Comdex visitors prepared to sit through the seventh of eight keynote speeches were rewarded with a rare glance at some surprising technology being developed in Xerox' legendary Palo Alto Research Center (Parc).
With an unprecedented number of keynotes, standing out has been a challenge for the speakers at this year's Comdex. Xerox provided its own twist by billing two speakers - president and chief operating officer Rick Thoman and chief scientist John Seely Brown, who heads Parc.
They were joined on stage by a toga-clad actor who plays a Plato-like Greek sage in Xerox' current television ad campaign.
"One of the key ideas we are working on these days is how to build portals between the paper world and the digital world," said Brown. He went on to demonstrate some technology from Parc that provides such a portal.
The most stunning was a prototype 'digital paper' - a material that can be printed and erased at will. Brown showed a small piece of the material, which actually looked more like a sheet of dark grey, shiny rubber.
According to Brown, the digital paper contains minuscule balls that are white on one side and black on the other. Letters appear on the 'paper' when it is subjected to an electromagnetic charge and the bichromal balls flip round. This will allow a device the size of a pen to be used to 'print' documents.
And, said Brown: "One book could be every book in the world."
In a Q&A session with the press after the keynote, Brown said it was uncertain when the Xerox digital paper would reach the market, or how expensive it would be.
Less astounding, but probably closer to market, is a machine readable text format called Glyphs, which allow digital information to be stored on a page. The figures look somewhat like hieroglyphics, but work like barcodes in that they are easily readable by a computer.
The Glyphs are already being used by Xerox in some high volume printing environments and it is planning some more visible applications of the technology.
For instance, Brown said it could be used to automatically print a machine readable version of a document on its reverse side.
A somewhat bizarre invention is an intelligent paper clip with a built-in transceiver. When a document is printed, it can be stapled together with a device that contains information about it, such as where it can be found on the Internet. The information can be read automatically when the document is waved in front of a monitor.
Some other technologies showcased also appeared of questionable practical value. For instance, Xerox Parc came up with a way of 'paging' through an electronic book by tilting the screen up and down.
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