Waterloo firm’s tiny NFC tags make objects social

Want your table to tweet and your picture frame to post Facebook updates?

A Waterloo, Ont. startup is implanting some of the tiniest electronicchips ever made into inanimate objects, then layering them withnetworking capabilities and customized mobile apps so they cancommunicate with smartphone users and even interacton social media.

It sounds like a marketing exec’s dream (why use a bilboard when anyobject can actually promote itself?), and TerepacCorp. ishoping it will turn out to be just that. Though the company’s beenaround since 2004, Terepac feels like it’s finally on the cusp of itstechnology colliding with the right timing, said CEO RicAsselstine.

“These are very, very early days. We’ve been very fortunate to have avery early vantage point of how this thing may play out,” Asselstinesaid of Terepac’s perch from within the science of putting the tiniestchips into everyday stuff to create a really big impact.

Terepac’s technology uses near field communication (NFC)chips, whichare embedded into smartphones so users can tap their phones to NFCenabled terminals for financial transactions (mostly buying things instores) or record keeping (like tracking receipts).

Terepac is taking NFC a step further in a few ways. First, it envisionsthe chips not just as repositories of product data but as mobilecommunication devices that “give these objects in the world an actualvoice,” Asselstine said. Second, Terepac is producing chips that arejust half a millimeter wide and 30 microns thin, making them among thetiniest ever created for these purposes.

“These are substantially tinier and much thinner than anything elsethat’s out there,” Asselstine said. “As the technology matures, thetiniest object we’ll be able to handle will be one micron. Soliterally, that’s invisible.”

NFC gaining traction
The timing part of the equation for Terepac is that NFC, which has beenaround for years, is finally starting to gain traction with consumers.MarketResearch.com forecasts that although only five per cent of allmobile devices in the world are NFC enabled right now, 46 per cent ofallsmartphones will be NFC enabled by 2016. This proliferation of NFCphones opens up the potential market for Terepac’s own NFC chipsolutions a whole lot wider.

The business possibilities for these tiny chips could be big since theyenable objects to give smartphone users product information, send thempersonalized marketing messages, promote discounts or other dealnotices to them, and post pre-programmed tweets or other content tousers’ social media accounts. Thetechnology can also be used toauthenticate that objects with the chips are in fact made by the brandthey’re sold under, which could reduce the billions of dollars a yearlost by luxury goods makers to cheap knockoff products falsely soldunder their labels.

No clients have officially signed on to use the chips in products justyet but Terepac has fielded “exceptionally strong commercial interest”in its solution in the few days since it announced that the chips havebeen tested in a few hats and in a drink coaster, Asselstine said.

Although the company is focusing on NFC chips right now “our technologyallows us to handle any kind of chip, whether it’s NFC or other typesof chips,” Asselstine said.

Don’t worry that your stereo will go rogue and start posting Facebookupdates without your knowledge or bombard your phone with productmessages out of the blue. All of Terepac’s chip-enabled objects sendout a mandatory prompt asking for the user’s permission before anyinteraction can take place between the user’s smartphone and thoseobjects.

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