Nat-Semi inventor discusses Origami brainchild

National Semiconductor Corp.'s brightly colored "concept" PDA (personal digital assistant), dubbed Origami, drew steady interest here at Comdex 2001, as attendees folded and twisted it into a range of devices.

A team at the chip-builder feverishly designed and built the Origami prototypes over the last months in an effort to showcase the company's Geode line of processors. The Geode is widely used by laptop and device makers such as 3Com Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Nokia Corp. and L.M. Ericsson Telephone Co.

The device, when folded down, is a 1.3-in.-thick rectangle measuring 7.6- by 3.8-inches. Its cases come in jewel-like reds, greens and blues, chased with brushed aluminum. The device incorporates a digital camera and digital camcorder, and it can work as either of those, as well as a videoconferencing terminal, e-mail device, smart phone and others. It can run any operating system compatible with the X86 chip standard, including Windows 98 and Linux. As Origami's components are unfolded or twisted, special magnets detect which "mode" the user is creating, and the device then brings up the appropriate software.

The Origami, along with many other similar ideas, is the brainchild of Stephen Matson, group manager of concept products for National Semiconductor's Information Appliance Group. His job for the last six years has been to think up these kinds of gadgets. One, the Web Pad, which won Best of Show at Comdex in 1998 and has had some commercial success, is a table computer that uses a pen or stylus instead of a mouse. Each year, Matson submits a list, which has numbered 17 for the last few years for no reason that he can discern, to senior managers who greenlight the ones they like.

Origami started as a kind of non-idea. "This is the 21st century. We have video, but I don't see video everywhere," Matson says. From there, it grew into what Matson calls a multi-function device, which he sees as similar to the general-purpose platform of the personal computer.

He readily admits that inevitably, there are trade-offs in a multifunction device. "It's a 1 megapixel digital camera, not a 5 megapixel," he says. "You can do 15 minutes of video, not 2 hours."

"It's not the best at each of these functions [compared to specialized devices], but it can do things the others can't," he says. The issue of whether corporate users want several specialized devices or one general-purpose unit is still to be decided, he agrees.

Hefting the 10-ounce device in his hand, Matson says that by the time assembly ended, he'd already figured out how to cut the thickness of the next Origami by 25 percent and to eliminate the bulge of the battery pack.

The battery itself is another National Semiconductor advance. Using lithium technology, the battery can be shaped to fit the form factor of the device itself, according to Matson.

The decreasing size of components and increasing processor power have already given him ideas for new Origami versions. One is a personal communications gateway: unfold and twist Origami to work as an 802.11b client or access point, a Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) device, a Bluetooth device and so on.

The next item on Matson's agenda is less cerebral: getting some sleep. "I've been awake for the last 60 hours," he says.

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