Xerox Research has gifted us with plenty of technology, from the humble mouse to the laser printer. It’s now working on ways to make machines see, and help people handle massive data sets – and it presented some of the fruits of this labour at an open day in Grenoble, France.
Systems designed to streamline city transport and to monitor medical patients without intrusive probes were just some of the projects seen by TechWeekEurope in a French chateau which continues the Xerox Research tradition. It all began at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which led the world in the 1970s and 1908s, when it invented, among other things, the Ethernet and windowing software.
Times have changed. Nowadays, most people know of Xerox as a printer firm, but many are unaware that in 2009 it bought services firm ACS for $6.4 billion, and now employs more than 80,000 people in call centres and other service-related activity. The firm’s services revenue has grown steeply and now it makes up half the comapny’s turnover.
Meanwhile the research has continued, with teams of academics and experts plugging away at intractable tech problems in centres around the world. As well as PARC, Xerox now has research centres in Europe (Grenoble), Canada, New York and India.
The arrival of ACS has given the researchers a whole new set of problems – and they are clearly enjoying them. Xerox Research Centre Europe played host to a group of journalists this month, and the scientists, led by research officer Dr Monica Beltrametti were clearly having a ball.
Overall, the experiments had a very strong “green” tint: Xerox is using tech to reduce printing, to cut the energy wasted in office systems, to help people park, and to make public transport more efficient.
Meanwhile, Luca Marchesotti wants to help computers sort and choose images based on their aesthetic characteristics. Xerox has developed an image “signature” and his system can distinguish “professional” quality images from “amateur” ones, then help find the image which fits with the colour scheme and style of a publication or web page.
Research fellow Christopher Dance uses Big Data and analytics to expand the number problems that ACS’s transport division can handle. He and his colleagues showed us a system which is revolutionising parking in Los Angeles. Instead of having a fixed and uniform price for parking, the system – which covers 7000 parking spaces in an 800 block area – allows prices to change up and down, at intervals of around three months, in response to data on how the spaces have been used.
“Market rates means that parking spaces go to the people who value them most,” he explained. The prices are set to ensure around 85 percent of spaces are occupied, and therefore people who need to park only need to drive less than a block to find a space. For those who are not satisfied with the price, a cheaper zone will be a block or two away. The prices are set based on detailed reporting of actual parking data and – so far – it seems to be working.