Innovision Research & Technology plc, is leading the next generation of Near Field Communication (NFC) and radio frequency identification (RFID) solutions.
As a fabless developer of Short-Range Data Communication semiconductor and system solutions, with particular focus on NFC/RFID and ultra low-cost integrated circuit (IC) and RF electronic design, IRT is pushing cost performance to enable clients to get maximum utility for minimum cost.
The company develops innovative semiconductor technologies, ICs, RF systems (HF/UHF) and complete end product applications for mass volume commercialisation and then licenses customers for its incorporation into its own products.
Products include Topaz, mandated by the NFC Forum as the NFC number one tag type format, Jewel for mass transit ticketing applications, and io, claimed to be the world's smallest standards compatible Near-Field RFID reader.
Nick Flaherty: How did Innovision get started?
David Woollen: We are a fabless chip company focussed on wireless communications and we have the skill sets for that but we focus on short range data communications up to 1m.
The company was originally set up to focus on the RF identification but we went onto AIM (the London stock exchange for smaller companies) in 2001 and as part of the transition from a startup to a public company we caught the end of the last boom.
DW: We were originally in Wokingham and the business was primarily RFID, in toys such as Star Wars, where we shipped 80m devices and 4m readers, and fluid coupling to communicate across gaps in industrial piping systems, and a smart golf ball tracking system, as well as limited use ticketing.
We did a lot of small engineering jobs for large companies such as Mattel and Hasbro, but increasingly came across the question, could RFID cope with the rugged environment of mobile phones?
From a business perspective we looked at across the market and there wasn't much reusability so we are looking at the resuse of the technology across different areas. This is not the Walmart end of RFID, using tags for locating pallets of product or even individual items, but the emerging Near Field Communications standard.
We develop custom readers at the right kind of price, but the ambition of the company is generate volume from engineering projects with a good consulting model and that.
NF: So what is Near Field Communication (NFC)?
DW: The fundamental thing is that this is a worldwide standard and that's critical for the technology. It operates at 13.56Mhz in the unlicensed band to enable objects to communicate by touching or up to 20cm distance using magnetic induction rather than radio.
NFC applies this to the mobile phone handset to become a reader for tags, as well as emulating a tag.
NFC standardises a super set of technology from Philips (now NXP Semiconductor), Sony and Innovision and provides links up to 424kbit/s so it's low traffic for setting up links for faster links such as Bluetooth.
We see it falling into three categories: service initiation such as setting up a link to a smart printer, poster or photo frame; peer to peer links; payment and ticketing.
We believe just having touch enabled phones opens up more features to make applications more easy to use and we are working with consumer companies that will be providing NFC enabled equipment.
With 60 engineers we think we do have the largest NFC design team anywhere in the world.
NF: Where is it being used?
DW: We believe the handset today will be a significant factor as it becomes a contactless smartcard providing communication with other devices through touch - we do fundamentally believe in this and we we it as a very large market to attack with our silicon skills.
But it is also being used in smart photo frames to set up the link to transfer a picture, in smart posters, even in speakers.
NF: What is the potential for the technology?
DW: We do see that we can merge RFID and NFC on future consumer objects, from cameras to glasses, not just phones.
A lot of the issues are being resolved at the moment through field trials - there was lot of focus on the mobile payments and there was a debate over the role the various players would play - would Vodafone or Nokia become banks, for example.
In Europe the issues have settled down with the traditional players taking up their traditional roles, with Nokia for example providing added value handsets and Vodafone taking a slice of the transaction but with Visa or Mastercard handling the main transaction.
DW: It has been the trend to contactless ticketing as more of the driver in Europe, more so than the credit card replacement, but that's still the long term goal.
It's not just credit card replacement but the cash replacement for transactions under EUR10 which is the bigger prize and we only need a small per centage, say 5 per cent of all transactions, to make it work, for example paying for parking by touching merely your phone to the payment machine.
Smart posters are another area that's very exciting. You can touch the phone to a spot on the poster and transfer a voice file that will read you the information in a different language, and we are developing tags that can hold this is two different languages, and we are already working with two companies that are trialling a system there from a poster outside a cinema you can download a clip of an upcoming movie.
NF: Where does Innovision participate and why?
DW: We set up as system on chip company because we don't believe that this technology can survive as a separate chip in the handset because there's just no room for it.
That's why we are working with the Bluetooth chip companies (such as Cambridge Silicon Radio) to integrate our NFC technology into their chips, as well as into applications processors and power management controllers. Many chips can be carriers for this.
That's for the readers, and we have two generations of IP blocks (called GEM) that is demonstrated on TSMC's 90nm process.
Each instance is customised for each partner in different technologies, with different interfaces and different functions.
This means we have to work with some of the largest design centres in the world so although we are a small company, in our own field we are probably the largest.
A few customers are looking at 65nm and we are embarking on the study for 45nm, but our design is a 3.3V technology and we a looking at designing to cope with the 1.8V to 3.6V range.
We maintain that the NFC business will not be big enough for the big companies to do themselves, which is why they need to buy in the IP.
We also make the tags themselves, and we are on the fourth generation of that technology which we call Topaz. In 130nm its less than 1mm2.
The thing is that every NFC reader has to be able to read tags from NXP, from Sony and from Innovision. We have the chip made and supply the whole assembly through subcontractors in China, even down to printing on a sticker that holds the tag, and sometimes that can have more value than the silicon.
DW: What we have learnt to be good at is extracting power out of a very very small field so what happens when the battery in the phone dies? We can read data from a SIM card via the single wire protocol using no power, just using the field of the reader, which gives you 10mA.
NF: What is the future for Innovision?
DW: In the future we expect maybe half of all handsets to be NFC enabled, and this is just the start.
We entered China in August last year and spent EUR3m on developing IP so that it was mature enough. RFID is huge in China both as a market and as an instigator of the technology.
For example there is a bid out for 4.5 billion tags for tagging environmental waste and although the prices are how there's money to be made if you do it right.
Our model works well in China because we enable companies by making the IP available, and we don't come in as a heavy foreign company trying to sell our products.
We are not just about NFC and RFID. This low power capability also extends to credit cards with bistable displays and we have already demonstrated this. I'm a great believer in electronic ink technology and when you have 5mA to play with you can do quite a lot.
DW: We also do custom tags with multiple frequencies, and we call these semi-active tags with longer range for tagging laptops in production so they can be tracked through the factory and also checked locally by the operator.
We are also looking at putting sensors on the tag such as temperature sensors, strain gauges or accelerometers, and that will need more memory on the tag to log the measurements.
When you start putting smart sensors on these tags it does open up tags in a lot of different applications.
Innovision Research & Technology plc is based in Cirencester Gloucestershire, UK. For more information, visit www.innovision-group.com.