Inside HP Labs: 8 cool projects

On tap: A color thesaurus, photonics, and book and magazine publishing

  • Snapfish Labs' Pet Eye: Snapfish is the HP-owned portal for storing photos, similar to At Snapfish Labs, the company offers experimental tools to enhance the service. Some can improve the color of images or crop them automatically, but one of the more interesting tools is called Pet Eye. It turns out that the normal red-eye reduction on many digital cameras does not work with pets, because of how the technology works; it looks for both face color and human eye shape. Pet Eye accomplishes the same goal, removing glare or red eye from the pet, by using a different method.

  • CloudPrint: Bernardo Huberman is in charge of the social computing lab and an HP Fellow. His latest project is called CloudPrint, and it allows anyone to send a file -- such as a Word document or photo -- to a print queue "in the cloud," where it is held until you can print the file locally. A mobile user could print a document to the cloud, then receive it on his smartphone. Users can create a queue of documents from any device and send it to a virtual printer. The system, currently in beta, uses a code that you can type in to retrieve and print any stored document.

  • Sustainable data center: The goal of the sustainable data center project at HP Labs is to find out how future data centers can be self-sustaining -- rather than consuming more energy, they would manage the energy systems of an entire building or even a city and pay for IT many times over. The five areas of sustainability, according to HP, are energy savings -- with a 25% to 40% reduction in costs -- resiliency, increased efficiency (such as higher rack operating temperatures), computer air-conditioning consolidation and better flexibility. The idea is to provide much better information about real-time energy usage in a data center and adjust service-level agreements to meet specific demands. Today, data centers usually provide more capacity than business units need, to make sure there are no outages.

  • Color Thesaurus: HP Labs developed the online Color Thesaurus as a way to choose a color based on entering the name of a more well-known color and seeing slight variations. There are roughly 600 common color names such as cyan or lime green, but thousands of actual colors that designers can pick. The thesaurus is also a printed book that shows all of the available colors and the name. (In an interesting twist, the color book was printed using another HP Labs research project called, which allows you to create a magazine or booklet and request a printed version.) "Color naming is one of those 'long tail' things," says Nathan Moroney, the HP researcher who created the Color Thesaurus. "We wanted to develop something that demonstrated the scope of color data. Color names are like IP names -- some parts are similar, some are different -- so we wanted a visual tool to help pick color names. This is an online experiment and a reference book project."

  • Photonics: Photonics is the use of light to transport data. It is used today in data centers to connect one building to another, via fiber optics, and is emerging as a technology that can connect one server rack to another. In the future, photonics could be used to connect not only the server blades in a rack, but the interconnects inside the computer or even the connections inside a CPU. Photonics is an important advancement because, as supercomputer design moves from petascale computing to exascale speeds, a new kind of interconnect will be required to move those massive amounts of data. HP is the first company to develop a working photonics prototype, and has developed working models in the lab for how optics will be used inside the server rack.

  • MagCloud, another publishing venture, also uses what HP calls a "bits to atoms" process. Any "publisher" can create a magazine using their own software such as Adobe InDesign, then upload the files to and sell subscriptions. When a customer orders a subscription, HP prints the issue on demand and mails it out. The magazine industry -- despite reports of its demise -- is actually burgeoning when it comes to specialized magazines. Consumers spend about $80 billion per year on magazines, and about $56 billion is spent on advertising. MagCloud taps into this market with titles for foodies in New Hampshire or a retro video game magazine for Nintendo fans.

  • BookPrep: A stark departure from data center research and photonics innovations, BookPrep is an interesting project that allows anyone to submit an out-of-print book and turn it into a printed book. Andrew Bolwell, an HP Labs director, says there are currently at least 90 million books out of print today. Books are scanned in a non-destructive way, removing any artifacts and yellowing, and then are printed and bound in a professional way. Google is involved from a scanning perspective and books are printed in any quantity -- from one to hundreds. The entire process is automated and takes just 24 hours for a book instead of the usual three to six months.

  • Flexible displays: Imagine a computer display that is made almost entirely of plastic, can be discarded, or rolled up and placed into a satchel, and yet has all the brightness and color properties of the LCD on your desk. HP Labs has already invented the technology to make this happen, which is called self-aligned imprint lithography (SAIL) technology. Although the flexible display as a concept is not new, HP just recently worked with Arizona State University's Flexible Displays Center to create a first prototype, with the first full-scale rollout with the U.S. Army planned in the next few years.

  • At Hewlett-Packard Labs, projects such as a new substrate for flexible displays might make headlines one day, but will finally emerge as a shipping product only years later. Much of the HP research is directly tied to printing, imaging and server technology. This year, several ongoing projects reveal what's ahead for the 60-year-old company. All of the projects described below were developed in HP Labs. Some are exposed externally -- meaning they are available publicly -- but they were all birthed from HP Labs.

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