HP Labs imagines your computer watching you

In an interview, HP Labs head Prith Banerjee tells CNET that search could be a whole lot better if the devices and services could track your actions.

TRUCKEE, Calif.--Imagine your own PC watching your every click and reporting back every song you listen to, every movie you watch, or every book you read.

That may sound like a nightmare scenario to some, but that is exactly the reality that HP Labs director Prith Banerjee is preparing for.

In an interview Thursday, Banerjee told CNET that gathering that information--with a device owner's consent--has the potential to tailor devices to be much more useful.

HP Labs director Prith Banerjee
Prith Banerjee Ina Fried/CNET

"When you think about it, HP sells 75 million PCs per year," he said. "That is an incredible place through which we can monitor all kinds of things. If you look at Google, if you look at Amazon, they are only able to look at what a consumer is doing on their Web page."

That's a huge shift for HP or any PC maker. Today it's common for Web sites to track user behavior, and some mobile devices and consumer electronics also track user's behavior. But even that has drawn outcry, including a Wall Street Journal report this week looking at the tracking technology already in use. There was also the recent case in which a Pennsylvania school district was found to be spying on its students .

One can only imagine the potential misuses of adding even more tracking technology.

"Obviously there are issues of privacy and control that we need to address," Banerjee said, adding that the approach will focus on users who specifically opt in, a point also described earlier in the day at the Techonomy conference here by HP technology chief Shane Robison when he talked more broadly on the privacy challenges facing the industry . "Some people will not share anything, others will be willing to share everything."

As shocking as HP's desire to track what users are doing with their computers is the fact that the company even wants to be in the search or content discovery or whatever kind of business this would be, which is a far cry from what HP does today.

However, the world is quickly changing.

"There is a shift," Banerjee said. HP's recent purchase of Palm, he said, shows that the division between hardware makers and software is blurring.

That's just one of the changes that Banerjee says will transform the PCs, phones, and tablets of today into true "windows to the world."

Flexible displays, natural controls
One of the big transformations is coming in display technology. Today's devices all have displays that are illuminated, typically necessitating big batteries and ensuring the devices are both rigid and comparatively bulky. That will soon change, he said.

Last month, HP showed off a flexible screen technology working in its labs, but didn't really say when we can expect such a product to hit the market.

"It takes a while before it becomes a product," Banerjee said, noting that HP won't manufacture displays itself, instead working with manufacturers to bring the technology to market. "It's not going to be next week, but in a couple of years you should see those things."

He insisted it won't be one of those technologies that remains perennially a few years off. "I would say two to four years," he said. "It is going to happen."

Other changes include the shift, already well under way, from devices controlled by keyboard and mouse to those that tap more senses and use natural controls. While touch and speech are already in use, Banerjee sees devices going much further, incorporating smell and other senses and able to recognize not just basic gestures, but also things like facial expression to determine a user's state of mind.

HP also sees itself getting more deeply involved with social networks , which it views as a key means to connecting users with an ever increasing array of content. In the olden days, Banerjee said one just walked into a record store and could easily sort through a modest array of choices. These days, there are millions of options. Tapping social circles can provide an effective way to sort through that content, whether it's music or something else.

Here's a short video interview I did with Banerjee.

 

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