Intel makes more than processors, and members of the Intel Labs research and development team are eager to show off the likes of vision-equipped computers to ultrasonic pens.
Gesture recognition is one area of the Labs' focus, says David Tennenhouse, vice president and director of research, speaking at the Intel Developer Forum here this week. Using a standard Intel USB desktop camera and special software, Intel engineers communicated with their PC by hand and body motions.
In one demonstration, a person waved his arms and was mimicked by an on-screen avatar. In another - a crude game of Simon says - the PC dictated motions and recognized whether the person repeated them correctly.
Now, the technology is better suited to games and fun, says Cory Cox, capability manager for immersive toys and games. The prototype software/camera combination just isn't sensitive enough for everyday use, and people would get too irritated trying to use it for regular PC chores, he says.
Also on display was a voice portal, created by Intel's China Research Lab. Dial into the auto attendant and you can access email, stocks, and other information by voice command. The system requires no training and is over 95 per cent accurate in its native tongue - Chinese, says Shu-ling Garver, marketing manager. It also works in English.
Intel has no immediate plans to market a gesture recognition product or a voice portal. But its research aids the company in another important way: Both depend on powerful processors to do the job well, and Intel just happens to sell processors.
Some Intel Labs projects result in actual products. A pen that can write on paper and can capture and display your strokes on screen using ultrasonic technology and a special receiver will one day evolve into a product from a company named ePen, although Intel spokespeople couldn't reveal details.
Another lab project that's made it to the real world is a Web-based application designed specifically for seniors. It makes it simple to use a desktop digital camera to upload and share photos and video on the Web.
Designed from research gathered by ethnographers who studied how older users approach PCs and the Web, the project is licensed to POPcast, says David Whitlinger, technical marketing manager. POPcast in turn licenses it to several other companies, including Earthcam.com.
Tennenhouse estimates Intel will spend about US$3 billion on research and development this year, in 45 labs around the world. He expects the pace to continue. Good thing, because the labs have some big ideas.
In addition to the handful of projects on display, the researchers are focusing on ways to make computation "so ubiquitous and convenient that people reach for it as reflexively as a light switch," Tennenhouse says. Today's PCs are stuck in a human-centered phase that requires us to spend too much time fiddling with them. Future computing should be human supervised, not human centered, he says. That distinction will become key as we go from a few computing devices to hundreds of small networked computers per person.