IBM Research has built a computer the size of a stack of index cards partially to find out how people will react when they can carry their PCs with them everywhere they go, said Ken Ocheltree, lead IBM research engineer on the Meta Pad project.
In a telephone interview from his office in Yorktown Heights, New York, Ocheltree said he believes it will be possible for computers to soon get even smaller, but today such barriers as overheating and where to put power supplies must be overcome. He said leaving out the power supplies and the I/O connectors from the computer core is one of the reasons they were able to go so small. This leaves only the processor, memory, data and applications to be housed in the box. The components taken out of the machine then become accessories.
"I think in the future it could go smaller," Ocheltree said. "We decided to cut with the technology that was available last year and run with it."
The computer, which has an 800-MHz processor and 128MB synchronous dynamic RAM, is 3 inches wide by 5 inches long and three-quarters of an inch thick. It also comes with a 10GB hard disk drive and a 3-D graphics chip with 8MB of RAM. IBM said it has no plans to market the device and is referring to it as a "radical experiment."
Ocheltree said IBM plans to build about 100 devices and then loan them to various customers in a number of different industries, such as health care, airlines and manufacturing, and see how people use them.
"When you have a full PC with you all the time, how is it going to change the way you interact with it?" Ocheltree asked. "This is one potential path for where the PC is going to go."
The next step in the process will be to tie in the work of other IBM engineers who are working on speech recognition systems. He said the IBM Speech Research Group has already tied a Palm interface to a speech program and IBM wants to take the next step and tie the speech program to the Meta Pad.
Once that is done, the Meta Pad will be shipped with both a manual and a speech application so that people can teach themselves how to move from a standard Windows environment to a speech-activated machine.
Ocheltree said one of the exciting things to him is that they have created PC boards that are the same size as PDA (personal digital assistant) boards.
Users will be expected to customize the machine to fit their needs, the company said. The device can be transformed into a handheld, desktop, laptop, tablet or wearable computer "in seconds" without having to be rebooted, according to IBM.
The machine has been designed to work as a laptop inside an IBM ThinkPad shell or to plug into a docking station to be used as an office PC. IBM said what makes the Meta Pad different from today's handhelds is that all the user's data and applications remain inside the core, eliminating the need for synching.
IBM will unveil the computer at International Data Group's DEMO conference in Phoenix next week, the company said.