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HP Labs In India Tries To Connect

At Hewlett-Packard's Bangalore, India offices near the Forum, one of the new shopping malls going up around the city, fourteen researchers in a pocket of the building are trying to do something rare in this country's IT industry: develop products that can be used by ordinary Indians. Late in the day on Monday as part of a weeklong reporting trip to Bangalore and Delhi, I visited HP to see what's on those researchers' minds.
At Hewlett-Packard's Bangalore, India offices near the Forum, one of the new shopping malls going up around the city, fourteen researchers in a pocket of the building are trying to do something rare in this country's IT industry: develop products that can be used by ordinary Indians. Late in the day on Monday as part of a weeklong reporting trip to Bangalore and Delhi, I visited HP to see what's on those researchers' minds.Indian society is undergoing rapid changes that are making air travel, cell phones, and PCs accessible to more people. But most of the population still can't use computer technology. That can make mass communication a problem.

Fewer than 1% of Indians have PCs, but 85 million families have TV sets, department director K.S.R. Anjaneyulu tells me, and 150 million might by 2010. HP's researchers are trying to find ways to use television, paper and pen, and other common media to disseminate information to help Indians without scarce 'Net connections stay in touch.

First, I head over the cubicle of Shekhar Borgaonkar, a researcher who came to HP after it bought the technology behind a venture-backed startup he'd formed. Borgaonkar, a tall, bearded, slightly rumpled looking man, sits behind a PC running Microsoft Word, but he's tapping and etching Hindi characters on a special pad with a stylus. What's hard about writing Hindi, India's official language, he explains, is that the shape of letters change as you add new ones ahead of them. Skilled typists on Hindi keyboards can approach 100% accuracy. But getting all the shape shifts requires a tricky dance with the shift and control keys. It's daunting.

Borgaonkar's keypad--it's about the size and shape of a mouse pad, and sits on his desk--uses a digitizer that lets users tap a letter, then draw the stroke or curve that modifies it, as if they're writing on paper. Presto, the new combined shape appears in Word. Using 16 gestures and about 40 keys, users of the system have hit about 97% accuracy, he says.

His next project--the one HP bought--also aims to open computing up to the masses, a theme in the lab. ScriptMail, he calls it. Using a touchpad and stylus mounted on a small metal frame, users who don't know their way around Windows can tap keys to compose and address an E-mail message. Now here's the tricky part. Instead of typing their message, users can lay a piece of paper over a digitizer, write a message with a ballpoint pen, and the image is captured in the body of the E-mail. Off it goes. Borgaonkar's former startup, Inabling Technologies, tried to land the devices in public call offices, without much success. Now, HP is going to try again.

Next, the piece de resistance. My host, Prashant Sarin, a senior business associate at the lab and a Rhodes scholar on sabbatical from the University of Oxford with an interest in using technology for social and economic development, walks me into a room with a TV set, a couple of servers, and a Bluetooth transmitter. He cues up a British Broadcasting Service public service announcement on AIDS awareness on one of the TVs. Bollywood movie stars speak in Hindi, with English subtitles. An icon appears on the bottom on the screen signaling there's something to print. Through the wireless connection, a color flier whizzes off the printer with Hindi information about AIDS. HP researchers have figured out how to encode the printable information in the TV signal, and get it to a printer, without using the Internet or a PC. Of course, the project assumes a household has a printer, but Sarin envisions the government or private companies being able to use the technology to broadcast information to broad swaths of people who aren't online. Of those, India has many.

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Joao-Pierre S. Ruth, Senior Writer