The University of Michigan has developed an amazing new computer prototype. The microcomputers were presented at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco.

This is the first complete millimeter-scale computing system and can hold up to a week’s worth of data (what ever a weeks worth is!). Its called the Phoenix chip and was designed to monitor eye pressure in glaucoma patients, although there are infinite uses for such a device.

What’s so special about this chip is it’s power saving capacity – microscopic chips are not new but the battery size needed to power them is problematic. The battery for this chip in integrated into the unit itself and uses 30,000 times less power in sleep mode and 10 times less in active mode than similar chips now on the market.

The Phoenix Chip contains:

  • an ultra low-power microprocessor
  • a pressure sensor
  • memory
  • a thin-film battery
  • a solar cell and a wireless radio
  • an antenna that can transmit data to an external reader device held near the eye.

The chip uses an extreme sleep mode that starts up the computer every 15 minutes to take readings. This extreme sleep mode saves power so the chip uses an average of 5.3 nanowatts every time it turns on. Powered by light, the Phoenix chip’s photovoltaic system needs 10 hours of indoor light or 1.5 hours of sunlight to charge the battery. It automatically finds wireless networks and downloads the recorded information to a reader that collects the data.

The chip’s micro radio automatically tunes into whatever wireless frequency is available in order to download the data to a reader that collects the data which is then used to make decisions about treatment.

The Researchers have suggested uses for the Phoenix Chip such as:

  • track pollution
  • monitor structural integrity
  • perform surveillance
  • or make virtually any object smart and trackable.

Of course what springs to mind is James Bond, Spies, War, and Espionage.

Professor Dennis Sylvester says: “Our work is unique in the sense that we’re thinking about complete systems in which all the components are low-power and fit on the chip. We can collect data, store it and transmit it. The applications for systems of this size are endless.”

Bells Law

Bell’s Law states that smaller, cheaper computers are developed about every decade. The volume shrinks by two orders of magnitude and the number of systems per person increases. From the 1960s’ to the 1980s’ this has held true for personal computers, and in the the 1990s’ with notebooks and smart phones. A quote from the university papers states: “Nearly invisible millimeter-scale systems could enable ubiquitous computing, and the researchers say that’s the future of the industry.”