HP split itself in two this year to try to be more nimble. And it is also celebrating 50 years of HP Labs, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based research and development organization that gave us inventions like the scientific programmable calculator and the inkjet printer.
During a recent event celebrating the anniversary, Shane Wall, chief technology officer at HP and director of HP Labs, talked about the trends that the company is expecting in the next three decades, and the research priorities that match those predictions. We had a lunch just outside the offices of Bill Hewlett and David Packard, the men who started Hewlett-Packard in 1939.
I caught up with Wall at the event for an interview. He told me his own views on predicting the future and the intersection of science fiction, video games, and real-world technology. (That’s a particular hobby of mine these days).
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
VentureBeat: What do you think about the intersection of science fiction and real-world tech? Things we used to think were just fantasy are becoming real?
Shane Wall: So many of these things were visions people had. Just being able to talk about them helps draw attention to them. Just like we were talking about with the printer that printed itself – suddenly machines can make themselves. Or simple things like Star Trek. Star Trek, all the concepts that came out of that, starting with the communicator. It ended up being the flip phone, and that’s out of date now.
VB: I wrote about my top 25 tech movies of all time. Inception was number one. Do you have to take these things seriously? Have you ever consulted for the movies?
Wall: Last week, the Gigaom conference was in Austin. They picked half a dozen topics. They had the gentleman who wrote Contact – not Carl Sagan, but James Hart, the guy who wrote the screenplay. He took all these old sci-fi stories, and then he would adapt them to the movies. He spent a lot of time with Carl translating that into reality. He’s done that with a bunch of different movies. Now he’s taking a few older ones and making them more current. Kurt Vonnegut, the Sirens of Titan, if you remember that? He’s also taking the Foundation series, Asimov.
We spent a lot of the time talking about that last week, how much of this is real. In our case, 3D printing, the whole idea—one of the clear uses we see is in space. Instead of trying to transport and assemble all this stuff up there, what happens if you just move the printer up there? The printer is on the International Space Station printing replacement parts. At scale, maybe 15 years from now, maybe 30, eventually you get to your own little factory in space.
VB: I remember in Foundation’s Edge, Isaac Asimov wrote about a 3D map of the galaxy, and the guy navigating it with hands. And then Minority Report had the gesture-based interface.
Wall: And look at Sprout in there now. There you see Sprout from a technology standpoint. It isn’t substantiated in a product. It’s still limited by this space. That’s one of the things we’re looking at. How does it go beyond this? Does it go into the entire room? Did you play around with the Founder’s Wall in here?
Wall: What happens when you don’t have seams and that’s all a wall? That’s the computer. Or the light bulb in the ceiling that shines down and illuminates can track location and respond to gestures and commands. You have the ability to project a video right down on to the table that you can manipulate and move. Those are the footprints of that. A lot of that was in things like the Foundation trilogy. They get re-imagined in things like Minority Report, and then people strive for them in the real world. We get closer and closer.
VB: I had that question about Watch Dogs 2. This video game is set in San Francisco now. They can make a really good replica of every street in town. And then they have the hacktivists in there, this Anonymous-like group, that’s vying against the smart city. They’re looking for ways to manipulate the smart city. There’s an interesting interplay there between the reality of four or five years ago, Anonymous attacking websites, and then these visions of the future of smart cities. They’re coming true.
Wall: We see all the security news today. Yahoo, with 500 million accounts targeted or whatever. Those things are not going away. They’re going to get worse. It’ll be fascinating to see what happens. Especially what’ll happen between now and the election.
VB: It came up in the debate with Hillary and Trump. It was a 10-minute discussion of hacking and cyber-terrorism.
Wall: Unfortunately, it’ll be a reality we live with. One of the guys I introduced there runs our security lab. That’s what they’re looking at – how do you deal with security in a highly distributed, non-standardized world, where the devices are embedded in the environment itself?
VB: Devices at the edge can access the core.
Wall: That’s right. If you look at the modern attacks, a lot of them are coming from the edges in. Take printers as an example. Today, we’ve rolled out a slew of enterprise laserjets, which we proudly say are the most secure printers in the world. You’re protecting that path. But when you look into that, you figure out—so much of what’s in the average off-the-shelf printer is open. Let alone the print. The memory’s open, the processing, everything that goes through there. It’s all available. The interfaces between the printer and a computer are all standard. Securing that end point – that’s just one example – is crucial.
VB: I went to the DefCon conferences every year for many years. Every year it was a different headline. Hacking pacemakers, hacking insulin pumps, hacking ATMs. They’re always able to stay ahead of older appliance security.
Wall: Part of my job is I lead a lot of our security. I have a top secret SCI clearance. I end up engaged in a lot of the topics. What’s affecting is from a parameter scale? There’s plenty out there, plenty of threats.
VB: It seems to make a good case for you guys to have a relationship with sci-fi novelists and Hollywood.
Wall: Absolutely. We’ve had a long-term relationship with Dreamworks, you know. They use all of our equipment, from servers to–
VB: Do you show up in their movies?
Wall: I wish!
VB: Pixar always puts in something about Emeryville in every movie.
Wall: We don’t quite have that clout.
VB: Ready Player One is coming soon as well, from Spielberg. Another one that’s very informed by technology.
Wall: Right. We do end up in a lot of those discussions. I have an idea – what’s really feasible? It’s interesting the way they feed on each other, because the question always starts with, “Here’s what I’m thinking. What’s feasible?” And then I say, “Here’s what might be feasible, but what’s your idea?” You end up in a loop about the art of the possible.
VB: Do you almost wind up building things out, like a Hollywood set, to just visualize what things could be like?
Wall: We haven’t gone that far. I’d love to. You’ll see a step back from that, a little bit. Mariana, who does experiences, she tries to create environments that simulate the future. But those are much more targeted. They’re not a complete set, from a sci-fi standpoint.
VB: That seems like a good way to capture the public’s imagination. Some of these things are pretty goofy, but–
Wall: If you can create them and people can feel them and work with them, yeah. It’s a very interesting idea.
VB: Go visit the planet in Avatar or something.
Wall: We get some of that now with all the augmented reality, where you can create a bit of those worlds. What’s your view of that?
VB: Pokemon Go shows the power of a small part of it. That game has been downloaded 500 million times, more than any other mobile game in history, in just two and a half months. People are complaining that it just doesn’t go far enough with the AR part – if they’d pushed that more maybe it would reach even more people. It’s surprising, in a way. It was built on an older smartphone technology, more so than this futuristic VR stuff, and it’s still a killer app, more so than anything in VR so far. I wasn’t predicting that would happen half a year ago.
Wall: Exactly. No one saw it coming. I’ve always been a believer that the augmented reality, where you supplement the existing world, will have much more impact in real-world scenarios than VR will. For a few reasons. Mainly because a lot of the VR experiences require so much compute power that you’re tethered to a location. The existing implementations are all game-related, which is cool, but they’ll remain a niche.
For VR to have a big impact it has to untether. You saw what we did, creating the backpack, which is at least a first step. You move it along with the backpack. If you haven’t tried that, you should give it a try. That changes things. Now you’re mobile. Then you need to get to the full wireless.