CES - Microsoft's SPOT technology has humble origins

The technology behind Microsoft Corp.'s futuristic "smart objects" has humbler origins than one might expect. It's used to pipe music into elevators and was tested by Atari two decades ago as a way of sending new video games to its consoles, a developer of the technology said last week.

Microsoft shed light on its Smart Personal Object Technology, or SPOT, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It uses FM radio networks to deliver a slow but steady stream of data to devices like wristwatches and fridge magnets, sending information such as sports scores, weather reports and stock quotes, or even short text messages. Three leading watchmakers plan to sell SPOT-enabled wristwatches by the end of the year, Microsoft said this week.

But the origins of Microsoft's high-tech gambit are more humble. So-called "sub-carrier FM" networks have been used to pump background music over the airwaves into stores, elevators and other public places, and to provide reading services for the blind.

In the early 1980s a similar, albeit more primitive, version of the technology was tested by Atari Corp. for delivering video games to end-users as a way of cutting distribution costs. Atari went out of business and the plan was scrapped before it came to market, said Larry Karr, president of SCA Data Systems Inc., who helped develop the chips for both Atari and for Microsoft's SPOT project.

Fast-forward some 20 years and Karr received an e-mail from Bob Mitchell, the Microsoft engineer Gates described as the driving force behind SPOT, asking him to meet with the software vendor to discuss a new project.

"I thought, well, that's strange," Karr recalled in an interview last week.

SCA Data Systems had carved out a modest business providing microcontrollers for computer modems, satellite radio equipment and other gear. The Internet bubble was close to its peak and the last thing Karr expected was a call from the world's biggest software maker.

In fact, Microsoft had recognized that his knowledge of subcarrier FM technology was what it needed to make SPOT come alive. It quickly enlisted him and set him to work designing a chip that would meet the demands of its project.

"We were just bumbling along really, but because we're frankly the only people on the planet who know how to do this stuff, Microsoft came to us," Karr said.

The "stuff" SCA has developed is the key part of a chipset which will be manufactured by National Semiconductor Corp. and deployed in each SPOT-enabled device. The chipset consists of two main components, Karr said. One is a chip based on a design from ARM Holdings Ltd. and designed by Microsoft which basically processes and displays the information on the device. The other is a front-end mixed signal chip that pulls the information from the FM airwaves and delivers it to the ARM chip.

SCA's design was appropriate for Microsoft because it uses very little power -- far less than components used in a mobile phone, Karr said -- which is crucial for battery life. It also fit the bill because it's designed to collect data when a user is in motion, be it in a car or on foot.

Karr wouldn't say when Microsoft first approached him, but said Mitchell had already been developing SPOT for some time. Since then he's been part of a team working flat out to perfect the chipset. One Microsoft engineer told IDG he had been working seven days a week for the last year with only a week's vacation.

"They're very demanding," Karr said of Microsoft. "They impose unrealistic schedules on you and if you don't make them, they beat you to death. But when you do get there, then they're very happy."

Microsoft isn't the first company to experiment with watches that use sub-carrier FM networks. In the 1980s Seiko offered a watch using a similar technology, but at the time the device could manage only basic tasks like sending a smiley face to another user, Karr said.

Richard Doherty, director of analyst company The Envisioneering Group, bought one of the Seiko watches and thought it was a great at the time.

"Then one day my US$150 watch stopped working, and Seiko sent me a US$50 rebate and said sorry, the service is being discontinued."

Seiko couldn't find a market for its product, and the cost of maintaining the service was too high so was scrapped, Doherty said.

Microsoft doesn't expect to suffer the same fate. The silicon chips developed for its SPOT technology are far superior to those available even 10 years ago, according to Karr. Microsoft also has its considerable software expertise to bring to the table, not to mention a good deal of industry clout and vast reserves of cash, Doherty noted.

It has tried to put as much functionality into SPOT technology as possible, Karr said. Instead of smiley faces the technology can deliver weather reports, stock prices and even new watch-face designs. On Wednesday Gates showed a fridge magnet that downloads the latest special offers from local restaurants.

The chip Karr developed uses "space-time diversity," he said, which basically means that data can be collected in small chunks over a period of time and in different locations. That means it requires only a low bandwidth connection, and if users are in an area where FM coverage is spotty the device can wait until the user has moved to a better coverage area, Karr said.

Microsoft has enlisted one or two FM radio stations in each large U.S. metropolitan area which will broadcast its signal to the devices using a piece of equipment called a subcarrier generator, another SCA official said.

Karr wouldn't reveal the data rate supported by the one-way FM networks, but noted that "If you're sending (baseball) scores innings by innings, you don't need a whole lot of bandwidth."

Before it was approached by Microsoft, SCA's business was a relatively small one, Karr acknowledged. He talks like a man who knows he was fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time. But he's also not above enjoying it just a little bit.

"I walked into the Microsoft booth today and there are all these Microsoft guys standing around wearing these watches and they actually work," he said. "It was quite a rush."

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James Niccolai

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