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HP Labs marks 40th with high-tech coffee table

R&D meets Ikea in a novel approach to the entertainment PC from folks who typically pursue more scientific endeavors. Photos: High-tech coffee table

PALO ALTO, Calif.--The researchers at HP Labs are a serious bunch working on ways to create the data centers and transistors of the future--but the company sees no harm in going after the gaming-table market on the side.

During an open house here Tuesday celebrating its 40th anniversary, HP Labs showed off Misto, the hybrid of coffee table and tablet PC that promises to either entertain or rile up family members next Thanksgiving.

HP Labs

HP Labs, the central research arm of Hewlett-Packard, is responsible for several game-changing inventions--such as the thermal inkjet printer--which the company has turned into profitable businesses over its 40-year history, said Dick Lampman, senior vice president of research at HP and director of HP Labs. The key is not just working on an interesting project then "tossing it over the wall," but working closely with HP's product groups on its research projects, he said.

"We've always had a more pragmatic view of our business. You can describe our mission in two words: technology transfer," Lampman said.

HP Labs operates on a budget of about 5 percent of the entire company's research and development spending, which was approximately $3.5 billion last year, Lampman said. With 600 employees, HP Labs must divide its time between practical projects that further HP's existing businesses and purely scientific endeavors that might not pay dividends for a decade, such as its work on future transistors.

Right now, HP is most involved in creating new ways to automate and virtualize data centers with heavy investments in software, Lampman said. The company is also trying to make it easier for its customers to work with unstructured types of data, like e-mail or video content, that must now be archived and searchable in line with new government regulations, he said.

But it's more fun to play games than to virtualize processing resources, at least for most people. With that in mind, HP has been working on Misto as a slightly different take on the home entertainment PC. Misto is a coffee table with a large touch-screen display built into the top of the table. The idea is to allow a group to congregate around the table and share pictures, play board games, or peruse a map, said Pere Obrador, project manager in HP's imaging technology department.

Misto uses a standard desktop PC as its engine, but comes with some specialized HP software for managing the interface, Obrador said. Pricing, availability and style of coffee table are all undetermined, but Misto gives people some idea of how HP wants to develop products that expand on its existing businesses.

HP also showed off two other consumer-oriented projects it has had in the lab stage for several years, including an e-book and a pair of sunglasses with a digital camera between the eyes. Many of the same problems that were holding back those devices in 2003 are still present today, such as the need for lower-power displays to improve the battery life of e-books, and the impracticality of dragging a bulky image-processing unit along with a somewhat outdated style of sunglasses.