Thinking Tech

Inside the labs of PARC

Inside the labs of PARC

Posting in Energy

The Silicon Valley research lab showed off some of its newest inventions to celebrate its 40th birthday.

PALO ALTO, CA -- Launched in 1970 as a division of Xerox, and set in the rolling hills near the Stanford campus above the San Francisco Bay, PARC hired talented and unconventional computer scientists who invented Ethernet, the personal computer, the graphical user interface, the laser printer and several other technological breakthroughs that we couldn't imagine living without.

Not all of PARC's projects were hits, though, and over time, making a profit from the lab became more important to Xerox. So in 2002 it spun PARC out as a subsidiary. PARC's researchers now work with government agencies and companies in addition to Xerox, whose managers want PARC's inventions commercialized where possible.

(One researcher told me that pressure to form companies around PARC's inventions increased with Xerox's $6.4 billion purchase last year of ACS, a business services company that -- as ZDNet points out -- does everything from retooling business processes to collecting tolls. Xerox has a new ad campaign -- "Ready for Real Business.")

Today the lab held an open house to show off some of its new inventions. I couldn't get to all of them -- time ran out -- but here are the ones I was able to see:

- A DARPA-funded robot that forms a mental map of whatever room it's in. It uses touch sensors and counts its steps as it feels its way along the walls -- when two robots meet, they exchange information wirelessly about where they are and form a communications network. The goal is to lower the cost of these robots to about $100 -- a tenth of what it is now. Researcher Julia Liu says the robot would be useful in wars where soldiers are entering an unknown building, or natural disasters where people need to be rescued.

- Software called Kiffets that PARC is trying to license to publishers. It aggregates content from all over the Web, letting editors select the topics and the sources they think are trustworthy. How publishers would make money with Kiffets is still being determined, but you can try it out here. It's been in open beta since July.

- A simple centrifuge-like device (see right) that purifies water by spinning unwanted particles out of it, even when the particles have the same density as the liquid. The device uses little energy, has no moving parts and can cost as little as a quarter to a third of competing devices, says Dr. Meng Lean, the researcher who invented it. Lean worked for years with printer toner particles and came to the water industry as an outsider, he says, "with no preconceptions." The device will be field-tested with customers next year.

- Meshin, a company that's being incubated at PARC. It makes an add-on for your e-mail system that organizes both your messages and your other information as it comes in from social networks. It may become a separate company. The software relies on natural language processing and semantic search, which was developed at Xerox.

- PowerCloud, which has become a separate company and has raised venture capital from Walden and Javelin. (CEO Jeff Abramowitz wouldn't say how much). Its software automatically manages wireless networks for small and medium-sized businesses, which generally can't afford either enterprise-class equipment or the IT staffs to manage it. PowerCloud licensed its software to D-Link, which makes networking equipment, and Abramowitz says future versions will integrate with Google Apps and will show up in Network Attached Storage, VPN routers and other complex, hard-to-manage hardware.

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure