All things weird and wonderful

Dr. Peter Hortensius doesn’t need a crystal ball to gaze into the future of computing – he is one of the people helping to create it.

Hortensius, director of technology development and co-director of the Personal Systems Institute at IBM Corp.’s personal systems group in Research Triangle Park, N.C., was in Toronto recently to present some of the futuristic innovations IBM is working on.

“Last year we generated more patents than we’ve ever generated – about 2,658 if my memory serves me correctly. So there is a lot of innovation still occurring.”

Technology shows no sign of slowing down in any area, he said. Copper chip technology continues to be used for increased processor speeds, while nanotechnology, holographics and coin-sized microdrives are testing the limits of storage capacity,.

“In less than 10 years, you’ll be able to carry around a terabyte in your pocket. What are you going to do with a terabyte? Well, that’s partially what I am supposed to be worrying about,” Hortensius said.

How we will view this proliferation of data is also changing, he said. IBM has developed a new prototype flat-panel display technology, code named Roentgen after the German scientist who discovered the x-ray, which features a 200-pixel-per-inch (ppi) display. This will enable users to see text and images with resolution and fidelity that is virtually identical to the printed page, he said.

“What you see will look just like it would look on a piece of paper. The display (we’re working on) has five million pixels – typically a notebook display has only about three-quarters of a million pixels. So you have six times as much information at a much finer saturation,” Hortensius explained.

“You would be able to look at a map of all five boroughs of New York City, and every street would be shown on that map using this display. On a conventional display, you would have to show much less information and the user would have to zoom in to find the streets.”

Ultra-high resolution displays have the potential to greatly increase the usability of vast databases of digital images, including digital libraries, architectural and electronic blueprints, historical archives and scanned records such as those stored by hospitals or insurance companies. But even though the research on the Roentgen display is completed and prototypes are being tested, it probably will not hit the market for a while yet, he said. “The underlying technology is ready, but the problem is that cost-wise, you’d never buy it.”

We are entering a new realm of pervasive computing, where the network becomes universal and everything gets connected. Driving this is a “whole slew of new devices” being created in that area, he said.

“The sad reality, and the thing that makes this so tricky, is that most of these great ideas don’t go anywhere. Even something as basic now as a notebook went through a lot of failed attempts before it really got traction and they figured out it has to have a good quality display to work, and a good pointing device. But once those things got ingrained the market really took off.”

One mobile product on the market right now is the CrossPad, which was co-developed with pen manufacturer A.T. Cross Company. Using a specially designed Cross digital pen equipped with a radio frequency transmitter, users take notes on a standard notepad attached to the CrossPad’s digital notepad, which stores up to 50 pages of hand-written notes. Users can then upload the digital notes from the CrossPad to their PCs via a serial cable connection.

“The idea here is I will basically take my notes, and when I am done I can walk back to my office and upload the written notes I have, into my machine. I can keep them as written notes or try to apply handwriting recognition. But even as written notes, it’s a step above a piece of paper that I may happen to lose,” Hortensius said.

There are a number of other technologies IBM is researching which are currently “too flaky” to market just yet, he said. One of these is a mobile computer, code named Monarch Butterfly, which is about the size of a hardcover book. The keyboard, however, comes apart and reassembles full-size, so it is easier to type on. Another prototype desktop replacement looks like a traditional laptop except the screen comes apart and reattaches over the keyboard in a triangular shape, making it more stable for touch-screen features. The “geek special” however, is the CyberPhone, Hortensius said. This trick is done with mirrors.

It’s comprised of a cellular phone with data capability, a small computer and a 1.4-inch-diagonal projection display, which projects onto a specially designed mirror built into the flip phone cover. While talking on the phone the user sees the display as if it were the same size as an 11-inch notebook computer screen at normal reading distance, he explained. A thumb-operated TrackPoint on the side of the phone allows navigation between icons and information windows.