Every move you make could be stored on a PLR
Posted 9/7/2004 8:51 PM; Updated 9/8/2004 12:03 AM
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Over the years, a number of tech prognosticators
have said that someday many of us will own a device that might be
called a personal life recorder, or PLR.
[Photo: Stuart Parkin helped invent MRAM, magnetic random access
memory. Source: IBM]
Maybe a PLR would look like a tie clip or a brooch. It would have a
tiny microphone and camera lens and would record everything that
happens to you all day long — every conversation, every play you make
in softball, every rant about Middle East oil dependence that you
launch into each time you pass a Hummer. It would be like MTV's Real
World, but with a lot less sex.
The key to such a device would be an implausible amount of data storage
that would use practically no power and could fit into a package the
size of a single Advil.
To me, that seemed like goofy science fiction — until I sat across from
Stuart Parkin at IBM's Almaden labs as he described something called
MRAM, or magnetic random access memory. Parkin helped invent it.
MRAM could make personal life recorders pragmatic within a decade,
Parkin tells me. More than that, it's going to change your
technological life. This stuff is going to make today's data storage
seem as quaint as wooden tennis rackets.
An MRAM iPod wouldn't just hold all the music you own — it might be
able to hold all the music ever recorded. Though if I were you I'd
leave out the Christopher Cross catalog.
MRAM is just creeping out of labs and into commercial production. IBM,
Cypress Semiconductor and Freescale — Motorola's spun-off chip division
— are all working on it. Over the next five to seven years, MRAM is
supposed to make it possible to store 400 times more data in the same
space as today's smallest, densest hard drives.
It combines the best attributes of every kind of storage — DRAM, SRAM,
flash memory, hard drives — and eventually might replace them all,
MRAM would use radically less power than any hard drive and could be
accessed instantly: No booting up or waiting for something to load,
because whole programs plus data would be essentially stored in local
memory. Laptops could go 18 hours on a conventional battery. Windows
would boot up in a second instead of in the time it takes to go on a
bass fishing trip to Alberta.
On Monday in Japan, Samsung unveiled the first cell phone containing a
hard drive: a 1.5 gigabyte disk 1 inch in diameter. It can store 350
MP3 songs. Before long, an MRAM phone might store 35,000 songs plus a
couple of movies.
If you want to know how the technology works, better get a degree in
quantum physics. It's based on breakthroughs in the ability to control
and read the spin of electrons — an area of research IBM has labeled
To explain this, Parkin, a hyper-kinetic quintessential scientist type,
dives into stuff about giant magnetoresistive heads and spin value
detectors. But I understand this about as well as I'd understand a
Hawaiian-language hula song.
Still, by all accounts MRAM seems to be very real.
"There still are design issues, but the prototypes look good," Parkin
says. By the end of 2004, Freescale — which has licensed some of IBM's
patents — plans to unveil a 4-megabyte MRAM chip one-tenth the size of
the smallest hard drive. Working with German chipmaker Infineon, IBM
showed a prototype MRAM chip in June and plans to introduce a product
The market for MRAM will be only $2 million this year, but it will grow
to $3.8 billion by 2008, says research firm NanoMarkets LC in a report
out last month.
Oh, and the Pentagon has its eye on MRAM. Some of the research is
funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Soldiers might be able to carry lightweight, low-power MRAM-based
information devices into battle.
"The military is interested in radiation-hardened memory for missiles,"
Hey, maybe MRAM is better than warheads. We could use an MRAM missile
to deliver 100,000 pop songs deep into enemy territory. Once hooked,
al-Qaeda probably won't try to bring down Western civilization if it
means no new Fountains of Wayne music.
That possibility aside, MRAM doesn't seem as world-changing as, say,
the invention of the World Wide Web. But think about how the
improvements in data storage over the past decade have altered life and
given birth to new products and services.
Storage companies have been improving computer disk drive capacity an
astonishing 60% to 70% a year.
In 1994, a new PC would've come with about 200 megabytes of storage —
not even enough to store a dozen high-quality Paris Hilton digital
photos, if anybody might want to do that. Today, a $700 Dell desktop PC
comes with a 40 gigabyte drive — 200 times the 1994 capacity.
That improvement helped bring about digital photography by creating a
way to easily and inexpensively store hundreds of digital photos.
Similarly, it brought digital music to life and paved the way for TiVo.
The increased capacity also made room for far richer software
applications. Today's Microsoft Office would've overcome an entire 1994
hard drive the way the Blob engulfed the Downingtown Diner with Steve
Going forward, MRAM could open similar possibilities, in time perhaps
giving rise to personal life recorders. Of course, PLRs will create a
whole new set of problems. Like, how would you search all that data to
find the conversation that proves you asked your spouse if it was OK if
your mother came to stay for a month?
Could a lawyer subpoena your PLR? What if Kobe Bryant had one that
night in the hotel room?
I'm worried about what it might do to our minds. Human brains enhance
and put a spin on memories the second they are stored. I might find out
that none of my goals in hockey look anywhere near as exciting as I
recall. That could precipitate some kind of major personality disorder,
With enough MRAM data storage, maybe I could keep a backup of my
personality and reboot.
Kevin Maney has covered technology for USA TODAY since 1985. His column
appears Wednesdays. Click here for an index of Technology columns.
E-mail him at: [log in to unmask]