The Shape of IT Things to Come

Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is famous for innumerable IT inventions, including the first GUI. We recently caught up with Mark Weiser, chief technologist at PARC, to see what’s cooking at the lab and how the new technologies he’s working on might find their way into the business world. Weiser’s catch phrases for the future include “ubiquitous computing” and “smart matter”.

Q. What is ubiquitous computing?

A. This means all the kinds of computing that are off the desktop, whether handheld or embedded in the environment – desks, chairs and walls. In the corporate world, it will make people more effective. They can compute while doing other work or talking to people.

One sample use is in capturing the context of meetings. We’ve prototyped it with our weekly meetings at PARC that look at the inventions of the week. We rank them, relate them to previous work. We do this in a room in which there are cameras on the whiteboards. People bring in laptops with notes, we capture the audio, and everything is tied together in a time-stamped multimedia database. If you want to find out what happened in the meeting, you can click on the marks on the whiteboard and it will play the appropriate audio clip [pertaining to those marks].

In terms of personal productivity, there are already things like palmtops, which sort of extend your PC into your pocket. Now your calendar is on the network and on the PC and in the pocket, and they stay synchronized. The direction it’s going to go in the future is to extend the notion of reminders from time to space. A space reminder is: you walk into your boss’s office and the palmtop recognizes that and says, ‘Here are the things you wanted to talk to him about, and here’s what’s sitting on the printer that you might want to pick up on your way back.’

Q. What do you mean by smart matter?

A. Smart matter refers to technology for embedding thousands of microprocessors in the surface of materials. Eventually this might make it possible for the surface of a wall to become smart, so it’s both a wall and a display. This is another way of trying to bring down the cost of computing by embedding it.

We’re looking at ways of displaying lots of information on the screen. For example, the hyperbolic browser. In the middle it shows info about the page you’re on and its links, and as the screen goes out toward the edges it fades to other, more remotely linked things. This provides you with continual awareness of the context of the information you are looking at. It can help people keep centred on their task, not lost.

Q. How and when might these concepts turn into real products?

A. It is harder to design a complete workspace than to design just a PC – a lot more things can go wrong with the space. There’s still a lot to work out in how these technologies will apply to the corporate work environment.

In the Xerox product line, the way we’re just beginning to bring this technology to market is through our multifunction copier-fax-printers. We’re embedding more intelligence into the device and linking it to a browser so that, for example, you can see from your desktop if it’s out of paper or toner.