Five Ideas That Will Reinvent Modern Computing

Cool new ideas from Bell Labs, HP Labs, IBM Research, Microsoft Research and the Palo Alto Research Center.

Whats in the works at the leading high-tech research labs? Some awfully cool stuff—to say the least. This spring, we checked in on five of our favorites—Bell Labs, HP Labs, IBM Research, Microsoft Research, and the granddaddy of them all: the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the former Xerox facility that spawned Ethernet, laser printing , the GUI operating system, and so much more.

These research powerhouses have gone through a fair number of changes in recent years—PARC is now a completely independent operation—but they continue to push the outside of the high-tech envelope. Here, we profile a particularly clever project from each one, showcasing five ideas that reinvent everything from pointing devices to artificial intelligence. Some could bear fruit in a matter of months. Others might need years. But all will pique your interest.

IMAX at Home

You thought LAN parties were fun? Get ready for the projector party. At HP Labs, Nelson Chang and Niranjan Damera-Venkata have spent the past few years developing a technology that reinvents the notion of a home theater. With Pluribus, you can build a cineplex-quality image using a handful of ordinary, $1,000 PC projectors—in less time than it takes to pop the popcorn.

For a mere $12,000, you could build a home theater that stands up to the $100,000 image at local movie houses. Better yet, you could throw a projector party. Twelve friends show up with 12 off-the-shelf projectors, and suddenly youve got a wall-size image none of you could hope to produce on your own. And this mega-display is good for more than just movies. It might be even better for 3D games.

Chang and Damera-Venkata describe their project as "cluster computing for projectors." In much the same way a cluster pools the resources of multiple PCs, duplicating the effect of a supercomputer, Pluribus pools the resources of multiple projectors. "We can take several less-expensive projectors and create a super-projector," says Chang. "Automatically accounting for differences between each device, it builds a single, stable image."

Pluribus can seamlessly "tile" images from multiple projectors, fitting them together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Or it can superimpose images from multiple projectors, putting one atop the other. This vastly improves resolution, sharpness, brightness, contrast, and more, but it also gives you redundancy. If one projector breaks, you still have your full image. The real trick with Pluribus, however, is that it builds these über-images so quickly. You neednt spend hours adjusting the physical position of your projectors. You simply plop them down, plug them in, and point them in the general direction youd like them to point. Pluribus does the rest, in minutes.

The system consists of an ordinary PC workstation, a camera, and some ingenious C code. In essence, the camera grabs a snapshot of the many images streaming from your projectors and feeds that snapshot back to the software. The software then adjusts each image so they all fit together, using Chang and Venkatas algorithms—mathematical models that stretch the limits of modern computer science. "People didnt think it could be done," Damera-Venkata says.

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