Silicon chips may begin telling you how to dress
Their emerging capability: human 'interface'
First, they appeared in computers.
Then they went into clocks, calculators, and coffeemakers. Now they are popping up in credit cards, car windshields, running shoes - and even pets.
Ultimately, say technology experts, they will be embedded in people to track their health, rsums, and whereabouts.
"They" are silicon chips. And as these tiny objects get smaller and smarter, they are bringing about more changes in the way we live.
*Late last month, Britain passed a law granting special privileges to foreign pets implanted with silicon ID chips. If the chip indicates a pet's vaccines are up to date, the animal can come into the country without the usual six-month quarantine.
*Running shoes equipped with computer chips can adjust the shoes' cushioning based on whether the wearer is running or walking. The "Raven" shoe line, developed by Vectrasense Technologies in Beverly, Mass., will be available to consumers next month. Price tag: $150.
*Last September, American Express introduced the Blue Card - a credit card with an electronic chip that acts as a checking account for Internet purchases. The chip stores financial data and works much like the magnetic strips on the back of other credit cards, says American Express spokeswoman Molly Faust in New York.
But it holds much more data, lasts longer, and is more secure from thieves, she says.
*Travelers on Virginia toll roads can have tolls debited from their bank accounts via chips embedded in windshield stickers. The system is more secure than other types of traffic readers.
In the future, the biggest changes in society will come when chips begin to communicate. So far, chips in consumer products simply store information. "Today we've got multiprocessors everywhere, but none of them talk to each other," says Mike Beirne, spokesman for Fujitsu America, a main supplier of such chips.
Signs of improved communication remain in the development stage. For example, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, demonstrated chips in 1995 that exchanged business-card information.
At the Retail Systems Conference last June, companies including IBM and International Computers Limited, a division of Fujitsu, showed a smart-tag system that allowed shoppers to leave a store carrying goods without stopping at the cash register. Chips embedded in the goods identified what the customer was buying. The tab would then be rung up on the customer's chip-implanted credit card.
Unlock doors with a wave
Ultimately chips could migrate under our skin, though the ethical and humanitarian implications remain unclear. In 1996, Professor Kevin Warnick at the University of Reading in Britain had a chip put in his arm that could unlock doors, turn on lights, and boot up his computer.
All the technology needed for chips to interact directly with humans is already available, says Gene France, a senior fellow at Texas Instruments in Dallas. "All we have to do is figure out how to get them not to be so clunky."
Many university prototypes rely on eyeglasses with holographic screens that display information. The glasses - too awkward to be practical - are encumbered by a sensor that monitors eye movement to control the computer.
"If I could just download [commands] from my brain, that would be kind of exciting," says Mr. France. "I've always maintained that someday [knowing] calculus will be a matter of sticking your hand on an electrode pad.... For cellphones, I'd like to be able to just stick this little [chip] in my ear."
Another obstacle is power. Today's batteries are too big, heavy, expensive, and don't last long enough to run embedded chips. "My goal," says France, "is to reduce power requirements so the chips can run off body heat. "Everybody I talk to says ... it'll never happen," he adds. "So I figure it'll be 30 or 40 years."
France bases his prediction on Moore's Law, which states that computer chips double in capacity, while halving in size and price every 18 months.
For now, embedded chips come in two types, says Mr. Beirne at Fujitsu: active chips, which require their own power source and can update their own information; and passive chips, such as those in smart cards that store information.
Passive chips work when inserted into a slot, on a computer or money machine, for example, or by passing through a magnetic field, say, at the exit of a store. And the machines that read these chips also provide a means of at least some interaction with humans.
For instance, say your shirt and jacket have passive ID chips in them, says Watts Wacker, a futurist in Westport, Conn, with SRI Consulting. When you flip on your hand-held computer in the morning, it could tell what you're wearing through its infrared communications port, and tell you whether your outfit matches.
'Go with the yellow shirt'
Further, by comparing this data with your electronic calendar and its own archives, it might know whether you're more successful at sales meetings when wearing a blue shirt or get more dates in a yellow one, he says.
The next step is getting the chips to talk to each other without the aid of a hand-held computer or card reader. If the chip in your jacket were intelligent, it could tell you when the garment was last cleaned, says Mr. Wacker.
Today most active chips are too big, too heavy, too expensive, or not smart enough to join in any kind of intelligent network, says Chuck Malloy, a spokesman for Intel in Santa Clara, Calif.
Chips that can communicate with one another still cost about $100, says Beirne at Fujitsu. -too much to add to, say, a dress shirt.
"We're looking for breakthroughs," says France.
*Write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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