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HP Labs gazes into the future

After a major organizational overhaul, the research arm of the global IT giant is talking about where the future of technology is going.

SAN FRANCISCO--Memristors are arguably the most important thing HP Labs is working on--it could fundamentally change the memory chip industry--but its director has no problem talking about it openly.

While most hardcore research on future products is kept under heavy guard until it can be patented, HP Labs is insisting that forward-thinking technology research has to be done collaboratively and (mostly) in the open.

HP Labs underwent a major overhaul a year ago, shortly after bringing in new director Prith Banerjee. He whittled down the vast number of projects his researchers were devoted to, and laid out eight very specific areas of focus. Banerjee also impressed upon HP scientists the importance of working with both government researchers and universities to collaborate on future projects, like memristors.

HP Labs memristors
An atomic force microscope view of a circuit with 17 memristors. J.J. Yang/HP Labs

A year later, HP Labs is now ready to discuss specific projects it is pursuing with partners at universities around the world, and in some cases with government funding. They will be officially released Monday in HP Labs' Annual Report. All of the selected projects are beyond near-term products set to debut from HP, but are usually three to seven years out, according to Rich Friedrich, director of the Open Innovation Office at HP. Forty-five professors from 35 worldwide academic institutions are involved.

The application for the projects ranges from cool consumer tech like the "Multimodal Command-and-Control By Integrating Two-Handed Gestures and Speech" collaboration with academics in India and New York to looking at new ways of harnessing information for commercial enterprise like "Workload Management for an Operational Business Intelligence Supercomputer" under research by a German professor.

It's unusual for large IT companies to work so closely with those outside of the company's own labs, and more so for them to announce exactly which projects they'll be tackling.

"These are very hard problems," Banerjee said to a gathering of reporters Friday morning. He insists that his way is the only way to make significant progress in what is clearly a global market for innovation: "We can't build everything ourselves."

But all of this takes money, and when the economy is in turmoil, it's easy to imagine that anything that doesn't impact a company's bottom line immediately might be de-emphasized. Banerjee insists that is not the case at HP. While the HP Labs' annual budget of $150 million pales in comparison to HP's total research-and-development funding allotment of $3.5 billion, CEO Mark Hurd is "very supportive" of the Labs group, Banerjee said.

The Open Innovation Office has seen that firsthand. "We have more money this year than last year, even though the economy is tough," Friedrich said, because HP sees that the collaborative research "is the pipeline of growth for the company."