Projecting the future

When the major IT players unleash their latest gadgets, most will already have one eye on developing the next big thing. Andrew Picken took a trip to HP’s ‘Labs University’ event to get a flavour of the new technology that we can expect to see in the Middle East over the coming months.

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By  Andrew Picken Published  July 22, 2003

Introduction|~||~||~|All the big technology players tend to guard their latest developments with the sort of security usually reserved for state visits, but Windows Middle East managed to secure a berth at HP’s ‘Lab University’ 2003 event in the sleepy town of Deauville, France. The HP Lab University is an annual event where HP showcases its latest technology that it hopes will make an impact on the European, Middle East and African markets over the next 12 months.

This years event took on a Hollywood movie theme and HP attempted to squeeze even the most tenuous of links between their products and blockbuster films like Batman, Mission Impossible and The Matrix. The three day event took place in a massive conference centre that was the proverbial labyrinth, perhaps HP were just continuing the movie theme, and each session took place in suitably themed rooms. While HP were excited to share some of their new line up with the delegates from over 29 different countries, there is a number of developments that we’re not allowed to tell you about just yet, but I’m sure HP will forgive us if we drop a few hints.

After their eyes adjusted to life outside the lab, an army of ink chemists, doctors, engineers and futurologists were all on hand to get to guide us through the new technology on show. With all HP’s public relations people safely out of the way, we managed to get to grips with the people who have actually been developing the technology. Discarding their lab coats for the week, the techy’s appeared to enjoy their newfound freedom and there was something quite infectious about their enthusiasm for the products they have nurtured over the last few years. Though it would appear a dose of eccentricity and a healthy beard are mandatory in the HP labs environment.
||**||Do you dig it all? |~||~||~|
Do you dig it all?
“Digital content will drive the future technology evolution,” insists an impassioned Dr. Evan Smouse, HP’s director of strategic technology for the imaging and printing group. Smouse has a point, when technology began to digitise in the late nineties, it occurred on digital ‘islands’ where content was developed and then flowed within isolated clusters of devices. One good example of this digital divide is if you consider that your mp3 player can talk to your PC directly through the USB connection but cannot connect directly to your home stereo. However, as the digitisation of the world gathers pace, Smouse predicts that this, coupled with the existing push for convergence, will mean that by the turn of this decade digital content will flow wherever you want it to go. Imagine capturing an image on your digital camera and then sending it to a friends mobile phone or perhaps you are driving home from work and want your house to be cool when you get their, just use the network connection in your car to speak to the central computer in your house, which will switch on the air conditioning.

In the short term, it has been recognised that certain bridges need to be built between the digital islands before inherent convergence properly takes off. One key technology trend that was explored at HP labs 2003 was the growing trend for external memory devices, either with the USB flash memory or with the memory cards, most commonly found in devices such as digital cameras. The fragmented nature of these digital bridges, digital camera’s have seven different leading memory card formats alone, means that the industry feeling is that digital convergence is crucial.
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Mission Printable
Tom Cruise dangles preciously from the ceiling with his hands hovering above HP’s latest offerings in the world of direct photo printing. This life-size model, 3,10”, was part of the mission impossible theme for this session, a theme that would of accurately described the state of digital photography printing only a few years ago. Today, printing directly from your digital camera, without even a sniff of involvement from your PC, is all the rage and this session displayed HP’s latest developments in this area. The field of photography is one area that has fully embraced the digital revolution. Since 1996, when the first digital camera hit the streets, photography has been transformed by this new technology. It was decried by purists in the same way people defended Vinyl against the onslaught of the CD but nobody can deny the progress the technology has brought to photography in the past few years.

84% of the digital photograph’s printed worldwide in 2002 were printed at home, a figure that is estimated to increase by 20% by the year 2008 according to the photography trade magazine, Photofinishing News. Judging by the wide array of printing equipment in this session, HP is certainly looking to capitalise on this lucrative market. Where it is hoping to really capture the market is with direct photo printing and this will add fresh impetuous to the digital camera market. Consumables for direct photo printing, ink cartridges and special photo finish paper, are fairly expensive though the quality is good and as with all new technology the prices of consumables will begin to drop as demand for direct printing increases.

Smouse says that the challenge for HP is to “make the technology invisible” and the new models that HP will be introducing in the Middle East over the next few months boast features like plug and print, direct printing, e-mail and wireless printing. Another useful feature with HP photo printing is the photo proof sheet, where you preview thumbnails of your digital pictures on a proof sheet before ticking which photo’s and dimensions you want, before feeding the form back into the printer.
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Future perfect
Tucked away in the English city of Bristol, is a team of HP researchers who have their share of a $200 million annual budget to develop technology that HP hope consumers will be using decades from now. These guys are involved in proper ‘out there’ research on the type of technology that wouldn’t have gone amiss in futuristic films like The Matrix, Bladerunner or Minority Report.

