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."