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Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Microsoft's skin patent raises questions

PEOPLE OR PRODUCT?

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Call it the ultimate wireless network. From the ends of your fingers to the tips of your toes, the human body is a moving, throbbing collection of tubes and tunnels, filled with salty water and all capable of transmitting the lifeblood of the 21st century: information.

In what may seem a move too far to some, Microsoft Co. has been granted exclusive rights to this ability of the body to act as a computer network. Two weeks ago the company was awarded US Patent 6,754,472, which bears the title: Method and apparatus for transmitting power and data using the human body.

Microsoft envisages using the human skin's conductive properties to link a host of electronic devices around the body, from pagers and personal-data assistants (PDA) to mobile phones and microphones, although the company is uncharacteristically coy about exactly what it may have in mind.

In a statement it said: "Microsoft hasn't recently held discussions about this patent, and it does not currently map to any particular Microsoft product that is either shipping or in development. That said, one of the objectives of the intellectual property licensing policy Microsoft adopted in December 2003 is to provide other parties with access to the fruits of Microsoft's nearly US$7 billion annual investment in R&D -- especially to innovations that do not end up manifesting as Microsoft products."

According to the patent, the technology could usher in a new class of portable and wearable electronic gizmos such as earrings that deliver sounds sent from a phone worn on the belt, and special spectacles with screens that flash up accompanying images and video footage.

Linking electronic devices raises other possibilities. Gadget lovers could use a single keypad to operate their phone, PDA and MP3 music player, or combine the output of their watch, pager and radio into a single speaker.

At its most far-reaching, the technology could combine with chips and sensors fitted around our bodies and clothes to sense and react to the changing circumstances of our everyday lives.

Chris Baber, an expert in wearable computers at the University of Birmingham, said: "You could tailor your technology in the same way that you tailor your clothes. Because you put different clothes on for different occasions, if you didn't want to be contacted by work people while you're socializing then your casual jacket could tell your phone not to accept business calls. Equally you might not want your phone to give you text alerts about football while you're in an important business meeting."

According to the patent, a number of different devices could be powered from a single power source strapped to the skin.

Different technologies can already link electronic devices to form a so-called personal area network (PAN), but Microsoft says sending signals through the skin avoids problems that plague existing techniques. Unlike radio signal networks such as Bluetooth, common on laptops, there should be no interference from other sources, and it should be more secure because nobody can eavesdrop.

The patent says the body could generate the power needed to run the various attached devices similar to self-winding watches.

Most futuristically, it proposes that an area of skin could even act as a keypad; in other words, you could type by tapping on your arm.

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