It's a little much to expect a hologram to come out of your office printer, but scientists at Xerox think they have the next best thing.
On Thursday, the company is unveiling a new technology it calls "Glossmark," which can use ordinary office printers to superimpose a glossy image on an ordinary printed document in a way that can't be photocopied or otherwise easily reproduced.
Taking advantage of eccentricities in laser printing processes, once viewed as flaws, the Xerox scientists think they've found a way to authenticate hard copies of printed documents in much the same way that holographic stickers prove the validity of credit cards and drivers licences.
"This does speak to something that is going to need to be addressed to ensure hard-copy security," said Dan Corsetti, an industry analyst with research firm IDC, who saw a demonstration several months ago. "There really is no reliable or affordable way of securing the content on hard-content documents, apart from putting it in a vault and locking it up."
The new Xerox process, while still a long way from market, points up a persistent demon that has dogged the technology industry's longstanding efforts to secure digital content, whether it be corporate documents or copyrighted movies and music.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on efforts to encrypt or otherwise protect content against people who might make perfect digital copies with a computer or other device. But little of this technology has been able to do anything about decidedly easy methods of reproduction such as photocopying a hard copy of a document, or taping a song as it comes out of a stereo's speakers.
In Xerox's case, the Glossmark procedure came about almost wholly as an accident.
Lab researchers had long been aware of an issue with some printers producing glossy areas in a printout, which would reflect light a little more strongly than the surrounding area. The phenomenon was an artifact of the printing process, in which plastic-like toner was melted onto the paper.
Studying a way to reduce the so-called differential gloss, researchers discovered that they could actually manipulate it, controlling where the glossy areas appeared in a printed document.
"They came back and said, 'We don't know if we can reduce it, but we sure can enhance it,'" said Rob Rolleston, the laboratory manager overseeing the Xerox husband-and-wife team that worked on the process. "They said, 'Wow, we really can control this much more than we thought we could.'"
The team worked with ways to send glossy images to ordinary colour office printers and before long had figured out a way to create a consistent pattern with the glossy areas. The embedded glossy image was invisible when the document was examined straight on, but would appear, hologram-like, when held at the right angle to the light, they found.
The technology isn't poised to find its way immediately into products for Xerox, which is struggling to fend off increasing competition from rivals such as Ikon and Canon in its core markets. Nor is the company wholly convinced that the discovery will add up to a new security technology.
The ability to make shiny images appear inside of printed documents could also be used in greeting cards or for artistic purposes, Mr. Rolleston said. The company ultimately will have to decide--if it is intended to be a security-enhancing process aimed at authenticating documents, having the technology widely available to would-be document forgers would be a problem, Mr. Rolleston said.
Analysts are pleased that the company is thinking about the issue - even if only by accident.
"Document security is a leading concern among IT users," IDC's Mr. Corsetti said. "The hard copy has always been the weak link in the security chain."