When many observers of the tech scene hear "Xerox PARC," they tend to think -- oh yeah, those guys who let Steve Jobs steal their operating system for the Mac and otherwise invented a lot of cool stuff that never paid off for, well, Xerox (NYSE:XRX).
Which is, actually, all true. But there's more. The legendary lab has been in the news lately because Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) bought a search technology company called Powerset for an alleged $100 million. Powerset was built on technology licensed from PARC. The lab has also won some attention in the past week for unveiling a way to print documents so the ink disappears in a day, allowing the paper to be reused. Sure, a lot of people want to keep printouts, but if it's, say, a restaurant menu that will change tomorrow -- this could save a lot of paper.
A couple of weeks ago, I stopped in at the lab and talked with its president, Mark Bernstein. PARC these days operates as a partially-owned subsidiary of Xerox -- a stand-alone business that has to make money by licensing its inventions and spinning off companies. It's been getting into all kinds of areas, like using its competence in laser technology to develop better diagnostic tools for blood.
Bernstein told me about one project I thought was pretty cool: a chip on a small sticker that can keep track of concussive forces that hit it and report when the forces add up to a certain amount of damage. It could be used on helmets of soldiers, or on high school football helmets. Since concussive damage can be cumulative, Bernstein told me, the sticker could warn its wearer when damage might start to get serious.
PARC is working on ways to keep a mobile device user connected and active on a Web site even if the wireless connection is interrupted -- something Bernstein calls content-centric networking.
Bernstein seemed particularly proud of an invention unveiled this year called a "spiral concentrator." It seems simple, but is based on complex, precise physics. Water flows through a spiral of tubes set up so that polluting particles are forced to the sides of the tubes. The particles get trapped and clean water comes out -- a cheap, low-energy way to purify water. "That one excites me," Bernstein said.
All in all, PARC is still there, still contributing, and may be on as solid a footing as ever.