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.

Shane Wall is director of HP Labs and chief technology officer at HP.

Above: Shane Wall is director of HP Labs and chief technology officer at HP.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

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 It ended up being the flip phone, and that’s out of date now.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.

HP Labs' founders wall.

Above: HP Labs founders’ wall.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

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?

VB: Yep.

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.

Watch Dogs 2: The WrenchVB: 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.

HP Labs turns 50.

Above: HP Labs turns 50.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

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.

Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett with their first product at HP: the oscillator used in Disney's Fantasia.

Above: Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett with their first product at HP: the oscillator used in Disney’s Fantasia.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

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.

One of HP's big printers.

Above: One of HP’s big printers.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi / VentureBeat

VB: Do you guys share some of that same vision as Intel, with the Alloy project they’re talking about? Or do you have your own view of it? It was all going to be migrating from the PC into the headset, and then everything you need is attached to your body, batteries and all.

Wall: The answer is yes and yes. We clearly work closely with them, and with Microsoft as well. The vision they have is very similar to what we would look at. We might differ a little on what the implementation might look like, or how we would go about doing it.

I alluded to that a little bit when we talked about hypermobility. These are interesting models because you have so much information, so much power pack, but you’re still carrying it. When this starts to distribute on the body, when you have an on-body network and all those pieces are compatible, you start seeing a lot of interesting things. When I say “hypermobility” that’s exactly what I mean. It may start out clumsy, like the pager that used to be clipped on your belt. But it has an on-body network connected to sensors, and what you see is through a set of glasses with the ability to project either reflected on the glasses or into the retina. So much of that is so close today.

We have a guy with a hearing aid. His is kind of spooky, because his hearing aid can communicate with him. There you go. You have something in the ear that not only helps with your hearing but communicates things to you. Take that with visual responses and compute capabilities and sensors that will look like tattoos on your body. Life gets really interesting.

VB: Do you think the Magic Leap glasses will be the same kind of thing, in the near term? Augmented reality where you can’t tell the animations from real life.

Wall: It’ll be interesting to see. I don’t have any deep insight in that. You probably have more than I do. But the vision they have is in the right place. How it’s employed will be a question.

Augmented reality, some of the most interesting uses we see are not in the consumer space. They’re much more in the enterprise. We deploy what we call graphics printers. They print all these things on the walls. These are huge printers, wider than this patio and higher than this ceiling. They can print massive detailed prints at incredibly high speed. It’s all done digitally, so it can be a one-off. But the machines themselves are $11 million, and incredibly complex.

We needed a way to repair them in the field without flying the one engineer around to go do it everywhere. We use augmented reality. We adapted Google Glass so that the tech person on site could wear the glasses and look at the machine, and the person back at the central support station could guide them to what needed to be fixed. They could do tutorials through the glasses. That’s where I think you’ll see interesting applications – medical, automotive. Think about mechanics fixing cars. All manner of training.

This HP 3D printer can print out 60 percent of its own parts.

Above: This HP 3D printer can print out 60 percent of its own parts.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VB: I get excited about these things, but then—the Project Alloy device itself is huge sitting on your head. You’d never wear it out and about. It looks like we need about three more spins of Moore’s Law before anybody would wear that.

Wall: This might sound funny, but it really is why we did this anchor vision around blended reality. The whole idea that you have not succeeded until it disappears into the background, until the technology is an integral part, something naturally with you. Many of the technologies we have today, we’re eons away from that.

My favorite is—what was it, the planet they discovered near Alpha Centauri, a mere four light-years away? They thought it might be able to support human life, talking about sci-fi. Then you stand back and think about how fast we can fly now and how long it might take us to get there. Thousands of years. Entire civilizations would come and go. You could go from pre-Roman Empire to the present day and you wouldn’t be there yet. And that’s just four light-years. That’s when you realize you’re not going to live long enough.

Shane Wall is director of HP Labs and chief technology officer at HP.

Above: Shane Wall is director of HP Labs and chief technology officer at HP.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VB: Well, you just have to work on the things that will make your life longer. You know, if you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

Wall: It’s a good question. I don’t know. I came back to HP about four years ago with a mission, to re-establish HP at the center of Silicon Valley and the future of tech. That’s going to take a little longer. But I think we’re on a great path, if you look at the rollout today. If I look at what I’m doing now, I don’t know how it could get any more fun.

More than anything, it’s a move away from thinking about technology for technology’s sake. There’s a few ways you can do that. If you can re-anchor the discussion in a different way, and re-imagine the possibilities—we were talking about movie sets. That’s one way. You envision a future and then you think about how you follow through on those problems. But thinking about it from a human standpoint, the challenges we have, it forces a technologist to move out of that realm.

I run HP Tech Ventures, our venture capital wing. That gives the other part of it. There’s the insular part, what we’re doing in the labs, but the world—we have a small window on technology, based on our capabilities and competences and what we can create. We complement that with our own tech venture wing to invest in startups, outbound. That’s how we get the visibility. What’s the wild and wacky stuff going on out there? There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening.

VB: Five hundred VR startups, a thousand AI startups.

Wall: That’s right. And of all varieties. You see them here in the Valley, everywhere. But you get outside the Valley, outside California, you get places that are really interesting. Very creative. You wouldn’t have thought of what they’re doing.

We know Israel is a very big area, a center of venture capital and technology. There’s an interesting cycle going on there today that’s not visible to a lot of folks. The advanced print things we do, a lot of those were invented in Israel. Those guys are all cycling around this world of physical machines, coming up with some really interesting things based on derivatives. A lot of the most novel 3D print technology we’re seeing, much of that had its start in Israel.

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