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Hewlett-Packard Co. is eyeing the creation of an “overlay network” for connecting enterprise computers with existing wireless RFID solutions, as well as with other emerging sensor technologies for package tracking, building security and managing computer data centers, for example.

HP first started researching sensor technologies at least 15 years ago, according to Salil Pradhan, chief technology officer for HP’s Sentient Spaces research group in Palo Alto, Calif.

In fact, Agilent Technologies, a company spun off from HP in 1999, has since produced sensors for navigation, mobile appliances and Logitech’s cordless MouseMan optical mouse.

“But at this point, sensors have gone beyond being sort of these cute little things on the side to important technology for the enterprise,” Pradhan said in an interview with

Located at the HP Labs in Palo Alto, Sentient Spaces is a team of about 25 engineers who are collaborating with customers to find out how RFID and other types of sensors—for pinpointing locations, identifying objects and gauging temperatures—can figure into enterprise computing.

HP is not alone in peering beyond RFID into a wider world of sensors. Other big vendors working with non-RFID sensors include IBM, with its $250 million Sensor & Actuator (S&A) Solutions arm; Oracle Corp., with its Sensor-Based Services initiative; Sun Microsystems Inc.; and SAP AG.

Click here to read “Oracle, IBM Spar Over Sensors.”

Even within HP, other research teams beyond Sentient Spaces are at work with non-RFID sensors. One of these groups is exploring the use of nanosensors in biomedical applications, Pradhan said.

In one of Sentient Spaces’ current projects, engineers are exploring using a combination of video cameras and object tracking sensor technology, together with an 802.11 wireless network, for applications such as airport or building security.

For his part, Pradhan first joined HP more than three years ago to head up what was then known as the Sentient Environments Project. “Many new technologies start out in the personal space, before evolving in other directions,” he told

“We took a deep look at sensor technologies as enterprise plays,” according to Pradhan. With input from customers, the team came up with a number of scenarios, including homeland defense, building management and supply chain management/logistics.

“Out of all of these, RFID got the most initial traction from customers,” he said. Many HP customers were then in the throes of getting ready for RFID mandates imposed by the U.S. Department of Defense and large national retail chains such as Wal-Mart.

At the same time, as one of Wal-Mart’s major suppliers, HP also needed to comply with the mass retailer’s mandate. HP decided to launch an RFID research initiative headed up by Pradhan. So Pradhan now carries two titles at HP: CTO of Sentient Spaces and CTO of RFID.

Next Page: Solving actual customer problems.

But Pradhan emphasized that Sentient Spaces gears its research to solving actual customer problems. “At some [other] companies, researchers say, ‘I want to build a better mousetrap.’ Then, they’ll look around and ask, ‘Is there a mouse around?’ Well, we’re not like that here.”

With its building security concept, for example, HP is attempting to save customers money by sparing them the need to lay down additional cable.

Satellite-driven GPS (geographic positioning system)—a type of sensor typically associated with location tracking—doesn’t work well indoors because GPS signals don’t do a good job of penetrating walls, he said.

Instead of satellite communications, HP is using 802.11 on the wireless side. “If we want to use video, though, we run into bandwidth issues with 802.11,” Pradhan said. HP’s solution is to run the video at low resolution, for a low-bandwidth bird’s-eye view, and to then augment the video with an “indoor positioning system” made up of sensors that are adept at tracking and identifying objects at close range.

Some HP customers who work with Sentient Spaces are referred by HP’s sales team, while others simply ask whether they can come in and take a look around.

HP is showing some of the prototype technologies at an RFID Demo Center, also in Palo Alto, which opened in October.

Prototypes on display at the Demo Center include SmartLocus, a solution that combines the indoor positioning system with RFID, and Smart Rack, an application that uses thermal sensors to monitor the temperature of servers in racks.

Ultimately, these solutions might result in real applications that will let companies keep track of all the computers in a large data center, while maintaining temperatures that are neither too hot nor too cold, Pradhan said.

Meanwhile, HP also plans to develop an overlay network that will enable management and security over multiple types of sensors, despite the sometimes dramatic differences in their physical properties.

For integrated enterprise administration, the researchers want to interface the sensor overlay network to HP OpenView.

“The overlay network will have tentacles that reach out into the [individual] sensors for management—so customers won’t need to worry about what kind of [wireless] carrier they have, for instance,” Pradhan said.

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