At the end of a long traipse through the supermarket aisles, the phrase unexpected item in the bagging area at the self-service check-out has raised the ire of many shoppers.
In Scott Whites vision for the supermarket of the near future, there would be no irritating interruption, no barcodes to scan and no check-outs. Instead shoppers would simply load their trolleys and walk out of a supermarket with wireless technology registering all of the items they have bought from tiny flexible circuits embedded on the food packaging.
It is those small integrated circuits - the equivalent of a silicon chip on a piece of plastic - that PragmatIC Printing, the company which White heads, specialises in. His hope is that the ultra-thin microcircuits will soon feature on wine bottles to tell when a Chablis is at the perfect temperature and on medication blister packs to alert a doctor if an elderly patient has not taken their pills.
With something which is slimmer than a human hair and very flexible, you can embed that in objects in a way that is not apparent to the user until it is called upon to do something. But also the cost is dramatically lower than with conventional silicon so it allows it to be put in products and packaging that would never justify the cost of a piece of normal electronics, said White.
The main objective is to make everyday objects as intelligent and interactive as our mobile phones, tablets and laptops, he adds.
The microcircuits made by PragmatIC, which this year raised 5.4m in funding, appear as patterns on a sheet of plastic. The actual electronics on them are transparent while some metal parts are visible. Much like a barcode is read for information, the circuits are engineered to communicate information such as the cost of an item of clothing or groceries. According to White, they differ from silicon chips which hold information in passports and credit cards in their flexibility, size and price.
This technology can be used in transferring data between two devices, such as in contactless payment systems or tagging information onto products. However the cost of doing this has so far restricted the possibilities of how it is used, said White, and is therefore limited to high value goods.
If you look at what can be done using conventional electronics, it is always going to be constrained by physical form factor [size] and cost, he said, saying that when people talk of connecting objects at present, the price is prohibitive. What they are actually talking about is relatively expensive objects that you can afford to put a very clever piece of electronics on there, that is going to cost - at the lowest level - tens of cents to add on to something.
The flexible circuits could work in the development of the internet of things, the idea of making everyday items such as cars, utilities and the home connected and working together. The arrival of cheaper and more discreet electronics now allows for coffee cups or labels to be made with the circuits on them, said White. It is the combination of those factors [price and size] which allows us to start thinking about doing things with this which wouldnt even be conceivable with conventional silicon based electronics, he said.
Once that cost factor disappears - White claims the technology to be 10 times and sometimes up to 100 times cheaper than silicon - the possibilities for integrating the electronics increase. One of the first possible uses which has emerged is in blister packets for medication. If combined with a printed battery, a light could show the right time to take the next pill in a packet and the packaging could communicate directly with a doctor.
You could have something where the electronics in there detects it has been taken, communicates that to the patients smartphone which then sends a text message or uploads the information via the internet in some way to say yes, this has been taken at this particular point in time and that can then be tracked, said White.
When printed batteries come to a stage where cost is also not an issue, they could combine with the circuits to display lights on beer bottles for a marketing stunt, he said. The security sector has already proved important for PragmatICs business, in instances such as putting the circuits into the letterhead of a legal document to prove its authenticity which is then read later by a smartphone. Because many courts and legal interactions require original documents, they have not been replaced by email, said White.
It can be done with silicon but it is very expensive so it only makes sense for particularly high end applications - but our technology could conceptually be used by law firms to trace documents, he said.
The microcircuits aimed at mass market items such as groceries are powered wirelessly by the smartphone or the contactless payment terminal which reads them. How long the circuits last is still being gauged although White said they are happy they will extend to two years at least.
Other applications could includea smart plaster could be created which could measure moisture levels on a wound to show how it is healing. In a similar manner, a jar of food which is meant to be consumed within a set number of days can have the intelligent packaging applied to illustrate when the produce is off.
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14 June 2017