Intel Branches Out Into Wearable Tech, Under Israeli Leadership

Intel officials say the death of the PC has been greatly exaggerated, but even so the chip maker is increasingly exploring new opportunities in the mobile and smart clothing fields.

Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert
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The 'Synapse' mind-controlled dress powered by Intel Edison and created by Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht, at the Intel Developer Forum, September 2014.
The 'Synapse' mind-controlled dress powered by Intel Edison and created by Dutch designer Anouk Wipprecht, at the Intel Developer Forum, September 2014. Credit: Intel
Omer Shubert
Omer Shubert

Semiconductor chip giant Intel announced in November 2013 that, for the first time in its history, it was having difficulty meeting the requirements of Moore’s Law. This law, which Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore first described in 1965, states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles every two years, as does their processing power. This announcement by Intel – whose main field is developing and manufacturing processors – led to a drop of more than 5% in the value of its shares.

Yet despite that announcement, which meant a decrease in the frequency at which new processors enter the market, Moore’s Law is still with us, at least for now. This month, Intel launched its Core M processors, which allow for longer battery life (eight hours of video viewing). A week later it announced the next generation Skylake processors, which will improve capabilities even further when they reach the market in the second half of 2015.

Realizing that Moore’s Law would not be around forever, Intel’s officials have been trying to move in new directions. The company’s annual developers’ conference, which was held last week in San Francisco, provided a peek at the significant changes the company has made over the past year. From manufacturing chips and processors, its focus is expanding to newer and less traditional fields.

Alongside the announcement about the new processor series, Intel showed new products in the mobile field, such as the world’s thinnest tablet – produced in cooperation with Dell; wearable technology (a smart bracelet, earphones that monitor heartbeat and a shirt that reacts to emotions) and the Internet of Things (from a wheelchair with an online connection to a smart beer keg).

“It’s become more and more difficult, but Moore’s Law is still around, even if people are saying it will be over very soon,” says Shlomit Weiss, the Intel vice president who led the Skylake project (which was developed in Israel).

Although Weiss – who has been working at Intel for more than 20 years – went to the conference to present the company’s new baby, not even she could ignore the change in the company.

“These are things that Intel would never have done before, and it’s only when you come to an event like this that you suddenly see what’s happening on all the fronts. Today we’re looking at things in a broader way and taking our abilities to the end-users,” she says.

The Dell Venue 8 7000 Series with Intel RealSense™ snapshot, the world's thinnest tablet. Photo by Intel

Moore’s law obsolete?

Can we continue to trust Moore’s Law?

“There is still room for a lot of innovation in processors. There’s a lot of innovation in the manufacturing process, which allows us to improve performance and reduce the energy output that the processor consumes. Many times, innovation happens precisely when we think we’ve reached the edge, and then we decide to try other options. Even though the process has become more difficult and the manufacturing times are getting longer because it’s become more complex, innovation happens all the time. I don’t think it will be over in two more years. In the short term, we’re continuing with the innovation in various directions. I can’t say it won’t be over in another 20 years, but it’s not happening now.”

One innovation of the Skylake processors, which are for desktop computers and tablets, is that they are completely wireless; they need no wires or cables. The computers will be powered wirelessly by a charger concealed under the desk, and the connection to various screens – together with the transmission of data – will be possible without any physical connection.

Other wireless capabilities were presented at Intel’s developers’ conference, including a wireless smart bowl in which devices, particularly wearable ones, can be placed for charging with no physical connection to a charger. Intel’s new WiGig docking technology, which is responsible for the wireless capabilities, was also developed in Israel.

The Internet-connected wheelchair was created using the Intel Galileo Development kit and Intel Gateway Solutions for IoT. Photo by Intel

One reason for Intel’s entry into the new fields is the traditional PC’s decline in status. Intel officials refuse to pronounce the PC dead – certainly not when most of its profits still come from the sale of processors for computers, and the second quarter of this year showed an increase in laptop sales. They cite predictions by large research companies, such as IDC and Gartner, which forecast a recovery in the PC market, so Intel officials believe the future belongs to the combination laptop/tablet devices.

Still, about a year ago Intel established its New Devices Group, headed by Michael A. Bell (formerly an executive at Apple and at Palm). The NDG’s role is to develop technologies in the fields of wearable tech and mobile devices.

Intel’s officials adopted a different approach to the field. Unlike Apple and Google, which are developing products themselves, Intel’s officials prefer to make connections with fashion and design companies and make their products smart, based on the realization that people prefer to wear known fashion brands, not Intel.

The highest-ranking Israeli in the NDG, Ronen Soffer, is working with his team in Herzliya to develop some of the software for the wearable product line. In a tour of the wearable tech devices at the developers’ conference, he presents a stylish bracelet for women called MICA, which was developed together with the Opening Ceremony fashion company, and its always-listening smart earpiece, Jarvis, which monitors heart rate during physical activity.

“We will be launching these two products in the coming months, but this is just the start,” Soffer says. “We announced that we would be cooperating creatively with the Fossil watch company, and launching an interesting product with them, too.

“We don’t want to make gadgets. Instead, we want to take products that people wear and make them more useful. We won’t manufacture the products with the longest list of features. On the contrary – we just want the things that are the most relevant and useful. Our assumption is that people will replace smart clothing items in the same way they replace jewelry and fashion accessories.”

Fashion accessory?

The market is flooded with wearable products, but it’s impossible to say that something has become a fashion accessory.

“I also think that there will be an ‘iPhone of wearable tech.’ This field hasn’t been cracked yet. Most of the products, such as in the fitness field, are not stylish. You ask yourself why you need to wear them when you’re not working out. We realized that if people were going to wear a smart ring, it couldn’t be an ugly ring. We will clean up the bracelet or the eyeglasses that you like, and add smart capabilities to them.”

Maybe people don’t want computers on their eyes or their rings.

“Mobile telephones have reached their optimal size. Still, the relevance of the information they provide is only increasing, and we’re using them more. People do want something that is going to be closer to them – closer in the physical sense, too – so we’ll use less motor energy, and also in terms of sensors, so that they’ll understand and recognize us more.

“Products don’t need to be synced anymore thanks to the Cloud. They’ll talk to each other. When you take off the smart bracelet and put on the smart earpiece, they’ll know on their own that you’re going jogging. When you put the bracelet in the charging bowl, it will realize you’re at home and connect whatever’s necessary for the smart home or the connected car. Good technology doesn’t change people; it allows them to do more things with less energy. That’s the way it’s been from the invention of the wheel to the invention of the smartphone. That’s what we want to do.”

Intel Vice President Shlomit Weiss.Credit: Intel

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