Despite the naff name, Cool Town technologies is what HP believes will take web-enabled devices to the next level. The concept involves limitless communication between any intelligent devices and touches on what Smouse talks about earlier, where the current ‘digital islands’ will begin to converge. HP employs some rather flowery language on Cool Town but essentially they envisage the lines between the physical and digital worlds blurring beyond recognition. But fear not, they don’t plan to insert microchips in us all just yet and the concept behind Cool Town is to create an environment where people, places and things all have a Web presence.

Another new technology that HP, Intel and IBM are scrambling to master is Molecular Electronics, Molectronics, which has been tipped to revolutionise the computing industry in the same way that the silicon based microchip did in the late sixties. Molectronics is the idea that individual elements of computer circuits could be formed using single molecules of substances rather than the current silicon based circuits. Without delving into a proper chemical explanation of all this, what it means is that you can vastly increase the density of circuits on a chip and then allow them to run much faster and cooler. Perhaps more importantly, these chips can be produced at a fraction of existing chips, which should lead to a massive reduction in the cost of computing.

One of the most exciting concepts that HP’s futurologists presented to us was the wearable camera. Now this has nothing to do with strapping a camcorder to your shoulder with masking tape but rather, “the opportunity to never miss a moment and capture images in the event” says Phil Cheatle, from HP Lab’s digital media department. The prototype that we saw was actually a tiny camera discreetly hidden in the bridge of a pair of sunglasses. This camera currently captures 5 frames per second and the HP Labs team is attempting to develop the camera so it detects subject motion, interprets the wearer’s behaviour, detects facial features and avoids repeating captured frames. The sample footage contained one of the researchers taking his family out for a trip and what they did was take a picture of the family before heading out so that the camera would recognise the family as being the key characters to look out for. Another intriguing feature is the different media types available, it is possible for the camera’s buffer to capture still images, panoramic sequences or even keep the footage as a video clip.

Cheatle, who infused about the camera with the same swagger as a motherboard fan at COMPUTEX, estimates that this technology is at least 5 years away from being commercially available but he claims that they are making solid progress with the challenges this innovative technology presents. Some of these challenges were evident when Windows got to road test the wearable camera for ourselves. The raw footage from the wearable camera can be very tedious and questions remain on the best parameters to decide on what bits to edit out. Another issue is the lack of zoom facility and also the motion of the camera wearer, as was evident when we tired to run up some stairs wearing the camera. The buzz emanating from this session was the biggest of the entire HP Labs event and if the issues discussed above can be ironed out then HP will be onto a definite winner with this development.
||**||Multiple Functions |~||~||~|
Multiple Functions
In the Back To The Future films, Michael J Fox has the ability to go back to any point in time using his trusty D’Lorean with its flux capacitor. Now if Fox had a passion for multi function devices (MFD’s), bear with me on this one, and took a trip back to the early nineties he would marvel at the progress made in this expanding field of home or office printing. Though, admittedly, its not the kind of plot twist that would have Hollywood bosses clamouring to make a fourth Back To The Future film.

‘Forward to the Future’ was HP’s session devoted to MFD’s and their new range of ‘all in one devices’ is spread right across the business and home user markets. MFD’s have been around for ages but only in the last couple of years have we witnessed the market properly warming to them. A lot of this has been down to the major manufacturer’s finally getting their act together and increasing the overall reliability of the devices.
As they were quick to remind us, HP was the first on the ball with their ‘all in one’ products over seven years ago. One of the latest additions to the MFD’s already bourgeoning portfolio of functions developments is direct printing from digital cameras.

“The printer market is our core market, but some our customers still want lots of functionality in the one device and there is a very good relation from price to number of functions”, insists Jochen Wenk, HP’s EMEA product manager for ‘all in one’ devices.
The future looks bright for MFD’s, with some of the major manufacturers already beginning to include wireless networking options and developments such as e-mailing straight from the devices will continue as MFD’s finally begin to shake off their unreliable tag. The reliability factor is crucial insists Wenk, “if one function does not relate well to another then you cause a bottleneck we have a copy and print, a fax and scan, not a fax or scan and it is this ability to use more than one function at the same time that is important.” The mix of functionality in MFD’s may also change further, as consumers demands shift with the changing technology. The fax is becoming increasingly redundant in the paperless office of the 21st century and a number of manufacturers are already omitting this or at least just including an e-mail based fax facility.

HP Labs 2003 was a fascinating insight into what HP has got planned for the coming months, nut more importantly it was a chance to play with exciting new technology and we know that’s what Windows readers love best.

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