Electronic Design

Cell-Phone Happy Meals Aren't As "Blue Sky" As You May Think

Our mission is to keep you on the leading edge of new commercially available technologies, not the "bleeding edge." Still, it's valuable and fun to look at what's coming down the pike. Our annual Technology Forecast offers you the one-year horizon of our editors' views of the upcoming technologies that will have the most impact on your work in the next design cycle. I hope you'll agree that this Technology Forecast issue is one your most valuable reads of the year, keeping you at the front of the trends in analog, digital, components, power, communications, EDA, embedded, and test.

Our editors sometimes get a bit frustrated having to stay focused on the near term whenso many exciting engineering possibilities beckon them toward the next frontier. So when Communications/Test Editor Louis E. Frenzel suggested a new twist to this year's Forecast, that we should give each editor a chance to do a little blue-sky forecasting, I agreed.

Informed by this year's hot trends and knowledge of their individual technology beats, our tech editors added a little blue-sky prognosticating to the mix. Throughout the issue and online, we've also invited some electronics industry luminaries to offer their perspective on what's around the corner.

Technologies Rise In Phoenix
My own blue-sky vision is influenced by my visit to the Printed Electronics USA conference, produced by ID Tech Ex in Phoenix at the end of last year. Going beyond the usual chip and circuit board design constraints, the conference looked at the emerging organic and printed electronics technologies enabling new flexible displays, printed antennas and RFID tags, and even smart paper.

Pelikon's Segmented Electroluminescent displays use flexible plastic built from insulated layers divided into segments that can be cut to any shape. Control panels or remote controls built with the EL displays change what keys are displayed in accordance with different functions, displaying only the buttons relevant to a given operating mode.

Arjowiggins, the French paper company, demonstrated PaperWorks. This "augmented paper" has a white conductive coating that invisibly encodes unique page position data. The encodation uses patterns formed via four levels of conductivity. A demonstration also included the ANOTO Pen, which reads the unique positioning information off the page and communicates via Bluetooth back to a PC.

PolyIC's RFID circuits use roll-to-roll printing technologies at press speeds up to 20 m per minute. The company has printed fully flexible 13.56-MHz RF tags as well as ring oscillators. PolyIC expects the printed tags to open new RFID markets such as authentication, item level tagging, and "smart objects."

T-Ink detailed its successes with conductive inks and coatings, putting electronics into a wide array of soft goods and flexible surfaces like paper, fabric, and packaging. The company has been on the surface of a million "tippy cups," as well as inside Hallmark tablecloths, WestPoint Stevens' bedding, shower curtains, pillows, and even a Toys R Us inflatable radio.

Andy Farber, co-chairman of T-Ink, said the next generation of the company's products is moving beyond novelty applications and into deeper functionality, such as smart clothing that integrates iPod and cell-phone controllers into the garment.

The company is working with automotive, textile, and military suppliers to engineer new printable functions like biosensors to monitor body temperature and hydration. And, T-Ink's technology is already inside the latest heated hunting and skiing garments.

Would You Like A Phone With That?
While the benefits of smart clothing (and heated long johns!) are appealing, T-Ink's biggest order most inspired my blue-sky thinking—McDonald's has used T-Ink technology in 100 million Happy Meals.

These electronic goodies came up again in a conversation I had with Jay Srage of Texas Instruments' Wireless Business Unit. We were discussing the stratification of the cell-phone market, particularly the big growth in low-cost (less than $20) cell phones based around TI's "Lo-Costo" chip.

"Then we'll have the 99-cent cell phone and finally the Happy Meal phone," Srage joked.

Reflecting on that and thinking about the conference, I predict we'll see the disposable cell phone in the near future. In fact, an inventor named Randice-Lisa Altschal patented a disposable phone using printed electronics back in 1999.

Once the disposable phone is produced, the cell-phone Happy Meal won't be too far behind. Perhaps that's an appropriate application to consider in 2007, when cell-phone suppliers will be able to hang a sign saying "over 1 billion served."

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