It was a high-tech speed-dating session, Silicon Valley-style:
I would sit in the storied memorabilia-laden Room 2306 in the bowels of PARC, the former Xerox research and development center in Palo Alto that gave us the "ball'' mouse, the Ethernet and the graphical user-interface that inspired the Apple Macintosh. And seven of PARC's resident geniuses would drop by and in 15-minute bursts blow my mind with the technical wizardry each was working on to someday transform our lives.
First up was Lawrence Lee, senior director of strategy, to give me the view from 30,000 feet. Spun off by Xerox in 2002 as its own profit center, PARC leverages industrial-strength brainpower from universities and research centers around the world, helping client companies and the U.S. government by doing what Lee calls the "early high-risk R&D work" before developing products that can be marketed and put into use.
"We look at the markets and explore how industries like health care or finance can use these new technologies to disrupt the models in place,'' says Lee. "Even though a lot of what we do is business-to-business, personal technology is always important in our work, and the end user is always on our minds.''
The Digital Nurse Assistant
One project now in the development stage is the "Digital Nurse Assistant,'' a combination of tablet devices, monitors and sensors that Lee says will fundamentally change the nurse- patient relationship. By studying nurses' workplace patterns and routines, such as ordering tests and locating medicines, researchers say the "assistant'' will eliminate wasted time.
"By doing behavioral studies in hospitals, we found that nurses only spend about a third of their time with patients,'' says Lee. "There's a lot of time spent coordinating care and just waiting, so we're trying to change that with technology.''
These tools will reduce redundancies in workflow, help track medications and supplies to cut down on waiting times, and basically put all of a patient's personal information at the care provider's fingertips. All coming soon to a hospital near you.
The human-robot interaction
Next came Mike Kuniavsky, a "user experience designer'' who helps organizations design new technologies and trains them to be more innovative. One key focus is "ubiquitous computing,'' a phenomenon also known as the "Internet of Things'' that essentially describes an environment where computers and sensors are seamlessly interwoven together.
"The idea,'' he said, "is that as computers become cheaper, they're fragmenting into shards that will embed themselves into every part of our lives, from appliances to furniture to buildings. A car now has something like 30 different computers with multiple sensors. We're looking at how to take all the information coming in from these sensors and monitors and then connect them all in ways that will improve lives.''
An example of ubiquitous computing is wearable technology, such as the still-beta-stage Google Glass. Here the computer is essentially embedded into eyeglasses that a user would control with voice and gestures, such as starting the computer by jerking his head upward a bit and then giving the computer voice commands for tasks like searching the Internet without having to grab a smartphone.
One project Kuniavsky's team is looking at is how humans and robots interact. "As we have more and more robots in our homes, we'll have to work closely with them and understand our relationship to them. If you tell it to do something, but it doesn't do it, how does the robot tell you why it didn't do it?
"We're looking at how to make humans and robots part of a team, as opposed to thinking of them as personal servants. And they won't be like the robots you saw as a kid on TV, because trying to make a robot replicate a human beings impossible,'' Kuniavsky said.
Batteries of the future
The ideas were coming fast and furious. Rob McHenry, an energy technology program manager, gave me a peek into the future of energy storage, explaining how PARC scientists are changing the way batteries are manufactured and monitored. He said that by using a technique known as "co-extrusion printing,'' researchers have figured out ways to use metallic paste to improve battery life by as much as 30 percent. And that, of course, could soon have a tangible impact on all of us, improving the lives of our smartphones and electric vehicles. He says that two years from now this new technology will be used in factories to crank out more powerful, efficient and longer-lasting batteries.
PARC scientists also are developing a low-cost fiber-optic sensing system that for the first time will be able to monitor what's actually happening inside of a battery in real-time. They say the technology will help detect internal faults and improve safety, all while ensuring that batteries operate as efficiently as possible.
Virtual product development
Tolga Kurtoglu, program director for digital design and manufacturing, told me how PARC software is being used for "virtual product development,'' enabling consumers to essentially design and build furniture and electronic devices themselves, collaborating online with others and turning the traditional manufacturing model on its end.
PARC envisions an entirely new ecosystem in manufacturing, including crowdsourced design, social network funding, and more. They expect these trends will lead to a new paradigm in manufacturing that could threaten today's vertically integrated, large-scale manufacturing industry, much like the PC revolution threatened the mainframe computer industry.
By the time I was done with my speed-dating sessions with Janos Veres, program manager for printed electronics, and Surendra Reddy, PARC's go-to guy for cloud features and big-data analysis, my head was ready to explode. I could still see a world, a bit hazy but not too far off in the future, where my washing machine would know my routine, objects across large swaths of my life would be interconnected, my car would know where I was going before I got behind the wheel, and the line between my smartphone and my watch and my clothes and even my body would continue to blur.
Contact Patrick May at 408-920-5689 or follow him at Twitter.com/patmaymerc
The Digital Nurse Assistant: PARC ethnographers (observers of human society and culture) studied exactly what nurses do each day to better understand how to help them, and ultimately provide their patients a better hospital experience.
Human-robot interaction: While the center's work in "ubiquitous computing" and "context-aware services" seem a bit baffling, the focus is on using ''robots'' (think high-tech appliances more than the Jetsons' maid Rosie (aka Rosey) that can anticipate a user's situation, say, inside the home, proactively serve their needs, and personalize recommendations while learning more about the user over time.
Batteries of the future: Scientists at PARC are working on technology that will allows users to get much more life and power out of batteries than they can today, using a low-cost fiber-optic sensing system that monitors what's actually happening inside the battery in real-time to detect faults and improve safety.
Virtual product development: Researchers are working on so-called "design automation,'' which strives to enable individual designers to crowdsource their projects (think new toasters or cool furniture) in real-time online and work directly with manufacturers, large and small, all over the world.