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Cartamundi, imec and Holst Centre Work on Playing Cards of the Future

By David Savastano, Editor | February 15, 2017

New plastic NFC tags could enable interactive, online card games.

Playing cards have long been an enjoyable way for friends to play together. However, technology is changing, and the children of today are used to interacting with their things. For Cartamundi, the world’s largest manufacturer of game cards, this is a challenge that needs to be met.
           
Cartamundi has been collaborating with imec and Holst Centre, two leading research institutions, to develop means to add interactivity to playing cards. This partnership is paying off, as the three organizations showed their latest advance during the recent International Solid State Circuits Conference (ISSCC).
           
The result is a plastic tag consisting of indium gallium zinc oxide (IGZO) thin film transistors. The tag is NFC enabled, allowing it to connect to smartphones and tablets. As a result, players can enjoy their games online. The IGZO TFT tags can be produced through low cost large-area manufacturing processes.

“With Cartamundi, we are working toward solutions with RFID and NFC, and together with we are making chips that will be embedded in game cards,” said Kris Myny, senior researcher for imec and the principal investigator of the project. “A customized reader or a smart phone can identify our tag, which is made with plastic electronics technology.”
           
“This innovative hardware solution of plastic NFC tags opens up several new possibilities for NFC deployments,” Alexander Mityashin, imec program manager, said. “Thanks to the nature of thin-film plastics, the new tags can be made much thinner and they are mechanically very robust. Moreover, the self-aligned IGZO TFT technology offers manufacturing of chips in large volumes and at low cost.”
           
The ability to make the cards “smart” is one of the key challenges that the card manufacturer and researchers are working to overcome.

“The hard part is to make these cards that are now just static devices smart,” Myny noted. “We can imbed our ultra-thin plastic identification tag inside. If you do that, you can make interactive cards. It can introduce actions on smartphones, tablets and computers.”
 
Imec showed 10 different playing cards, each with a different action, at the ISSCC demo session.

“These are prototypes,” said Myny. “We had 10 different cards with different codes that represent different actions on screen.”
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Myny said that the adoption of amorphous metal-oxide for the semiconductors has been an important development.
           
“The first ISSCC paper I worked on for this was back in 2008, when we still used organics as semiconductors, but we have changed from organics to amorphous metal-oxide semiconductors,” Myny noted. “These semiconductors outperform organics, and they are available today in fabs and display factories. Now, nine years later, we have created a very complex chip, the world’s first thin-film metal-oxide-based NFC barcode chip that is directly communicating to a smart phone.

“We built a chip that has overcome all the technical hurdles, and now for the first time we have a flexible metal tag that is fast enough and consumes less power to enable smartphone readouts,” he added. “We have the first chip that shows that our thin-film technology is compliant with the standards that were set originally by silicon. Our technology is now fully compatible with IoT.”
           
Myny said that manufacturing these playing cards would be a two-step process

“We built a chip that has overcome all the technical hurdles, and now for the first time we have a flexible metal tag that is fast enough and consumes less power to enable smartphone readouts,” he added. “We have the first chip that shows that IZGO technology is compliant with the standards that were set by silicon. Our technology is now fully compatible with IoT.”
           
Myny said that manufacturing these playing cards would be a two-step process.

“To manufacture the chips, we will need a fab,” he said. “We have display manufacturers in mind to manufacture the chips, as it is the same technology as in displays. The second part is to integrate these into the cards, and Cartamundi is building equipment for mass production.”

Myny sees other opportunities for this technology. “You have to have a low-cost technology, and everybody has access to NFC,” he said. “It could also be used for packaging or brand protection. In addition, you can add a sensor for more capabilities, like a temperature sensor for cold chain monitoring or for a healthcare patch. The fundamental and groundbreaking research towards these applications will be explored in my ERC starting grant FLICs, funded by the EU H2020 project programme (project no 716426).”

Ultimately, this could signal the future of playing cards.

“Cartamundi wants to be a pioneer,” Myny concluded. “They see the use for the IoT in cards. Making these cards interactive with screens and connect online as a big part of the future. This is the prototype for games that may enter the market in a couple of years.”

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