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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Flexible, roll-up displays not far away?

Six months is a lifetime in technology, but computer-maker Hewlett-Packard is taking a punt on what computing will look like five to 10 years out.

Flexible displays that can be rolled up like paper feature prominently on HP's long-term roadmap.

"It's the Holy Grail for notebook design," said Phil Devlin, the Singapore-based manager of product marketing for HP's mobile business unit.

"The entire layout of notebooks is determined by how the LCD panel is laid out."

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Light-based notebook keyboards will also remove the need to punch individual keys, laser projectors will eliminate costly bulbs from projectors and reduce their size dramatically.

And, at the heart of future personal electronics, as HP sees it, is a wristwatch that acts as phone and networking device, communicating with other gadgets in the home.

"You carry your gateway with you. Some would argue the mobile phone is already one," said Devlin.

The products, designs of which were on display in Auckland this week, are the work of HP Labs, the company's R&D division that boasts 600 engineers with PhDs, design centres all over the world and an annual budget that equates to about 5 per cent of revenue. That's several billion dollars to work with each year.

The wristwatch would be capable of ultra wide-band (UWB) communication, which takes place in the radio spectrum above 500MHz and is efficient for short-range personal communications. A type of pulse radio technology, it allows for the fast and efficient use of radio spectrum and is being developed as a standard by electronics makers.

"Bluetooth has allowed less obtrusive near-field communications. UWB is Bluetooth on steroids," said Devlin, who sees UWB replacing existing wireless networking technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and infra-red.

With one UWB antenna in a device taking care of all communications, it could then be built smaller and boast longer battery life.

In fact, if HP's gadgets of the future have anything in common, it is their lack of bulky batteries. The bane of today's notebook-toting traveller is the need to recharge with regularity.

Laptop computer batteries allow anything from one to four hours of power, depending on how power-hungry the applications are. Devlin is expecting major advances in extending the battery life of devices but doesn't see emerging technologies such as fuel cells removing the need for constant recharging any time soon.

"Fuel-cell technology always gets the walk around. It can happily power low-wattage devices but uses flammable liquids you can't take on to planes. They're quite noisy because they require a fan."

Instead, more power-efficient chip sets from the likes of Intel and AMD and improvements to lithium-ion batteries would get the power usage of batteries down from their present range of 15-40 watts to nine-12 watts, extending battery life.

The use of inductive charging base stations in the homes of the future could certainly make recharging portable devices easier, as they would remove the need to plug into the mains power.

Inductive charging employs an inductive coil across a base station to create an electromagnetic field from which power can be drawn.

"It will be a major liberating thing, having a device that doesn't need to be plugged into the wall," said Devlin.

Tablet PCs, which have had a tepid reception from consumers and business users alike, live on in HP's future roadmap, but in a different form. Future tablets will be ultra-thin, see-through panels that blend into their surroundings and let people collaborate digitally on one device.

HP is revamping its business notebook range and, in the process, borrowing design ideas from digital camera and music-player makers.

"New models will include more laminated materials, stamped metal, etched alloy to make them look more appealing.

"We'd like to get up there with the Apples of this world," said Devlin, speaking of a forthcoming HP model that will be particularly style-orientated.

"It'll maybe make people wonder whether it was actually made by HP."

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