The future according to HP

Bar codes, 3D capture and colour ebooks: we explore the research files at HP

David Bayon
15 Jan 2013

HP is a huge global corporation, and its Labs network is no different. With sites located everywhere from Beijing to Bangalore to Bristol, and a research team based at Princeton, HP Labs was set up with the express function of freeing scientists from dealing with everyday issues so they could focus on ideas.

And they did: we can thank them for, among other things, the scientific calculator and the thermal inkjet printer. These days, the research spans all of HP’s businesses, including printing, networking and infrastructure, but it also has a strong focus on the cloud and sustainability. Included in the research projects relating to data centres and network security are a few that could soon filter through to consumers.

All things 3D

Like many big tech companies, 3D is a major focus at HP Labs – in terms of both detection and creation. Projects include a way to allow users to add their own hand gestures to the database without the need to train the system, and a way to use cameras to map 3D spaces. For Kinect and potentially future smartphones, researchers propose an “experimental system for 3D reconstruction, guided by a quality feedback measure that takes into account the systematic uncertainties inherent in real-time depth sensors.”

The researchers used a capture device made up of a Kinect sensor and a laptop, and captured an outdoor scene that was sent to the server for processing. The reconstruction is then sent back to the screen with as much depth-map information as it can muster – along with feedback to the user as to which areas need more depth data.

That’s 3D detection, but what about creation? The realm of 3D printing has certain limitations in its current stages, one of which is a lack of sustainability in many of the materials used. As part of its RAGNAROK (Research on Advancing Glass & Non-organic Applications to Recreate Objects & Kinetics) project, HP Labs is looking at glass as a potential candidate for use in 3D printing, as there’s no shortage of silica resources. As HP’s paper says, “glass is easy to recycle and environmentally friendly. Glass is inexpensive but looks precious; it’s pleasant to the touch and is so familiar that customers won’t be disappointed by its fragility.”

It’s very much a work in progress, with the paper running through early failed attempts at creating a transparent product. The solution may lie in cold glass: “materials where glass is used in a strengthening component in another cured matrix”.

Progressive barcodes

The progressive barcode takes the static tracking barcode and makes it flexible, as it’s able to have information added as a package or product goes through its shipping workflow. Using a grid of pixels much like a QR code, information can be added – and even written over the original data – simply by printing more pixels in a variety of colours.

It sounds simple, adding colour to massively expand the range of possible barcodes, but it’s also secure; the use of set colours to limit paths of progression allows researchers to “assign the statistical probability associated with any transition between two steps in a workflow based on how many bits are written and how many remain.” This allows the tracking of barcodes through time, by following the fixed colour progression of each pixel.

Adding colour to ebooks

Colour E Ink is something of a literary holy grail, but although several firms have produced working samples, it’s safe to say consumers can’t leave the monochrome experience of the Kindle behind just yet. Still, progress is being made. HP Labs has been working on colour E Ink for some time, and its latest advances are promising.

Traditional methods use combinations of side-by-side colour elements, devoting portions of a pixel to different colours – therefore, they’re never close to 100% efficient.

HP-DEPBT means greater contrast, and the first truly transparent state when a pixel should have no colour

HP has instead layered subtractive colourants, so that every colour is available at every pixel location. To overcome the speed hurdles inherent in switching multiple layers between coloured and transparent states, HP has developed an “electrokinetic display (EKD) with electrically addressable inks”, which is integrated with an active matrix backplane.

After testing multiple surfactants for the electronic ink, HP came up with the novel HP-DEPBT, which showed “greatly improved ink performance attributes such as extended lifetime and bistability of switching devices”. This means greater contrast, and the first truly transparent state when a pixel should have no colour.

HP has developed E Inks in primary colours, and applied them to its stacked systems. Modelling suggests the technology should meet industry standards “if interface losses are minimised and the top surface is anti-reflection coated”. We may not see colour ebook readers for a while yet, but the researchers believe they now have the “level of image quality that’s critical to extend the broad acceptance of full-colour reflective display technology”. Digital signage will most likely be the first beneficiary.

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