Printable plastic labels could actively monitor food freshness, track vaccine efficacy and eventually warn you when your brakes need replacing, packing low-power intelligence into disposable computers. The culmination of several decades of R&D by ThinFilm Electronics, with some help from Xerox PARC's printed transistors, the multilayer tags combine a year's worth of battery power, sensors and a small display, and will initially be used to show a temperature record of perishable food and medications.
However, ThinFilm has apparently been in talks with automotive suppliers about alternative uses of the technology, including tracking the wear on brakes and sending out warnings as to when they need to be replaced. Entertainment is also a possibility, with interactive toys using the inexpensive labels already in the pipeline.
The functionality will be much improved when wireless mesh networking is added, something ThinFilm expects to happen in 2013 or 2014. That would allow NFC communication between the tags and smartphones, for instance, or the central processor in a car.
Roughly 3 x 1.5 inches in size and consisting of five layers sandwiched in a roll-to-roll production process, the ThinFilm labels use the company's own ferroelectric polymer technology for storing information. Chains of non-toxic polymers can be flipped between two orientations - representing binary "0" and "1" - to store non-volatile data; by adding in PARC printed transistors, meanwhile, the tags can collect information themselves and process it.
Cost per tag is around 30 cents, according to the company, which argues that's cheaper - along with being more accurate - than using alarms in shipping containers for more generic monitoring of perishable goods. They'll first be deployed in South Africa, but could soon be linking more devices up with the internet of things.