this change the way we’ll use computers?  Well, for one, they’ll soon be with us everywhere, all the time.  If you have enough computing power in your pocket or woven into your clothes or embedded under your skin to control basic I/O functions, various forms of wireless, GPS and cloud computing can do the rest.  Clunky old keyboards, mice and monitors will be a thing of the past.  RFID in clothing, jewelry or even under your fingertips will make gesture recognition input possible.  Wearable displays have the potential to provide heads-up information anywhere you go, augmenting your environment with different layers and levels of information.  Contextual overlays will be driven by a mix of geographic data and proximity detection, while being controlled and modified by personal preference filters.

And brainwave I/O is only just getting started.

A new era is coming.  Get ready to say goodbye to your computer.