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HP flaunts new tech to raise lab profile

To garner more recognition for its research organization, Hewlett-Packard takes a turn away from its staid tradition and unveils new technology that may soon move from its labs into its product lines.

PALO ALTO, California--In an effort to get more recognition for its research organization, Hewlett-Packard unveiled new technology that may soon move from its labs into its product lines.

HP Labs showed off a cavalcade of new technologies here yesterday, including a high-density memory chip that doesn't lose information when power is switched off.

Other highlights included a demonstration of an advanced digital camera and a chip that could replace bulky hard disks.

Boasting of new technology is a bit of an about-face for the traditionally staid HP Labs.

"In the past, we've been very reluctant to talk about what we're doing here in the labs," said director Dick Lampman. Now, though, the company believes talking more about what's going on will help employees and investors better understand the company, he said. "We don't think it's in our interest to be quiet about our work."

The publicity strategy isn't isolated to HP. IBM's Almaden Research Center, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, and Lucent's Bell Labs, all in one way or another have put their achievements on parade.

"We're technology leaders. We want people to know that," IBM spokesman Mike Ross said of his company's efforts.

But there's a fine line to walk when releasing research information, Lampman acknowledges, given that the publicity could give competitors clues about company strategy and just where they are in research efforts.

Indeed, during a media tour yesterday, HP showed only a handful of the hundreds of projects underway--and most of those projects were in areas such as computer memory or in product lines that are hardly secret, such as digital cameras.

Memory that doesn't forget
One technology under development at HP Labs is "MRAM," or magnetic random access memory. It's a new twist on a memory technology that's ancient history by computer industry standards. One of its biggest advantages is that once written, information is retained even when power is switched off. This type of memory, called "nonvolatile" and used in flash memory products, is more expensive than conventional memory.

With the earliest computers, data was stored in memory that was built by hand out of a grid of wires. At the intersection of each horizontal and vertical wire was a loop of magnetizable material that could record a one or a zero, depending on how electric current flowed across the wires.

HP has resurrected this idea, but this time on a microscopic scale, said Chuck Morehouse, manager of HP Labs' thin film department. That means that the wires etched on the memory chips would be hundreds of times thinner than a human hair, and each chip could store a fraction of a gigabyte of information, Morehouse said.

HP has demonstrated the technology, writing data and reading it again from prototype chips, Morehouse said. Though he declined to estimate when MRAM would be available, HP is confident it will be used in coming years for portable information devices that need to retain information even when not plugged in.

HP isn't the only one at work on this technology, though. IBM, for instance, has its own variant, which it calls Magnetic Tunnel Junction memory, or MTJ-RAM. IBM emphasizes that manufacturing the memory is difficult because layers of materials just four atoms thick must be deposited.

A hard disk on a chip
HP also demonstrated another storage technology, called atomic resolution storage (ARS). Just as MRAM is comparable to computer memory, ARS is comparable to a PC hard disk, but is much smaller, Morehouse said.

Computer hard disks are limited in how densely they can store information by the number of moving parts, among other things, he said. ARS goes beyond these limitations, bringing a level of information density that's limited only by the noise created by the natural vibration of atoms, Morehouse said.

With ARS, information is written using a beam of electrons, a far more precise method than the magnetic technology in hard disks. To retrieve information fast enough, an array of thousands of "tips" is needed, he said. The array would be pushed across the surface by tiny pulses of electricity, reading and writing information by changing the properties of a substrate.

All this would fit inside a tiny chip that could store several gigabytes, Morehouse said.

A Web-enabled world
HP, like Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, and nearly every other computing company, foresees a world in which just about everything is connected to the Internet. At HP Labs, a prototype of this world called CoolTown has been built to test out the technology.

In the CoolTown concept, every person, place, or thing is represented by a Web page that's constantly updated according to changing conditions. Combining those Web pages with a world in which infrared or radio transmitters can connect a person to the Internet would create a world in which the Internet and the physical merge--a world of "bits and morter," in the words of Jeff Morgan, a scientist with HP Labs' communications and Internet programs.

Morgan gave the example of a person waiting at a bus station who is able to find out when the next bus will arrive through his hand-held computer. The interaction connects his tiny computer through an Internet connection at the bus stop to the bus company's Web site, which in turn retrieves bus location information from the buses themselves.

To achieve this vision, HP has a project to Web-enable everything with a technology it calls "Hehaw," which stands for "Hey, everything has a Web page."

HP's Chai technology--a clone of Sun's Java software--is an essential ingredient, said HP's Gene Becker. Chai and Java theoretically allow programs written once to run on a multitude of devices, regardless of the differences in underlying hardware. Also essential is Chai Server, software that allows devices to serve up their own Web pages.

Though all the technological ingredients are in place, the concept is limited by the fact that it's simply not yet possible to get access to the Internet no matter where a person is, Becker said.

Refined digital cameras
HP also demonstrated its next-generation digital camera technology, a sequence of manipulations that will provide a better digital image than traditional film cameras provide today, said Larry Hanlon, product manager of the hardcopy technology lab.

These new cameras will be able to correct for the imperfections of the camera lens such as the natural blurring of light, said Paul Hubel, a researcher in HP's printing technology department. In addition, by analyzing the range of colors in the raw image, the camera will be able to figure out and compensate for the lighting conditions under which the photo was taken--for example, whether it was outdoors in the sunlight or indoors under fluorescent lights.

The camera also will have greater "latitude," meaning that details in shadowed areas or very bright areas will be visible instead of becoming merely a dark or white blotch.

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