April 6, 2006 5:34 PM PDT

HP Labs India shows off tech goodies

PALO ALTO, Calif.--What do subcompact cars and PCs have in common?

Forty million people in India. At least that's Hewlett-Packard's perspective. Company executives say the 40 million consumers in India who can afford a subcompact car will be the future buyers of new HP technologies that make computing easier and less expensive.

HP Labs India

On a special trip to the states, the 3-year-old HP Labs India team demonstrated five of its innovations here Thursday at Hewlett-Packard's R&D headquarters.

"This opens up the lid" to more PC literacy in India, Ajay Gupta, lab director for HP Labs India, said, referring to a technology on display called a Gesture Board.

The demonstration comes shortly after HP disbanded a group dedicated to creating technology for emerging nations such as India, China and Africa. In these regions, the penetration of PCs and other IT technologies is low, but the potential demand is high.

Despite the dissolution of the group, called the Emerging Markets Solutions Group, HP turned its eye to labs to develop products for these markets.

One of the biggest barriers to tech adoption in India is language. While many people in India speak English, less than 10 percent of the population can transact or write in English and only 50 million are PC literate, according to HP executives.

So the labs team, which is comprised of roughly 15 engineers, developed a special keyboard to cater to the 14 different national languages of India. (Right now, the product only specializes in two languages--Hindi and Kannada, the state language--but the company said it will develop for all the dialects.)

Called the Gesture Keyboard (GKB), the keyboard uses handwriting recognition software to let users write with a pen, which can also change from writing mode to mouse mode. The keyboard digitizes gestures made to consonants on the keyboard, separating base consonants from phonetic modifiers. Users can write on the keyboard the way they learned to as a child, and for this reason, training time on the board takes only 10 minutes, according to Gupta.

The product launched two weeks ago in India and sells for about $50. Gupta said he believes this technology will lower the barriers for many people to get access to the vast amount of data online that the government and universities have contributed.

Right now in the country, only 15 million people have access to the Internet, as opposed to the 600 million with access to TVs.

Aiming to bridge this gap farther, HP Labs developed Printcast, a technology for porting encoded content files alongside broadcasts so that viewers can print material they've seen on TV. Many kids and adults get an education through distance learning TV programs developed by the government, and HP's Printcast would allow teachers, homemakers or community organizations to print supplemental transcripts of TV programs.

The technology, which is in field trials in India, embeds content into an MPEG 2 file, which is delivered to a device that can unwrap the data and send it to an attached printer.

Another novel technology was HP's Coffei, which is an internal name for its Pen-based Interface for Filling Out Forms. The technology is designed to do away with the process of a human being inputting data from printed forms. (India processes about 150 billion forms annually.)

The device essentially looks like a high-tech clipboard, with real paper forms attached. The $100 device recognizes the motions of a special pen, tracking it as it moves and taking in a stream of data. That data is stored on the device, which can hold information on up to 100 forms. Once the device is docked, the information is uploaded into HP's backend software.

Field trials on the technology, which is not yet commercially available, are set to be completed in the coming weeks, according to HP. The company envisions the device to be useful for anyone from the village school teacher to a railway ticker seller.

Other technologies from HP Labs India included Educenter, a digital library compiled through the broadcast-channel files on educational programming that the company is already working on. For the Educenter, the labs are working with the open-source software developed by DSpace, a digital library project between HP and MIT.

A solution for secure digital documents was also on tap Thursday. The company developed a paper scanner and software that can encode the text of a document into a six-square-inch, 2D barcode, which can't be tampered with on the paper. Would-be readers need special decryption software to uncover the original text.

Still, these products are only a fraction of HP's budget.

HP spends about $3.5 billion on research and development annually, according to Dick Lampman, senior vice president of research for HP Labs. Five percent of that amount is allotted to research on products that "look to the future," he said.

"If you're in tech, you better be looking ahead, because the ball keeps moving," said Lampmann.

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