Techno-generation: Cash, card or microchip?

At a bar in Barcelona, select clientele can pay for drinks and access the VIP lounge at the scan of a tiny implanted digital tag. Julius Purcell goes where the chip crowd go
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's midnight, and time for the VIP lounge to open. Footballers Ronaldinho and Eto'o are sometimes here, though apparently not tonight. At the entrance, there's no lists of names, just a computer. Baja Beach Club director Conrad Chase is on hand to show how it works.

"Some of us who work at Baja already have the implant," he explains, rolling up his sleeve. "It's somewhere about here..." he murmurs, feeling his upper arm. He runs the scanner device over himself, and the computer instantly reads his 16-digit ID code. A photo pops up on the screen with his name, and the security man jokily waves the boss through.

Chase is a dynamic, bouncy American, always with an eye on the next new thing. He's also a household name in Spain, having just starred in the country's Big Brother, which may explain why he's just been mobbed by a crowd of Spanish girls wanting his photo.

"Actually, we started the VIP bar precisely to stop our famous guests getting mobbed," he explains, with a touch of fellow feeling. "We wanted to offer them a membership card that was modern and cool, and it was then, last year, that I discovered the chip idea on some geek website."

VeriChip, as the technology is called, is manufactured by Applied Digital Solutions, a Florida-based company, and so far is the only chip on the market that can be embedded in humans. The chip is tiny, about the size of a pen point, and can be painlessly injected into the arm by any qualified nurse (Chase insists that at the Baja they only do this "early in the evening"). The scanning software, VeriPay, is operated by Windows.

Currently, there are more than 90 chipped VIP members of the Baja; staff won't be drawn on whether these include Ronaldinho (not all VIPs have opted for the device). Those that have, Chase explains, can run a tab on a central computer, which they can check up on with a wave of the arm. Chase is keen to point out the impossibility of credit-card details somehow leaking out. "It's a closed, pre-pay system we use here. Bills for drinks are simply debited off their Baja accounts."

He does admit that the chips seem to make his guests spend more money. "People like to play with it; they want to see the system working."

The technology is still very much a novelty. Chase, who says the Baja in Barcelona was the first disco in the world to use VeriChip, has now introduced it in its sister club in Rotterdam. He also knows of clubs in London and Miami which are considering buying it.

Applied Digital has been manufacturing electronic chips for years, mainly as a tagging device for the movement of goods, salmon stocks and domestic animals. Then, last autumn, the US Food and Drug Administration cleared the use of the VeriChip for implanting medical details in patients, a potential life-saver at accident scenes. With this official thumbs-up, use of VeriChip in humans could spread across various sectors. Along with leisure applications such as those at the Baja, implanted chips can be used by office staff and security officers to access restricted areas.

Applied Digital's director of technical solutions, Craig J Almaraz, says that the company does not know, for privacy reasons, how many people now have chips implanted in them. The applications such chips will be put to, he predicts, will also vary from place to place: "I foresee the security market growing worldwide, while in the US it will be more towards the healthcare area," he says.

Almaraz stresses that VeriChip is a passive tagging device: it can only reveal its encrypted data when "woken up" by the external Applied Digital-manufactured scanner. Although Applied Digital also produces active tracking devices, the need for a power supply means that these are still fairly chunky affairs - certainly, for now, far to big to implant.

Given the novelty of such technology, it's impossible not to speculate on its future uses. Will a chip ever be able to detect cancer? Almaraz doesn't see why "multiple bio-sensing capabilities" couldn't eventually be developed.

One application that may be realised rather sooner is the VeriChip's use in a "smart gun". Firearms manufacturer FN Herstal is researching the possibilities of installing VeriChip-readers in its guns. Only the owner, who has the corresponding chip implanted in their hand, will then be able to fire it.

While the Baja Beach Club's innovative use of the VeriChip has caused much interest, Almaraz says that nobody can predict with any accuracy if credit cards, ID and keys will one day all be bundled into one tiny personal chip. Privacy and fraud concerns aside, chips with everything is a tantalising proposition. "My own personal opinion," Almaraz says, "is that this is where technology and evolution is now moving us."