Things have changed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Gone are the beanbag chairs that furnished the conference room back in the 70s; gone are the researchers that created the graphical user interface, the Ethernet, the laser printer, and other computing innovations we take for granted today. But these famous halls of innovation are not just populated with ghosts from a glorious past, though they did bring back memories; my colleague Paul Wallich and I were among the first journalists to write Parc''s story in the early 80s. There is some pretty cool stuff going on right now.
Xerox opened Parc''s doors to journalists on Monday and Tuesday this week and brought its researchers''and those of sibling research centers, like Fuji Xerox''s FX Palo Alto Laboratory, Xerox Research Centre Europe, and Israel''s XMPIE''out for show and tell. Some were demonstrating products just reaching the marketplace; others earlier stage research that could become business or consumer products some day. Some of my favorites:
Erasable paper. Like most people, my office is anything but paperless. I print out interview notes, emails, web pages, and countless rough drafts, often needing the documents for just a few hours before tossing the pages into the recycling bin.
Unfortunately, toggling back and forth between all these documents on the screen just doesn''t work. So the idea of completely reusable paper definitely appealed to me. Parc''s reusable paper doesn''t even need ink. Instead, the paper is chemically treated''but feels just like ordinary printer paper''to be sensitive to a specific wavelength of light. The printer simply writes the image in light. The image starts to fade in several hours, and is completely gone in 24; the photo shows the image after several hours of fading and as just printed from a high-speed printer; standard-speed printers will generate darker images. Researchers say that cost of the paper will be three to five times the cost of normal printer paper; the printer itself will cost several hundred dollars, and will be intended as a second printer for homes and offices. The prototype paper is yellow, not because of the chemical coating, but to distinguish it from ordinary paper and prevent users from accidentally printing archival documents in disappearing ''ink''.
An adaptation of ink-jet printing intended to replace screen printing of conductive grid-lines for silicon solar cells. Researchers say the change, which makes grid lines
tall and fat instead of thin and wide, improves solar cell efficiency by six percent. Xerox Parc plans to spin out a company, tentatively name Sunlyne, later this year to commercialize the technology.
A water purification system that evolved from research done in manipulating fine particles for laser printing. This purely mechanical system shifts particles to one part of a stream of water, and then splits the stream into two paths, one for clean water, one for dirty water. Researchers expect that, in a couple of years, municipal water treatment plants will be able to use the technology to process significantly more water with less chemicals and without increasing the size of the treatment plant.
A medical diagnosis technique, also coming out of laser printing, which can find cancer cells in a blood sample much more effectively than current technology. The researchers expect to apply the technique, which uses a scanning laser and a fiber optic bundle to detect fluorescence from tagged cells, to prenatal diagnostics, eventually replacing the invasive amniocentesis with a simple maternal blood test.