March 27, 2009, 11:42 AM — Innovation is both an exciting, revolutionary event and a mundane step-by-step process. For every remarkable, headline-making discovery -- flash memory! high-def movies! quad-core processors! -- there are more iterative research projects that move technology forward inch by inch.
At Hewlett-Packard Labs, projects such as a new substrate for flexible displays might make headlines one day, but will finally emerge as a shipping product only years later. Another example: When supercomputers finally run at petascale speeds -- many millions of operations per second -- researchers go back to the drawing board and figure out how they will run at exascale (trillions of operations).
HP Labs is a bit different from some labs in computing: It has 600 researchers on staff, but only about 50 large-scale projects that each have smaller, related projects. Microsoft Corp., by contrast, is working on several hundred projects in 55 research areas and employs about 800 researchers.
Much of the HP research is directly tied to printing, imaging and server technology. This year, several ongoing projects reveal what's ahead for the 60-year-old company. All of the projects described below were developed in HP Labs. Some are exposed externally -- meaning they are available publicly -- but they were all birthed from HP Labs.
Imagine a computer display that is made almost entirely of plastic, can be discarded, or rolled up and placed into a satchel, and yet has all the brightness and color properties of the LCD on your desk. HP Labs has already invented the technology to make this happen, which is called self-aligned imprint lithography (SAIL) technology. Although the flexible display as a concept is not new, HP just recently worked with Arizona State University's Flexible Displays Center to create a first prototype, with the first full-scale rollout with the U.S. Army planned in the next few years.
"The patterning information is imprinted on the substrate in such a way that perfect alignment is maintained regardless of process-induced distortion," says Carl Taussig, director of the Information Surfaces Lab at HP Labs. This allows for more cost-effective continuous production on a flexible plastic material, in a low-cost, roll-to-roll manufacturing process. "The critical problem for roll-to-roll electronics fabrication is patterning and alignment of micron scale features," Taussig explains. "Imprint lithography is a high-speed, high-resolution process."
HP Labs developed the online Color Thesaurus as a way to choose a color based on entering the name of a more well-known color and seeing slight variations. There are roughly 600 common color names such as cyan or lime green, but thousands of actual colors that designers can pick.
The thesaurus is also a printed book that shows all of the available colors and the name. (In an interesting twist, the color book was printed using another HP Labs research project called MagCloud.com, which allows you to create a magazine or booklet and request a printed version.)
"Color naming is one of those 'long tail' things," says Nathan Moroney, the HP researcher who created the Color Thesaurus. "We wanted to develop something that demonstrated the scope of color data. Color names are like IP names -- some parts are similar, some are different -- so we wanted a visual tool to help pick color names. This is an online experiment and a reference book project."
Snapfish Labs' Pet Eye
Snapfish is the HP-owned portal for storing photos, similar to Flickr.com. At Snapfish Labs, the company offers experimental tools to enhance the service. Some can improve the color of images or crop them automatically, but one of the more interesting tools is called Pet Eye.
It turns out that the normal red-eye reduction on many digital cameras does not work with pets, because of how the technology works; it looks for both face color and human eye shape. Pet Eye accomplishes the same goal, removing glare or red eye from the pet, by using a different method.
"Pet Eye was developed in the HP products and imaging group using algorithms that analyze a pet photo," says Qian Lin, an HP Labs researcher. "We knew that the pet eye glare could be any color -- white or orange," for instance. "Detection has a hard time knowing if the glow is a tree light or a car light. We now look for the typical pet eye colors and look for the circular regions that match the eye shape of a pet. It is also using a sequence of classifiers and color data matching."
Sustainable data center
The goal of the sustainable data center project at HP Labs is to find out how future data centers can be self-sustaining -- rather than consuming more energy, they would manage the energy systems of an entire building or even a city and pay for IT many times over. The five areas of sustainability, according to HP, are energy savings -- with a 25% to 40% reduction in costs -- resiliency, increased efficiency (such as higher rack operating temperatures), computer air-conditioning consolidation and better flexibility.
