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HP: Technology has feelings, too

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Emerging sensors from HP Labs could be used in all sorts of safety, exploratory or monitoring applications -- integrating multiple sensing capabilities into one chip.

OK, so maybe your computer can't reach out and touch anyone yet, but Hewlett-Packard is funding a research and development initiative focused on the creating of sensing technology that will bring sensory capabilities -- include the ability to detect odors and testing -- to computing. The technology is an underpinning for the company's Central Nervous Systems for the Earth (CeNSE) initiative.

HP Labs researcher Peter Hartwell (pictured at right) says in order to wrap your head around the idea that a sensor might have any one of the five senses we'd associate with humans today, you need to consider that is already possible today. Two easy examples:

  1. Video surveillance application although most of them just collect data today, consider what might happen if the technology was smart enough to take action if, say, it didn't recognize someone entering a building
  2. A more poignant example, one that is real today, is the way that certain gadgets can sense orientation through accelerometers and know which way to display certain applications on the screen.

The different is that HP is working on ways to crunch this stuff down onto itty bitty sensors that could handle more than one sense at a time. This would, in effect, endow technology with feelings. "It's about bringing awareness to the compute power that we have created. Right now, technology is blind, deaf and dumb to its surroundings," Hartwell says.

How might this tech be used? Hartwell chatted with me about several different scenarios, including a prototype that the HP services group is working on with Shell for oil and gas reservoir exploration.

Although Hartwell wouldn't say much about this, the sensors could reduce the number of unnecessary digging projects by making better sense out of certain environmental projects. Not only would this save lots and lots of money, it would make those of us who aren't into unnecessary drilling projects might happy.

Other potential applications lie in smart transportation, says Hartwell. For example, in bridge safety. HP sensors could be placed on a bridge structure to keep tabs on vibrations. That would allow civil engineers to sense whether an earthquake, for example, has profoundly damaged a bridge span and whether or not it is safe for traffic. Over time, in the absence of any catastrophic events, the HP sensors might be able to provide information on how the bridge is aging (gracefully or ungracefully).

To take things one step further, Hartwell suggests that over time these sensors could be endowed the ability to detect certain odors, such as the ones that might signal a gas or chemical leak, long before our human sensors might kick in. You can imagine how this might help with plant or refinery safety applications.

"My goal is to figure out how many different things can I sense on one chip," Hartwell says.

Image: Margie Wylie/HP Labs

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Heather Clancy

Section Editor

Heather Clancy has written for United Press International, ZDNet, Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. She holds a degree from McGill University. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure