Long before Microsoft made “innovation” a legal argument, there was Hewlett-Packard. HPs emphasis on research may have been equaled by companies like Xerox, IBM, and Intel, but the companys roots remain in the labs, even after the tumultuous merger with Compaq in 2002.
Every so often, the HP engineers invite reporters down to its Palo Alto facility to talk to a few of the companys researchers. HPs research efforts dont mirror those at Intel; instead, they fall more under the umbrella of pure research. Nothing wrong with that, certainly.
In any event, HP issued the invitation, and we were happy to accept. HP was even kind enough to revisit a topic they had presented a few weeks ago, when we were chasing other stories.
The 3D database interface
On first take, I was a bit nonplussed. 3D? You mean like Doom right? Exactly. But tack on a 3D interface onto a database and it gets a little more interesting.
You may recall a film based on one of Michael Crichtons more forgettable efforts: Disclosure. In one scene, Michael Douglas wanders around a virtual archive of documents, searching for clues. In designing the 3D interface application researchers Nelson Chang and Amir Said had to consider where this graphical interface would work best, and for what data.
HP tried to address the problem from a real-world perspective: shopping, and the habits of online shoppers. Picking out a book for a Christmas gift isnt a problem, especially if you know what youre looking for. Its when you have to browse that the gift-giving process becomes a real chore.
Chang and Said reasoned that a 2D, direct interface to a single item makes sense. But a shopper “browsing” for gifts doesnt want to have to wade through a pile of items, one item at a time. In the real world shoppers glances dart across a room, assessing, comparing, discarding. A single item or even list of items is still too narrow a view.
The 3D interface solves some of those problems, especially when the items being sought are even more visual. Movie rental shops, for example, often splash posters across the walls. A full color reminder of the horror that was Freddy Got Fingered might cause one to spin around and flee for the safety of smaller, independent budget films. A glimpse of Reese Witherspoon might suggest any number of ideas. Sometimes subtle clues that lure shoppers in different directions can benefit customers and retailers alike.
Placing pretty pictures on virtual walls isnt that interesting. Backing them up with databases is.
So, for example, imagine the virtual video store. Obviously, the database behind a virtual movie poster will likely contain several elements: the movie itself, the trailer, a list of actors, perhaps commentaries: pretty much everything a DVD might contain.
At a certain point, we need text. A picture may offer the equivalent of a thousand words, but not the specific details text can provide. So both Chang and Said face an additional challenge: how to avoid breaking down the pretty pictures into ugly blocks of text. Its hard to do, but possible.
But in another example, Chang and Said turned the 3D interface into a virtual storeroom of HP products. Granted, the same images hung on the walls, but when a user clicked on them, the image was transformed into a 3D model that could be rotated and examined.
If I buy a digital camera, Id like to know several things: its resolution, the media it uses, how much it costs, the dimensions, and other features. Although the HP researchers havent taken this step, a product-specific interface could be coded to represent some of these capabilities; for example, the camera could have a label, as most do, describing the megapixel resolution. The camera could pop out a virtual card, and sport a virtual price tag. The size of the camera could be conveyed, for example, by displaying it against other models or something with known dimensions, such as a deck of playing cards. Text is all well and good, but theres something to be said for artistic consistency.
A number of companies have tried to adapt the browser metaphor to a variety of experiences. We really liked what Keyhole Systems has done with its EarthViewer software, and HP has come up with a new twist, which it calls Websign.
In the late 1990s, one of the uses envisioned for either 3G phone services or GPS was the ability to walk by a store and be beeped with todays specials. Big thinkers thought this sort of advertising-on-the-go might reward the wired (wireless?) shopper with some special deals, while luring him into the stores retail aura. Unfortunately, it never really took off.
The designers of Websign, HP researchers Geoff Lyon and Cyril Brignone, believe users are naturally curious about where we are, and what were looking at. The problem is that the Web can quickly tell you where you are, and what streets surround you; it cant usually tell you what it is youre looking at, and maybe whats over the horizon. Websign changes all that.
The premise of Websign is simple. Lyon and Brignone have attached a compass and a GPS system to a standard iPaq wireless PDA, and attached it to a database stored on the Internet. Point your PDA west at an intersection, and a list of businesses pop up as hypertext links.
“The purpose of this is to browse the physical world,” Brignone said.
In some instances, this technology isnt useful at all. Point an iPaq at a McDonalds, and any information the PDA will give you is pretty well redundant. But say youre out and about, touring a local city. Sure, you might be able to see a list of restaurant signs down each block, but it might be a little tiring to check all of the menus. Hopefully theyre online somewhere—if they are, Websign will find them.
The database is the tricky bit. Salil Pradhan, who oversees both Lyon and Brignone, said the company has talked to Keyhole about licensing the technology. (As our review revealed, EarthViewer allows you to click a button and overlay local restaurants, gas stations, and other points of interest on the virtual map.
HP built a compass and GPS into the system; however, the researchers say the system might be feasible with just a cellular antenna array. Multiple base stations can triangulate a phones location, but determining orientation is impossible. The HP researchers say that even a compass isnt exactly precise, but its close enough to be feasible.
HP says theyll keep offering periodic updates on their research. Well be keeping you posted.