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Dave Wilson

New Origami Trick: Turn Paper Into a Functional Phone

March 08, 2001|Dave Wilson

Imagine a cheap, light computer made largely of paper. Imagine complicated electronic circuits woven into fabric that could easily monitor a hospital patient's condition. Imagine a profound change in the design of electronic gizmos, which might soon be freed from the tyranny of the circuit board and the silicon chip.

That's a lot to ask from one little invention. But a new cellular phone, which could be available to consumers before the end of the year, holds such promise.

I recently held a working prototype of the new phone--about the size of a credit card--and listened to the ringing at the other end, marveling at the quality of the audio transmitted through the combination earpiece and microphone. And when my call was done, I unwrapped one of the phones like a roll of toilet tissue to examine its unusual innards.

This amazing piece of technology, which I tested while huddled against the elements at a train station in New Jersey, is made largely of paper. As a result, it's incredibly cheap. You'll be able to buy one for maybe 10 bucks, and it will come with 60 minutes of air time. When that time runs out, you can throw it away, or just punch a button to add another 60 minutes of time.

Basically, this is a calling card with a telephone built in. And the technological advances it's based on--22 patents have been awarded to its developers--are going to have a dramatic impact on many things we take for granted.

The phone, conceived by Randice-Lisa Altschul, relies on a technique that allows a standard electronic circuit to be literally printed on material using magnetic ink. The breakthrough lies in then using the lengthy, flexible circuit to form the body of the phone by folding it in on itself like an accordion.

The current version has one small circuit board at its core with two traditional computer chips. The second generation will have one chip, and the third generation won't have any chips. Chips contain transistors, and the engineers helping Altschul said they can print the transistors on paper and then stack pieces to create the equivalent of a chip using remarkably different materials.

Altschul said she's already got worldwide orders for 100 million of the devices and three factories standing by as soon as she receives approval for the device from the Federal Communications Commission. It's a fairly routine assessment guaranteeing things such as the device won't unduly interfere with other technology.

Generally, the people designing and making consumer electronic devices are focused on making things such as computers and cell phones more rugged, thus able to stand up to the abuse we put them all through. Altschul's phone flips that equation around.

Driving down the highway one day five years ago, Altschul, talking on her cell phone, lost her connection and became so angry that she wanted to heave the device out the window. She didn't because the phone was too expensive.

Her epiphany struck her during the drive: Why can't a cell phone be so cheap that people won't have to worry about losing it or breaking it? You can keep one in the glove compartment, give one to an irresponsible child, pick up one at the supermarket checkout line if you realize you've left your own phone at home.

You're probably thinking that Altschul is some hotshot electronic engineer. In fact, at age 40, she's spent the last 15 years developing children's games, often board games licensed to hit TV shows. Having conceived of the idea of a disposable cell phone, she hired a team of engineers to implement her vision.

The result is startlingly functional and very probably will spell the death of pay phones.

That's the kind of change new technology imposes. In fact, the implications of this new design aren't at all clear yet. For instance, these phones are pretty much untraceable, like a call from a pay phone. That's great if you're concerned about privacy but bad if you're worried that bad guys will use stuff such as this to make it harder for law enforcement to catch them.

The only negative feedback Altschul said she's gotten is from people who worry that the world has gotten too disposable.

"I can't change what society is. We are a disposable society. Life is what it is," she said. "I didn't wake up one day and say, 'What can I do to help destroy the planet?' "

While we were talking in the train station, a man who watched me take the phone apart there in the terminal eagerly asked when he could buy one. When told it would be months, he was crestfallen. "I really want one to keep with my wallet."

I'm guessing there's hundreds of millions of other people who feel the same way.

*

Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.

Inside

* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A. T6

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