IBM Research is an amazing organization and visiting it’s labs over the years was always a great experience. IBM’s elite research organization includes roughly 3,000 of the world’s brightest at eight labs in Almaden, Austin, China, Israel, India, Tokyo, Yorktown Heights (NY), and Zurich. Research is conducted in all areas of information technology, from physics and cognitive science to leading-edge e-business applications. The inventions lead to 3,415 patents in 2003, enabling IBM to receive more U.S. patents than any other company in the world for the eleventh consecutive year. It was a great pleasure to be able to visit the Tokyo lab as part of my trip last week. Yuriko Sawatani, of the Systems &Technology group was my host for an afternoon visit. Tai-san gave me an overview of activities at the lab, a number of researchers presented their projects, and then I gave a presentation about The Future Of The Internet, followed by an active discussion of some of the issues. It is always stimulating to be in the company of such brilliant and creative people.
The last time I visited Yamato and the IBM Tokyo Research Laboratory was in 1997 when I saw the Home Page Reader. Most of us take access to the World Wide Web for granted, but for the blind, using the Web can be a major challenge. Researchers in Yamato changed that with the Home Page Reader, a talking Web browser. Chieko Asakawa, a blind researcher at the IBM lab had used screen reader technology — which uses text to speech converson so that words from web pages can be heard. This was better than nothing, but clearly more could be done and a team of researchers at the IBM lab produced the HPR, a very flexible talking Web browser.
The concept behind the HPR is to have different voices for different duties — plain text in a male voice and hyperlinks in a female voice. Various features allow the blind to become highly productive when surfing. For example, to speed up the slower text-to-speech process, the system includes a quick reading method of text-to-speech. Pressing the “1” key is a fast-forward function. When the “0” key is held down, the voice goes much faster, but slows down again for the first few characters after certain types of stops, such as periods, commas, tabs, and hyperlinks, so that users can hear the beginning of each sentence.
At the time of my 1997 visit, the HPR was just being introduced in the Japanese market. Since then it has gone through several releases and is now available in eight additional languages. Many new features have been added including the ability to resize windows and panes to make the screen easier to see. Users can change the font size, type, color, and background color. In addition, the voice of Home Page Reader is synchronized with a moving cursor to make reading even easier.
Lighthouse International is a leading worldwide resource which helps people overcome vision impairment through rehabilitation, education, research and advocacy. I spoke at one of their conferences in the late 1990’s and saw Guido Corona, a blind IBMer give a demonstration of the Home Page Reader. It was a stunning and emotional experience for me. He was reading web pages, including tables, forms, and frames, better than I could.
During my visit last week, Maeda-san gave me an update on research projects that are going well beyond the talking web browser. The focus is on tools to help Web developers build sites that are more accessible to those with various visual impairments. People with cataracts, for example, may have difficulty seeing pages with certain colored backgrounds. The tools actually let the developer see and hear what blind and low vision users will experience when visiting a site. There is much more to this subject and if you are interested, take a look at IBM’s Accessability Center.
I also got an update on the important subject of Web Services security. Web services are critical to the integration of applications within and between the enterprises of the world, and although adoption of web services is proceeding rapidly, one of the inhibitors has been the lack of adequate security. A new set of protocols called WS-Security are being developed by IBM, Microsoft, and Verisign. The goal is to provide end-to-end security so that any client or server on the Internet can exchange secure messages between any other client or server, regardless of what technology platform they may be using. The goal is admirable but the protocols required to implement it are complex and require a lot of processing — hence there is a performance issue. Nakamura-san described some very interesting and innovative work to solve the problem.
The next subject that I was privileged to learn about was the Hard Disk Drive Active Protection Sysem. The inventor, Shimotohno-san, showed me his ingenius work and background for how it works. Basically, it is like an airbag for your ThinkPad. An integrated motion sensor continuously monitors movement of the ThinkPad. Like an airbag’s sensor, it can detect sudden changes in motion and temporarily retract the read/write heads so that they can not damage the disk. The heads “fly” very close over the surface of the hard disk. The distance is equivalent to a Boeing 747 flying one inch above the ground. Think of the precision that would require. The business concept behind the APS is to protect valuable data from some crashes — up to four times greater impact protection than systems without APS, thereby decreasing user down-time and support cost. You can find out more about the APS here.
Katsuno-san showed me the work he is doing on Autonomic network configuration. The problem is pervasive and shared by most of us. Your browser and email at times won’t work and you don’t know why. The problem could be any combination of the operating system, the PC, router, wireless access point, LAN wiring, settings, ISP, DNS, etc. Katsuno-san is doing research on how to make all these components be automatically detected and set properly. No small task. The early phases of the project are already implemented in IBM Access Connections.
It was an exhiliarating afternoon. Next was a taxi trip to Yokohama to meet up with the IRU.