The idea is to provide much better information about real-time energy usage in a data center and adjust service-level agreements to meet specific demands. Today, data centers usually provide more capacity than business units need, to make sure there are no outages.
"The TCO is driven by energy, as in the cost of equipment, maintaining it, disposing of it," says Chandrakant D. Patel, director of the Sustainable IT Ecosystem Lab. "For the next-generation city, we are thinking that we can use the IT ecosystem to manage the ecosystem around it. We can seamlessly integrate the IT systems into the city so we can manage the ecosystem -- services such as transport, waste and power."
Photonics is the use of light to transport data. It is used today in data centers to connect one building to another, via fiber optics, and is emerging as a technology that can connect one server rack to another.
In the future, photonics could be used to connect not only the server blades in a rack, but the interconnects inside the computer or even the connections inside a CPU. Photonics is an important advancement because, as supercomputer design moves from petascale computing to exascale speeds, a new kind of interconnect will be required to move those massive amounts of data.
HP is the first company to develop a working photonics prototype, and has developed working models in the lab for how optics will be used inside the server rack.
"We are replacing a copper wire with effectively nothing. We are able to communicate from one blade to other blades, and share that information to all of the rack," says Stan Williams, the HP researcher who developed the photonics prototype. "This is all part of the issue of how we bring the costs down. We only need to send information a couple of feet, so we don't need an expensive telecom laser but the one present in a house today," such as the one in a DVD player.
Photonics can carry 10,000 times the amount of data while using the same amount of power as a traditional computer interconnect. Programming paradigms would likely change, because it will be possible to share multiple components at the same time, moving data between chips and in concurrent operation. And the computer itself could change, because it would no longer require today's motherboard design and copper interconnects.
A stark departure from data center research and photonics innovations, BookPrep is an interesting project that allows anyone to submit an out-of-print book and turn it into a printed book. Andrew Bolwell, an HP Labs director, says there are currently at least 90 million books out of print today.
Books are scanned in a non-destructive way, removing any artifacts and yellowing, and then are printed and bound in a professional way. Google is involved from a scanning perspective and books are printed in any quantity -- from one to hundreds. The entire process is automated and takes just 24 hours for a book instead of the usual three to six months.
"Books are photographed and digitized as part of the Open Content Alliance," says Bolwell, describing the effort to preserve books for the library system in the U.S. for online reading. "We have a service that converts from online quality to print quality. We automatically generate the cover, subtitles and copyright. We work with print-on-demand company Lightening Source to print the books."
BookPrep is aimed at book publishers that work with HP to re-issue out-of-print materials. Interestingly, there is no cost for the publishing process itself, but payment is based on royalties for each printing. For consumers, the books cost about $20 each, similar to hardcover book prices.
MagCloud, another publishing venture, also uses what HP calls a "bits to atoms" process. Any "publisher" can create a magazine using their own software such as Adobe InDesign, then upload the files to MagCloud.com and sell subscriptions. When a customer orders a subscription, HP prints the issue on demand and mails it out.
The magazine industry -- despite reports of its demise -- is actually burgeoning when it comes to specialized magazines. Consumers spend about $80 billion per year on magazines, and about $56 billion is spent on advertising. MagCloud taps into this market with titles for foodies in New Hampshire or a retro video game magazine for Nintendo fans.
Bernardo Huberman is in charge of the social computing lab and an HP Fellow. His latest project is called CloudPrint, and it allows anyone to send a file -- such as a Word document or photo -- to a print queue "in the cloud," where it is held until you can print the file locally. A mobile user could print a document to the cloud, then receive it on his smartphone. Users can create a queue of documents from any device and send it to a virtual printer. The system, currently in beta, uses a code that you can type in to retrieve and print any stored document.
John Brandon can be reached at email@example.com.