RealTime IT News

Sneak Peek at Future Tech From HP Labs

PALO ALTO -- HP celebrated the fortieth anniversary of its HP Labs facility by giving a small group of reporters a sneak peek at some of its cutting-edge research.

One of the big areas of HP's research is the so-called data center of the future that will include a utility computing model. John Sontag, director of virtualization at HP, said a common complaint he's heard from CIOs in the past ten years is that they spend a lot of money on hardware, software and the people to run it all, but the system isn't very flexible to changing business conditions, changes in the supply chain, the demands of the Web and other factors.

"We're looking at [transforming] the data center in terms of agility, ability to respond and making it a service over the wire," he said.

Like HP, IBM and Sun have begun offering different versions of utility or on-demand computing. Sontag noted a key advantage is being able to add computer capacity quickly and manage it from a remote location. "Normally, the process of acquiring new systems is three to twelve weeks," said Sontag.

HP's research has enabled it to significantly shrink the amount of physical space its own data center needs, and it's working to convey the expertise and technology it's developed to help its customers do likewise. The cost of physical space and the energy required to maintain an appropriate cool temperature in the data center, full of increasingly more powerful servers, is a major IT concern.

"Since the mid '90s, we've been looking at how do you extract heat at the chip, system and rack level?" said Sontag. For example, where a typical data center might be entirely cooled to a constant 68 degrees, HP approached the problem holistically, looking at better ways to manage airflow and other factors that leave the main area about 72 degrees and 100 degrees or more (which HP says is safe) in back of the servers, saving significant cooling costs.

Moving from enterprise concerns to consumer technologies, HP showed several projects that show promise, even if they may never become commercial products in quite the same way as their current prototype incarnations.

"Casual capture" is the term HP uses to describe a new kind of discreet video and photo capture. A prototype unit featured a video camera built in to a pair of sun glasses; the glasses were tethered to a paperback sized power supply and storage unit that could be clipped a belt. HP Labs in the U.K. has been experimenting with the glasses as a way, for example, for a parent to record an afternoon at the park. The recording is always on.

For viewing later, HP has software which guesses at the best images to reproduce and can display them in a collage format. For example, something that is stared at for more than a few seconds might be deemed by the software to be a particularly important image, while a scene that's viewed slowly from one side to the other might be a good panoramic shot.

The prototype can store about three hours of video at 30 frames-per-second. "The software reviews and picks out the best frames automatically," said Dr. Howard Taub, vice president and associate director of HP Labs. "This may be the future of photography for consumers."

HP is not committing to any of these consumer products being made available commercially; for now they are research projects that HP hopes will become commercial products in one form or another.

Misto is HP's code name for a kind of interactive coffee table that brings new meaning to the term "digital living room." The prototype is basically an Intel Pentium-based computer built into a coffee table with a two-by-three-foot display taking up most of the surface, which has touch screen capability.

Running standard Windows, a screen saver fish aquarium looked quite real, but the real fun began with the first touch of the screen. A series of photos appeared on the table's Windows desktop, which could be easily manipulated by simply touching an edge to rotate, enlarge or shrink the image. HP developed software to make access equal from any side of the table: There is no controlling paradigm or "correct" viewing position, as in a standard computer display. In a later demo, several reporters took turns assembling a digital jig saw puzzle, grabbing pieces with their fingers from different sides of the table.

In its current form, Misto requires multiple users to take turns, but HP is working on making it a true multi-user system, where a family could sit around and run different applications simultaneously. "Every side of the table shares the same power. There isn't one person in control," said Pere Obrador, project manager in the imaging technology department at HP Labs.

HP also showed a prototype of an electronic book. So-called e-books have been out for years but the dedicated hardware devices never gained much of a following. The HP eBook looks like a small Etch-a-Sketch. Text can be displayed in one- or two-page format. The front edges of the frame act as a kind of navigation system. You can touch a panel to turn a page, or hold it down to flip a series of pages forward quickly.

Though it did not show it, HP said it was experimenting with electronic paper, a kind of flexible display that can fold. As for the business prospects for eBooks, Taub said hardware costs have come way down to make them more affordable. He also said HP didn't want to be in the business of "selling boxes," but planned to build a business based on recurring revenue by working with book publishers, much as Apple has worked with music publishers to supply content for its iPod.