Radio-frequency identification chips, which have found a home in applications ranging from toll road passes to smart retail shelves, may be close to taking up residence in the human body.
A Florida-based company has introduced a passive RFID chip that is compatible with human tissue, and the developer is proposing the chip for use on implantable pacemakers, defibrillators and artificial joints. The company, Applied Digital Solutions (Palm Beach, Fla.), also said that the chip could be injected through a syringe and used as a sort of "human bar code" in security applications.
Called the VeriChip, the device could open up a broad new segment for the $900 million-a-year RFID business, especially if society embraces the idea of using microchips for human identification. Applied Digital executives ultimately believe that the worldwide market for such implantable chips could reach $70 billion per year.
"The human market for this technology could be huge," said Keith Bolton, senior vice president of technology development at the company.
Futurists agree that the idea of using microchips inside the body could ultimately represent a large market opportunity, but they doubt whether this initial effort will have a significant effect on the RFID market.
"Are we going to see chips embedded in the human body? You bet we are," said Paul Saffo, a director of The Institute for the Future (Menlo Park, Calif.). "But it isn't going to happen overnight."
Still, Applied Digital Solutions' executives are preparing to sell between $2.5 million and $5 million worth of VeriChips in 2002. The company initially plans to sell the chips in South America and Europe for use with pacemakers and defibrillators. In that application, it could be attached to the outside of the heart device or implanted nearby in the body.
Doing so would enable medical personnel to identify and monitor a patient's implanted devices merely by running a handheld scanner over the patient's chest.
"If you're a pacemaker user and you're in an accident and in shock, an ambulance attendant could scan the body and retrieve information about the device," Bolton said. "The chip could provide information about the pacemaker's settings, who its manufacturer is and whether you have any medical allergies."
The company said it is working with makers of implantable pacemakers and defibrillators to incorporate the chip during the equipment-manufacturing process.
Applied Digital Solutions is awaiting approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and does not expect to sell the chips in the United States until that approval is granted. The company's engineers said they expect approval later this year.
The announcement of the chip's availability created a media stir, however not because of its potential use with pacemakers but because of its science-fiction-like potential application in human identification systems. Because the microchip and its antenna measure just 11.1 x 2.1 mm, Applied Digital Solutions said the assembly can be injected through a syringe and implanted in various locations within the body.
The tube-shaped VeriChip includes a memory that holds 128 characters of information, an electromagnetic coil for transmitting data and a tuning capacitor, all encapsulated within a silicone-and-glass enclosure. The passive RF unit, which operates at 125 kHz, is activated by moving a company-designed scanner within about a foot of the chip. Doing so excites the coil and "wakes up" the chip, enabling it to transmit data.
The chips are said to be similar to those that are already implanted in about a million dogs and cats nationwide to enable pet owners to identify and reclaim animals that have been temporarily lost. Applied Digital Solutions, which has made the pet-tracking chips for several years, says that the human chips differ mainly in the biocompatible coating that's used to keep the body from rejecting the implanted chip. The VeriChip is believed to be the first such chip designed for human identification.
Inspired by Sept. 11
In September, Applied Digital Solutions implanted its first human chip when a New Jersey surgeon, Richard Seelig, injected two of the chips into himself. He placed one chip in his left forearm and the other near the artificial hip in his right leg.
"He was motivated after he saw firefighters at the World Trade Center in September writing their Social Security numbers on their forearms with Magic Markers," Bolton said. "He thought that there had to be a more sophisticated way of doing an identification."
Applied Digital said Seelig, who serves as a medical consultant to the company, has now had the chips implanted in him for three months with no signs of rejection or infection.
Ordinarily, the company said, the chips would be implanted in a doctor's office under local anesthesia.
Applied Digital's executives said the ability to inject the chips opens up a variety of RFID applications in high-security situations, as well other types of human identification systems. The chips, they said, could be implanted in young children or in adults with Alzheimer's disease, to help officials identify people who can't identify themselves.
But the company is backing away from involuntary identification applications, such the tracking of prisoners or parolees. "We are advocating that this technology be totally voluntary," Bolton said.
Whether the technology will boost the market for RFID chips remains uncertain. Industry analysts had assumed that by now RFID would constitute a far larger market than its current, $900 million annual tally.
A consortium of major manufacturers has sought to push the technology as a replacement for bar codes in everyday products ranging from cereal boxes to shaving cream cans, but the cost hasn't dropped low enough to make that feasible. More recently, a group led by the European Central Bank began work on embedding RFID chips in the euro bank note, but the chip category has yet to find its killer app.
Applied Digital nonetheless has high hopes for its RFID technology. The publicly held company's stock did not fare well last year, plummeting from a high of $3 a share on Feb. 7 to 11 cents per share on Sept. 17. But its per-share stock price jumped to 50 cents from 38 cents after the company announced the VeriChip.
Analysts expressed confidence that the concept would eventually be adopted but were skeptical about its immediate future. "For this to work, you are going to need a standard that everyone agrees to," said Saffo of The Institute for the Future. "Then you have to convince people to buy reading devices that may be fairly costly."
Applied Digital's engineers would not say how much the chips or handheld readers might cost. The company's reader is a proprietary unit that is required for use with the VeriChip.
Some further suggested that the chip might be too large for easy adoption. Veterinarians who have implanted the chips in dogs and cats say that the techniques used in animals are unlikely to be embraced by humans. "The needle is huge," said Dean Christopoulos, a veterinarian in Des Plaines, Ill. "It's almost as thick as your pinky."
Some engineers suggested the technology might ultimately be scaled down, making the chip's acceptance more likely. At Alien Technology Corp. (Morgan Hill, Calif.), engineers have already discussed using that company's ultrasmall RFID chips in human applications. Alien, which uses a process known as fluidic self-assembly to create chips measuring 350 x 350 microns, has demonstrated its 900-MHz technology on everyday products such as soap and shampoo bottles. The coded information can be detected and read across distances measuring almost 3 feet.
"There are companies making RFID tags that are much smaller than a couple of millimeters," said Andy Holman, director of business development for Alien Technology.
Analysts also suggested that human identification technology would be more likely to be popularized when engineers are able to integrate more memory and other features, such as global-positioning satellite units and induction-based power-recharging techniques. GPS might help find lost children and adults, they said, while larger memories would enable doctors to store vital patient information.
The concept "goes all the way back to the 1960s," said Jerry Krasner, vice president of market intelligence for American Technology International Inc.'s Embedded Forecasters Group. "What's new is the ability to store a lot of data.
"As soon as you can do that, you'll see more applications for this type of technology," he said.