Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 23, 1999
Their mission: do the 'crazy things'
New innovations from fabled Xerox PARC may transform the way we work
by Loren Stein
Most people know that Xerox Palo Alto Research Center was the birthplace of the key technologies that helped launch the personal computer revolution. What many don't know is that PARC's research agenda is even more ambitious today, promising to alter dramatically the way people live and work.
In 1970, when the Xerox Corp. gathered a team of world-class researchers at Xerox PARC, their charter was to create "the architecture of information." The now-famous team went about inventing the future of the workplace, creating the kinds of personal computer technologies we all now take for granted. Those technolologies include the ability to link personal computers in networks, "point-and-click" controls of computer software, many of the basic protocols of the Internet and devices like the mouse and laser printer.
Many of PARC's inventions slipped through Xerox's corporate fingers, allowing upstarts such as Apple Computers and Microsoft Corp. to grow wealthy off their discoveries. The laser printer was one that didn't get away, creating a multibillion-dollar industry for Xerox and generating enough revenue to pay for PARC forever, says Lois Wong, PARC's manager of customer and media relations.
Never swaying from its mission, the fabled research center nestled in the hills above Foothill Expressway is busy reinventing itself, taking its information tools into uncharted territory. PARC's current focus on understanding and enhancing the collaborative nature of work is spawning the next generation of advances, such as ubiquitous computing--computers that are embedded in the environment in ways that allow work to be done more easily; technologies that foster knowledge sharing; and new links connecting the digital and physical worlds.
These innovations, many of which are expected to hit the market within a few years, reflect possible future directions for the technology industry and once again could transform the way people work.
"Our job is to hit the home runs," says John Seely Brown, chief scientist at Xerox Corp. and director of Xerox PARC since 1990. "We probe the periphery, think out of the box, do the relatively unpredictable. Our job is to do crazy things that change the name of the game."
Walk into Xerox PARC, and tucked away in a hallway is just one example of thinking outside the box. A fountain regulated by an Internet feed rises or falls along with Xerox's stock price, giving employees a quick physical fix on the financial health of the company.
Although PARC is one of four Xerox research centers around the world, its focus is on researching documents, in all their varied forms. Another distinguishing trademark is that PARC researchers look farther into the future, seeking to predict and create new technology markets. With an annual budget of $55 million and a cross-disciplinary staff of 325--including computer scientists, engineers, anthropologists, sociologists and artists--research is booming. One measure: Patents are up 73 percent since 1993.
Dozens of research projects are under way at Xerox PARC, each giving a glimpse into the future while also helping steer the direction of its parent company. Digital products now account for 58 percent of Xerox revenue, $11 billion and rising. "PARC was designed to work on the high-risk, high-value areas and continues to have a tremendous influence on Xerox," says Wong.
An example: Xerox PARC is filing patents on a new technology called E-tags, the brainchild of Xerox PARC'S Extreme User Interface Group. Using wireless technology, E-tags work as an "invisible interface" between the physical and digital worlds, leveraging the strengths of each. Physical documents are tagged with "smart staples," small metal staples augmented with microchips that act as unique identifiers.
Wave an e-tagged document past a computer and it will automatically load the electronic version of the document onto the computer. Pass a French-English dictionary embedded with a microchip in front of a computer screen and the open document will be translated. E-tagged watches can access daily calendars on-line. Printing is as easy as holding a copy of a 'smart' stapled document next to a printer.
The group is working on automatically e-tagging documents that pass through Xerox copiers, printers or book binders. They are also exploring putting the technology into the printing process itself through use of a special magnetic ink.
Because E-tags can serve as tracking devices, the technology is being field-tested on airport luggage tags. Harrison predicts the technology will be commercially marketed in two to three years and will be especially appealing because it requires no special training or computer skills.
"I believe this could be the next revolution in user interface techniques, like the (point-and-click) graphical user interface was in the 1980s or the desktop computer," says PARC research scientist Beverly Harrison. "It is a major transformation."
The "fluid" document is another Xerox PARC innovation that could reach the market within a few years. It represents a new generation of document annotation, making fixed, static text dynamic and changeable, says PARC researcher Bay-Wei Chang. "Fluid documents enable new genres of documents to be developed and packaged in completely different ways. (Their) strength is to show lots of information without showing it all at once."
Clicking on small icons in text instantly calls up supporting material, such as definitions, explanations, commentaries, diagrams or references to related work. The annotations can open within the text, by pushing the lines of text closer together, or on top of grayed text or in the margins with connecting lines. The annotations also can be frozen while opening others, allowing the reader to access layers of information at the same time.
Xerox PARC researchers hope the fluid document will empower users by allowing them to customize the reading experience based on their needs and interests.
"It essentially provides an infinite amount of space," says Chang. "You can drill down to find information at any point while still retaining the surrounding context, while other information you're not focusing on can recede into the background."
PARC researchers have also pioneered a collaborative work system they call the Eureka Project. Refined and tested with 25,000 Xerox Corp. technicians around the world, the technology allows users to become more productive by creating a network of shared, validated knowledge. To make the system work, PARC researchers have learned how to motivate users to share insights and information about their work.
Started five years ago, the project will be fully in place by the end of the year, says Johan de Kleer, systems and practices lab manager. The savings Xerox will win back from its technicians' heightened productivity will pay for all of PARC, he says. Xerox is now marketing the system to other businesses, selling a combination of software and consulting expertise.
Intelligent Routing Documents is another Xerox PARC breakthrough. It allows a computer user to call up a document without knowing its name, relying instead on other properties that matter for work, such as the subject matter or the last person to work on the document. "To find a document, all you have to say is, 'I want a document I was working on with Johan,'" says de Kleer.
A prototype of the technology, which researchers began exploring two years ago, is up and running. It represents the kind of breakthrough work done at PARC, where researchers take great pains to study how people work and what customers actually do with the technology.
"The world is getting much more complicated, and so is technology; there are so many possibilities," says de Kleer. "But our understanding of work lags far behind. We're trying to pull them together; there is a big gap between the two."