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The secrets of the IBM Hursley Lab

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT is a big thing for IBM, and it spends around billion a year on R&D across the areas of hardware, software and the physical sciences.

Its lab in Hursley, Winchester is one of the sites where the company does some of this work, mainly working on software. Previously it was a hardware and software location, but it has transitioned away from hardware.

IBM has been at Hursley since 1958 but the site has an older link to technology because it was where the Supermarine Spitfire was developed. Now a classic modern campus site, it has 3,000 people working there.

Big Blue invited The INQUIRER to take a tour around the lab’s innovation centre, an area where IBM is working on new technologies that we might see very soon.

IBM’s Hursley lab has a lot of computational power across the whole range of IBM hardware – x series Intel based servers, p and i series mid-range servers, and z series mainframe computers. All of the hardware systems are dedicated to IBM’s business partners’ use rather than production work, at no charge. 

The innovation centre also has a new datacentre area where an integrated racking solution is exhibited, a room within a room.

Brian Innes, IT specialist at IBM said, “Traditional data centres usually have literally hundreds of copper cables under the floor. The idea here is that there is nothing under the floor – all the cabling is within the rack.

“It is also an enclosed box, so all the cold air comes into the centre of the rack. It has to come through a machine to get out, but it also means we can have a much higher temperature in parts of the room than we do in the centre.

“We have more efficiency inside the cooler, if you have a higher temperature gradient.” he added.

The innovation centre has a lab working on RFID technology. Among what was being worked on was passive RFID and near contact cards, which most people would recognise as the Oyster swipe cards that Londoners use to get around the city.

But passive RFID is also being used in other areas such as on clothing in shops, in libraries for automatic check-in and check-out of books, and in tags within the supply chain. IBM is also working on active RFID, real-time tracking which can follow people through an area, detecting whether people are where they should be.

Being a software location, a lot of work is done on how software can work with RFID. One of the more impressive examples of this was a ‘Minority Report’ style demonstration where a person carrying an RFID tag in something like a badge went through an area and it switched on messages catered for them.

Obviously the applications for this are clear to see, such as advertising catered for anybody carrying a mobile phone with a particular RFID chip passing through a certain zone or shop.

IBM is also working with analytical technology to study all the data that can be generated through this RFID environment and make sense out of it.

The innovation centre also has a retail lab, which showcased some of the technology we could see in supermarkets and shopping centres in a few years.

For example the lab was working with E Ink, the technology used in an e-book reader like the Kindle, to change prices on shop labels after being scanned from a barcode reader. LCD and dot matrix displays can also be used in the same way, although those require power.

And there were communication devices shop workers could carry that made them contactable throughout their shift, help them stock check, and also find out any price through its inbuilt barcode scanner.

The lab also ran a system that had a digital playlist with certain adverts played on a monitor. If a customer scanned a DVD with a Near Field Communication tag on the system, it would play the suitable advert on screen. This could be also done with mobile phones.

One of the most recent introductions to the innovation centre was a lab on smart meter technology, which IBM has been making a big push on thanks to the government’s increased focus on trying to get people to waste less energy.

As opposed to ‘dumb’ meters that need to be read, smart meters could be used by people to get more information about how and what energy was being used on a daily basis, and how they were being charged.

James Caffrey, researcher at IBM said, “We’ve got a couple of gas meters that are actually talking to smart meters over what we call a mesh network using technology such as ZigBee.

“We’ve also got in-home displays that the government said has to be put in. This is a way we’ve got of communicating to the consumer how much energy they are using.

“Not only in KwH and calorific values which frankly don’t mean much to the user, but in pounds and pence and 12 months of historic information. We’ve got one here which is wireless and touchscreen.”

These were the labs that showed the more developed areas of research IBM was doing at Hursley, but The INQUIRER was also informed about other work that were not quite at that stage.

These included sign language translation technology that turned spoken words into on-screen avatars, and the ‘Emotive’ headset, which picks up neurons and a molecular signal using sensors. The messages are then analysed and fed through software that can be made to carry out actions.

This could have wide-ranging applications, such as turning on lights without having to press anything, or for use by the disabled to move limbs and even walk.

The perception of IBM as a serious, business orientated company is well deserved. Of course it doesn’t have the wow factor of a consumer gadgets company like Apple, simply because of the types of technologies it focuses on.

But IBM’s technology R&D affects us, whether through retail, financial systems, or even gaming – the Wii is powered by an IBM chip after all. µ

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