USB drives can take on all kinds of shapes, limited only by the size of the port. Intellipaper plans to roll out one with a memory chip embedded in a sheet of paper. That not only makes it about as small as possible, but also foldable and thin as a sheet of card stock.
The resulting device can do all the things a normal flash drive can, but you can also mail it cheaply as part of a postcard. And because the drives consist mostly of paper, they can go into the recycling instead of the trash.
Intellipaper is an Indiegogo project, shooting for $300,000 in crowd funding to produce its eponymous USB drive. Company spokesman Mark Baker says the company sees these little drives as the next post-it note, and that the cost will fall to that of a rewriteable CD, or less than a dollar each. [See also: Crowdfunding Site Kickstarter Offers New and Unusual Tech ]
Judging from what is currently on offer, it seems the Intellipaper may appeal more to small businesspeople. This is a device far more useful to a local store or law firm, for instance, to jazz up a business card with an electronic version of the card or a company prospectus, for example.
In a similar application, Walla Walla University is already sending out postcards to prospective students with embedded USB drives that contain information about the school.
If you receive such a card, you tear off the bit of card stock with the embedded memory chip along a perforation, fold the torn bit twice to make the drive thicker and then plug it right into a USB slot.
Intellipaper sent us a few business cards and the university postcards. We had no problem fitting the drive into the USB port on a laptop. The disk image appeared on our Mac laptop, and we could open the files on it without a hitch. Unfortunately, we weren't able to test how well it wrote data, since the first batch is read-only, like an old-fashioned CD-ROM.
Intellipaper also sells a small read/write box, about two inches on a side, that can write data onto drives while they are still attached to a larger sheet of paper.
The company suggests using Intellipaper to send videos, photos or other large files to people with slow or less-than-reliable Internet connections. You can simply mail the card with the data on it. (While 74 percent of American adults have landline broadband Internet access, about 6 percent still use modems to get online.) The sticks we saw hold about 66 MB, enough for short video clips or a few dozen photos. It's easy to envision sending these out, attached to Christmas cards, to friends and family.
The demo units survived their trip in the mail to us. We then tested their durability in a wallet (where a business card will likely go), and after exposure to water. Getting rubbed repeatedly with fingers and in a leather wallet didn't seem to affect them, at least not in any way we could tell.
Dipping them in water did, though. The drive didn't work after getting wet, as the paper became too soft to slide into the USB slot. That could be a problem if a business card is in a back pocket on a hot day, or anywhere on a rainy day. The drive did work after it dried out, though it might not if it were rolled up into a mushy ball when wet.
The biggest sell might be a proof of concept — that disposable electronics don't have to be so environmentally unfriendly. It could also make USB sticks cheap enough that people would be willing to give them away.
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