A Peek Inside PARC

Silicon Valley’s fabled invention machine shows its latest tech

If technology were a religion, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center would be one of the holiest shrines on any pilgrimage. So much of our modern computer world was invented at this freewheeling innovation lab (and largely given away). Prefer your mouse and point-and-click graphical interface to a UNIX-style command line? Thanks PARC. Think laser prints look better than dot-matrix scrawl? Thanks again.

Some say the glory days have passed. PARC today is a more-focused operation that has to turn quick profits (no more open funding from it's owner Xerox). But it's still a well-staffed corporate research lab in an era with ever-fewer of those creatures. On Monday, its staff opened the doors to the press to show off the latest gizmos.

Some demos left me flat. Better software for creating personalized direct mail and tracking how people respond to it? Valuable, maybe, but not one that gets the heart racing.

I geeked out most to the clean tech presentation. Unlike in the old days, (sigh) PARC no longer invents whatever its free-thinking nerds can dream up. But it does find awfully creative ways to spin-off printer technology.

See our gallery here for the technologies that caught my eye. These are all research projects in various states of development. Don't look for products tomorrow. But maybe in a few years...

Press Day at PARC

A less-radical, more-practical idea lab opens up to the press.Sean Captain

SolFocus

I geeked out most over the clean tech presentation. Unlike in the old days, (sigh) PARC no longer invents whatever its free-thinking nerds can dream up. But it does find awfully creative ways to spin-off printer technology. Take solar power. A few years ago, PARC spied SolFocus—a start-up that makes solar concentrators. The idea: Instead of laying down hundreds of square feet of pricey silicon photovoltaic cells, use mirrors to concentrate light onto chips covering as little as 1/100 the area. Here, the big collector dishes of SolFocus's first-generation panel track the sun outside Xerox PARC.Sean Captain

Mini Concentrators

But SolFocus's mirrors are big and not as cheap as they could be. So PARC developed smaller collectors that are simply stamped into glass plates. (The know-how came from the optics technology in copiers.) SolFocus started as two people working inside PARC and grew to 50 employees before it went off into the world. Now PARC is taking applications from other promising startups and will host two or three at a time while they help them develop technologies. In return, PARC gets royalties on the tech and a stake in the company. Think of it as a venture capital fund that puts up know-how instead of cash.Sean Captain

Spiral Filter

Cleaning up sewage is a stinky, ugly business. PARC has developed a gizmo to fix that. Instead of transferring flushwater through a series of tanks where the gunk slowly settles out, the device sends it through a spiral tube. Centrifugal force pushes the heavier particles to the outside wall of the tube, while clean water hugs the inside. A fork at the end of the tube splits it into clean and dirty streams. The idea for this came from technology Xerox uses to move around particles of copy toner.Sean Captain

Rare Cell Detection

Nowadays, doctors have to find a tumor before they can tell you have cancer. But by the time it's big enough to spot and biopsy, the cancer may be too far along. So PARC is looking at blood. Turns out that a very small number of cancer cells, called rare cells, slip away from the young tumor and into the bloodstream. Finding them with a microscope is too labor-intensive to be practical. So PARC, inventor of the laser printer, found a way to use lasers. Lab techs add antibodies that light up when a scanning laser hits them, and a bundle of fiber-optic cables picks up the minute bits of light from any antibodies that have glommed on to a potential cancer cell. A computer then marks the slide, telling pathologists exactly where to get a better look to see if the cells actually are cancerous. The same method can be used to find embryonic cells in blood for testing developing babies.Sean Captain

Erasable Prints

This one has a way to go, but the idea is cool. About half of all prints are made for a quick one-time use—like creating a hard copy of a Google map. So what if you could erase the ink when you no longer need the printout and then use the paper again? PARC has very rough technology for that. It's created paper embedded with molecules that go from clear to dark when ultraviolet light from a bar of LEDs hits them. When you're done with the sheet, just put it back in the printer, which turns the molecules clear again. Sounds nice, but here's the reality. So far, the only color PARC can print is a sickly purple that looks like the "ditto" printouts dinosaurs like me remember from grade school where we had a Xerox--er, photocopy machine. Oh, and all it takes to erase the sheet is heat: Leave the sheet on the table for a few hours, and it's blank. Neat disappearing-ink parlor trick, but not too useful yet. PARC is working on black and other colors of "ink" that stays dark until you're ready to erase it. The five dark dots on the sheet above are from the LEDs in a UV flashlight.Sean Captain

Seamless Document

Scrolling and zooming around Web pages on the iPhone is pretty cool, but what if the phone did the work for you? PARC has software called Seamless Document Viewer that does just that. It breaks pages into blocks of text, then analyzes the words in each block to see what it's about. For example: the U.S. Constitution—first paragraph is about who wrote it and why. You can click a section of a document based on the summary to open a zoomed-in version. The software re-does line breaks so that lines don't run off end of the screen when you make the font larger. Come across a picture, and it automatically resizes the document again: For example, zooming out so you can see the whole photo. When you leave the picture, it zooms in again to make the text large enough to read. I'd like that, please. In the image above, the thumbnail at the bottom right shows a map of the whole document and where you are. A pop-up menu (not shown) lets you choose sections of it to read in the auto-zoomed view.Sean Captain