A peek into Fujitsu's future

Colored e-paper, waterproof RFID tags and vein-pattern readers are among the products touted at company's tech forum. Photos: Fujitsu peers into the future

Erica Ogg Former Staff writer, CNET News
Erica Ogg is a CNET News reporter who covers Apple, HP, Dell, and other PC makers, as well as the consumer electronics industry. She's also one of the hosts of CNET News' Daily Podcast. In her non-work life, she's a history geek, a loyal Dodgers fan, and a mac-and-cheese connoisseur.
Erica Ogg
4 min read
SUNNYVALE, Calif.--The conference room of the future could substitute e-paper for whiteboards.

Colored electronic paper was just one of the futuristic technologies showcased last week at the Fujitsu North American Technology Forum 2007, an open house of sorts for Fujitsu Labs.

The two-day event, a first of its kind in North America for the company, allowed Japan- and U.S.-based engineers to show off products intended to make life and business more efficient for tasks ranging from reading and doing laundry to securing medical records.

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With potential to change the way businesses communicate information, Fujitsu's color e-paper, which is essentially a thin liquid crystal display, is getting closer to market. For the first time, researchers released a hand-built prototype outside the Japanese labs where it's been incubating since 2004.

Similar in form factor to an e-book reader, the Fujitsu version displays color--not mind-blowing color, but still more visually appealing than standard black and white--and is aiming for more commercial applications. Fujitsu's version is "green" and also appeals to the wallet: there is no power required to show an image. That means the technology can eventually be used for signage without having to replace batteries.

Power is necessary to change the image on the film--say, to turn a page. But the power requirement is so low that focused energy from a wireless device, like a cell phone, is enough to do the job. Consequently, one of the coolest applications for color e-paper now is as an enhancement to small mobile devices, according to Fujitsu special projects consultant Dave Marvit.

Can't stand looking at Web sites on your handheld's itty bitty screen? Beam it from your phone to a piece of e-paper, like the 8-inch, 640x480 resolution reader Marvit showed off, and you can see the page without squinting. If 8 inches seems too small, the Fujitsu researchers are currently working on a 12-inch version. Eventually, the displays will grow to 2.5 meters, said Mike Beirne, a Fujitsu spokesman.

Between now and next April, Fujitsu is looking to market color e-paper. While it's not ready for the real world just yet, it's at least getting closer.

RFID tag might be a bad word for privacy watchdogs, but hospitals and the hospitality industry most likely won't be offended by a more efficient wash cycle. Fujitsu makes a flexible, waterproof radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that can be ironed onto uniforms, hospital gowns and linens to track their location and status.

Fujitsu's tags can also carry more information about the item they are attached to than the RFID chips inside, say, a passport, because they uses FRAM, or ferroelectric random access memory. That type of memory--as opposed to DRAM--can be made on the same chip as the RFID chip, which saves space and, of course, money.

Since the tags don't need to be individually scanned, like a bar code does, gigantic piles of laundry can be read and registered at once. The idea is to make the process cheaper and faster. While each tag now costs between $2 and $3, by 2010 Fujitsu hopes to bring the cost down to less than $1 each, said Beirne.

Fujitsu is also continuing to develop the technique of hiding numerical information within images meant to be accessed through photos of the image. It's called steganography, and is much more fun than laundry because it helps you buy stuff. Actually, it also gives you access to information for which you may not know how to search.

For instance, if you see an ad in an outdoor lifestyle magazine for a pair of carving skis, and your mobile phone has Fujitsu's software installed, simply take a picture of the skis, and the ski maker's Web site, video or additional advertisement pops up on your phone. And it doesn't alter the image in a perceptible manner--the human eye can't detect the information contained in the image. Though not available in the U.S. yet, Fujitsu partnered with NTT DoCoMo, the largest mobile carrier in Japan, where the technology has been in use for about a year, said Fujitsu's Beirne, particularly for sightseeing information contained within tourism maps.

Fujitsu also showed off a way for human vein patterns to protect private information. Since every person's vein pattern in his or her hand is unique, researchers developed a way to use the pattern as a way to access secure information.

Using a hardware sensor--over which you place your palm--and Fujitsu's software, the PalmSecure tool not only reads a hand's vein pattern, it's also looking at the deoxidized hemoglobin inside those veins, also known as "the blue stuff." Basically it can tell if the blood inside those veins is warm and the person attached to the hand is alive, so people trying to get access to secure information, like government data or patient records, can't game the system.

Though the technology is sale worldwide, thus far only one U.S. customer, a hospital, is putting it to use, according to Fujitsu.