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Page last updated at 16:00 GMT, Friday, 9 October 2009 17:00 UK

Parc overflowing with new ideas

by Ian Hardy
BBC Click


Bo Begole demonstrates the usefulness of his computer recognition project

The Palo Alto Research Center (Parc) in California is a place overflowing with new ideas. Its legendary inventions are well chronicled in several books.

Set up in 1970 by Xerox as a highly secure research centre, it came up with the Ethernet computer networking system and developed optical storage along with hundreds of other advances.

"Certainly the single most important product that Parc developed - at least from the point of view of the Xerox corporation - was the laser printer," says Michael Hiltzik, author of Dealers of Lightning, which chronicles the early history of the institution.

"The laser printer made billions of dollars for Xerox and of course is an object that many of us have on our desks even today."

Visionary hands

Xerox is certainly sensitive about being tagged as the company that let all of its innovations get away
Michael Hiltzik

But it could be argued that there were some projects that Xerox and Parc failed to exploit - ones that changed the world and made billions of dollars for other companies.

Take, for example, the GUI or Graphical User Interface, which allows the moving of items on a desktop computer using icons and a mouse.

That was invented here and was crucial to the success of companies such as Apple and Microsoft.

Xerox and Parc did not see the full potential of the GUI and have, over the years, been criticised for allowing their ideas to fall into more visionary hands.

Michael Hiltzik says that this criticism might not be valid.

"Xerox is certainly sensitive in a historical sense about being tagged as the company that let all these innovations get away and go elsewhere but I think that's a little unfair to Xerox," he says.

"It was a huge corporation with 250,000 staff and it was built on the copier business."

Maybe Xerox executives thousands of miles away did not fully appreciate what was going on in Parc's top secret corridors until it was too late.

But today Parc, still owned by Xerox, operates independently and is very proactive. The research is still cutting edge.

Slick outfit

Bo Begole, manager of the Ubiquitous Computing Area in Parc, is working on a project that allows computers to recognize our presence immediately and react accordingly - one application of the technology could be in a changing room in a clothing shop.

Xerox advert
The laser printer is a product that has made billions of dollars for Xerox

Whilst wearing one outfit, a camera records any movements like swinging of arms or turning around.

When a customer returns to the mirror with a second outfit, they can see in the adjacent screen a comparison with first outfit.

So, as outfit B is being tried on, the computer is matching individual frames from one outfit to movement while wearing something else in real time - not just like a video.

"When you are trying on frames and you need prescription lenses it's hard to actually see yourself in those frames in the mirror because you don't have your prescription in those frames," says Mr Begole.

"So here we record images of you and then you can replay those and compare frames once you've put your prescription frames on," he adds.

In another part of the building, Parc researchers are working on a centrifugal water filtration system that separates molecules without using membrane barriers and - at the same time - saves energy, vast amounts of equipment and space.

Meng Lean, principal scientist at Parc, says: "One possible use for the equipment in the future is seawater purification, which many see as vital as the world gets warmer."

Watch Click on BBC News Channel, Saturday 10 October at 11.30 (BST).

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