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Intel aims for PC-style position in drones, robots and wearables

Can't win with PCs... that's clear

CES 2016 The need to control not just the processor itself, but the whole surrounding software and connectivity platform, was very clear in Intel’s launches and keynotes a last week's Consumer Electronics Show.

While the PC and smartphone processors or SoCs have been premium products, in semiconductor terms, in the IoT the hardware will be very commoditised, with the exception of a few very specialised components. This change in pattern has seen ARM creating its broad mBed OS and TrustZone ecosystems, and Intel making similar moves to offer a top-to-bottom stack, from silicon to connectivity, security to APIs (application programming interfaces).

Intel is moving well beyond processors in its IoT roadmap, as CEO Brian Krzanich made clear in his CES keynote, which focused heavily on full ecosystems in key areas of consumer IoT, notably fitness and gaming.

Intel’s drone investments

At the same time, the giant is pushing its chip technology into new products. Last year, it acquired several smart eyewear startups, and in the same week as CES it announced the purchase of German drone maker Ascending Technologies.

In August, Intel invested $60m in Chinese drone maker Yuneec Holding and took an undisclosed stake in Airware of San Francisco. It already had a partnership with Ascending and has now acquired the whole company. In a blog post Josh Walden, general manager of the giant’s New Technology Group, said the deal would bring expertise and technology to accelerate the deployment of RealSense in the drone market.

“We plan for the Ascending Technologies team to continue supporting their current customers while also collaborating with Intel’s Perceptual Computing team to develop UAV technology that can help drones fly with more awareness of their environments,” he wrote. Intel claims its developments will help "drones fly with more awareness of their environments" and so avoid collisions.

Other deals with makers of various IoT gadgets are sure to follow, not because Intel wants to become a vendor of consumer devices, but because it wants to power all those devices with its chips, security and software. That means getting its hands on actual products, to achieve an IPR position and a deep understanding of the technology, and to create the kind of showcase offerings which can help to endorse and kickstart a commercial market.

The importance of RealSense

Krzanich focused on three core technologies which he believes will shape the IoT and the whole experience of digital life. These are smart connectivity to virtually every object; digital devices with human-like senses; and "ultra-personal" computing, with every experience completely personalized and context-aware. Intel is developing a series of technologies which it claims will deliver these three, among the most important being the RealSense 3D camera and the Curie wearables processor.

This being CES, Krzanich demonstrated his points with various prototype gadgets, including a Segway hoverboard (on which he came on stage) which transformed itself into a personal robot in the smart home. That indicated how platforms may develop with multiple functions, making them potentially as indispensable to all aspects of life as the increasingly multi-purpose smartphone has become. The robot features voice recognition and Intel’s highly strategic RealSense 3D camera and augmented reality software, and finds its way around obstacles using RealSense streaming video.

This particular robot was designed by Xiaomi’s Ninebot division, but the aim is to create an open platform. In the second half of this year, it will be released as an open development system, to encourage new applications and uses – and put an Intel technology at the heart of a “new ecosystem, one where robots can actually be open platforms and become useful partners”, as Krzanich put it.

RealSense 3D also appeared in an Intel-powered drone, even ahead of the Ascending Technologies announcement. The result of its Yuneec alliance, the Typhoon H is a commercial drone with collapsible propellers, a 4K camera, and a controller with a real time display. And the technology was also demonstrated in the Daqri Smart Helmet, a virtual reality headset which shares some qualities with Microsoft’s HoloLens.

These examples show Intel’s quest to make computers more human-like, and RealSense is at the heart of this attempt to reshape the digital experience. It is the centerpiece of Intel’s significant investment in gesture control, combining an image processor with a tiny 3D camera/scanner, to support immersive user experiences, advanced authentication, and new applications. Like the human brain, says Intel, RealSense perceives the world by projecting images from two eyes onto a 3D stereoscopic map. Last year, the company took the important step of squeezing the technology into a smartphone module, opening the way for a far wider range of applications.

At the Intel Developer Forum last autumn, Intel demonstrated a number of projects that involved robots navigating the environment using the depth-perceptive image processing technology. It also announced RealSense support for a number of new environments including Robot Operating System (ROS), Linux, Scratch, CSplit, OBS, Structure SDK for iOS, Razer’s OSVR and Unreal Engine 4.

Razer has already announced a RealSense webcam, aimed at gamers who want to take advantage of RealSense’s ability to ignore the background content and just focus on inserting the player into the streamed video – though that technology will find a far more mainstream use in something like Skype.

Curie in smart clothing and fitness

Another important CES focus for Intel was health and fitness, and it continued to demonstrate its interest in the so far disappointing smart eyewear and smartwatch segments. It showed off Radar Pace, a pair of connected sunglasses developed with Oakley, which incorporate a voice-activated coaching system to provide real time progress updates and feedback. This is part of a broader alliance, announced last year, with Italian eyewear giant Luxottica Group. And Intel also announced a smartwatch, to be co-developed with athletic clothing company New Balance.

In these kind of gadgets, Curie is Intel’s core offering. It belongs to the emerging category of wearables processing units (WPUs), also touted by Samsung, and seen as a key target for Imagination’s MIPS architecture as well as for ARM and x86. Curie will ship during this quarter, priced at less than $10, and Intel has announced various partnerships, including one with Red Bull Media to integrate the WPU into sports gear and TV broadcasts; and another with fashion label Chromat, to create Curie-powered clothing which can respond to a wearer's adrenaline levels.

While there is a clear need to reduce reliance on traditional product categories, there is also the risk that Intel – whose efforts to diversify in the past have often been failures – will spread itself too thinly. But Krzanich believes he is creating a whole new culture, not just a new set of chips, and that new directions are essential to keep engineers’ creative juices flowing, and stop them defecting to ARM-based alternatives. “We’d lost touch with the community that was going to be the next people who invent the next great machine that we all use and love,” he said last month at an investor conference.

Copyright © 2016, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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