Reporting from San Jose — To help make football a little safer, Intel Corp. executives last month proposed having players' helmets outfitted with microprocessors that would wirelessly alert doctors if the athletes suffered a hit hard enough to cause head injuries.
And why not? Besides being installed in things as varied as ATMs, airport check-in kiosks, pacemakers and ocean monitoring sensors, microchips also are going into a staggering array of items that were once decidedly low-tech, including gravestones, running shoes, fish lures and pens.
The potential market is huge. Microchips of all types generate about $300 billion a year in sales worldwide, with personal computers and smart phones accounting for a third to half of that, according to some experts. That means $150 billion to $200 billion in sales come from so-called embedded semiconductors, which go into pretty much anything a person can think of. And that segment is growing fast.
In the future, "Where won't we find chips?" asked Jordan Selburn, principal analyst for consumer electronics at research firm ISuppli Corp. in El Segundo. "The answer is pretty close to nowhere."
Moreover, because of the sophistication of the chips being used, the difference between PCs and many formerly mundane products is quickly narrowing.
"The term 'embedded' used to refer to a low-level, limited-function semiconductor and nobody needed to pay attention to it," said Shane Rau, a chip expert at market research firm IDC. "Now these devices are taking on more intelligence. They're becoming more programmable, they're getting faster and they're getting communications functions built into them."
Consider these examples:
•Intelligent pens: Livescribe of Oakland sells a chip-powered ink pen equipped with a camera and audio recorder that's designed to help people remember precisely what was said when they review their handwritten notes. It synchronizes its voice recording with the pictures it takes of the words as they are jotted down. Then, if the pen is later tapped on one of the scribbled words, it replays what was said when that note was taken.
•Computerized commodes: AquaOne Technologies of Westminster has introduced a toilet containing chips that automatically shut off the water when it springs a leak or starts to overflow. And the Japanese company Toto reportedly has developed an intelligent potty that gathers health-related data from the user's urine and automatically sends the information to his or her doctor's office.
•Fish beware: A number of fishing reels, including those made by Shimano of Japan, have chips in them to help control how fast the spool of line spins. Some enthusiasts of the sport say that results in longer, smoother casts. Pro-Troll of Concord, Calif., also puts chips in its lures. The result, the company claims, "duplicates the electrical nerve discharge of a wounded bait fish," prompting other fish to bite it.
•Smart shoes: Adidas was widely hailed five years ago as the first company to outfit a running shoe with a chip that automatically adjusted the shoe's cushioning to the wearer's weight and running style. Nike then followed with its own running shoe that featured a chip that fed data on the wearer's pace, distance traveled and calories burned to an Apple iPod or iPhone.
•Tombstone tech: A Waynesburg, Pa., company sells a coin-size, stainless steel-encased microchip for gravestones. Called the Memory Medallion, it tells the dead person's story in text, photos, video or audio histories, which visitors can access by pointing their Internet-enabled cellphones at it. The company says it has sold thousands of the medallions, which recently were installed at a New York cemetery's memorial to victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
•Digitized pets: Millions of cats and dogs have been equipped with chips the size of a grain of rice that contain their owners' contact information in case the animals get lost. Taking that concept a step further, a British company sells a cat door that opens for pets whose microchip it recognizes, but stays locked for other animals.
•Precocious dolls: Chip maker Sensory Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calf., says its microcircuits have enabled Furby dolls to communicate in seven international languages. The doll also can use "facial expressions and synchronized body motions to display his emotions," Sensory said. Its chips have been used in the Amazing Amanda doll, touted as being able to recognize its owner's voice, pout when it is told "no" and remind a child of upcoming holidays.
•Unmanned mowers: Belrobotics of Belgium offers a computerized mower that autonomously trims lawns. It's equipped with a sonar system so that when it approaches an obstacle it slows to a point where it makes "very slight initial contact," and then turns away. The mower's blades can't inflict serious wounds, the company says, and pets get so used to it they "consider the robot almost as a companion."