Friday, December 9, 2011

Xerox research in the 21st century

Back in October, I wrote a "what if" post that wondered what would have happened if Xerox had patented the Internet. The scenario, which ended up with Xerox using the Internet technologies to benefit enterprises rather than consumers, was obviously rooted in Xerox's 1970s-era concentration on photocopier technology.

Well, Xerox has changed, most notably from its acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS). As FastCompany notes in an article on Xerox's Ursula Burns, less than half of Xerox's revenue comes from technology these days. And Xerox continues to perform research - some at its famous Palo Alto research center, and some at another location:

Some reside within a chateau that houses the Xerox Research Centre Europe near Grenoble in the French Alps....The center was founded in 1993 to help Xerox prepare for a future when its technology products (printers and paper copiers) became a commodity, and when business services (to help Xerox customers work faster and cheaper) would be the way forward. "We were a document company at the beginning and it was very important to figure out how we could extract what was in the documents to automate certain things," says Monica Beltrametti, a PhD in theoretical physics and the founding director of the center.

Under Beltrametti's watch, Xerox machines have increasingly learned to understand languages, analyze photos, and route data in a fraction of the time that it takes error-prone humans.

One example was cited in the FastCompany article. ACS is involved with the technology for the square "EZPass" transponders that are used to collect tolls. Nice technology, but the transponders can get damaged or lost.

When [ACS' Lynn Blodgett] asked Beltrametti if Xerox had a machine that could read a license plate--thus eliminating the transponder entirely--she told him yes, and then upped the ante. "'Would it help you if it could read the registration as well? Or if the license plate was held on by wire instead of a bolt?'"--a sign that the car might be stolen. Blodgett was impressed. "I told her yes it would. It would help me a lot."
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