Release 4.0

Monday, April 28, 2003

Alien; BrainMedia
An interesting weekend:

Alien Technology visit

The irony of RFID chips is that there are so many of them you have to handle them more like a liquid than a collection of things, yet their function is to identify objects uniquely. Alien Technology’s edge is to manufacture them cheaply enough that you can afford to add identity to things as cheap as a $2 pack of razor blades, a T-shirt, or as small as a syringe or a bottle of pills or even individual pills.

The company began in the early 90s as Beckman Displays, founded by Steve smith, a Berkeley professor who still shows up every Friday (plus for board meetings). It’s run by Stav Prodromou, a long-time semiconductor executive.

Went to see Alien Technology down in Morgan Hill. They are the people who are making RFID chips, the little tags that will fit into consumer packaged goods and the like, enabling better tracking for supply chains and better stocking and management of inventories in stores. Their edge is that they manufacture chips just like anyone, but they have automated the process of assembling them by creating what amounts to a film of holes that the chips are shaped just right to fit into. The sheet full of tiny holes goes through a bath full of floating chips, and comes out with thousands of chips positioned just right. The solution is slightly sticky, so when the film is dried the chips are firmly stuck on. Then the film is pulled through another machine that etches the leads onto the chips, and then the tags are ready to be attached to antennas and to products. Aside from the supply chain and retail applications, I personally am looking forward to using these to track my luggage. And yes, I did indeed come away with a souvenir luggage tag…

Lots more to come on the uses and the potential abuses of these things; I’ll be writing about it at length for the June issue of Release 1.0. They will make the whole physical world visible to computers, and “knowable” from any point on the network.

On Sunday, I got a visit from BrainMedia, which uses compression-decompression technology to deliver streaming music so compressed that it sounds awesome over a cellphone (as long as you use good earphones). The idea is to model the human auditory system and focus on delivering only the sounds that humans can hear, without wasting effort on what they can’t. FWIW, this works specifically for music; with voice, you typically get best results by modeling how the sound is produced rather than how it is heard. That’s why voice typically sound so much better than music over cell phones; the compression they typically use is optimized for voice. Now BrainMedia’s challenge is the business model and finding good partners.

Today, something totally different: A conference on the Russian business/political environment, taking place on Capitol Hill in Washington.

posted by Esther 6:17 PM

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