IDF Fall 2008 - Day Zero. Health, wealth and remote controls.

Day 0 of the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, and a saki-induced hangover swiftly dissipates as I stride into the cool morning air with two laptops, a wireless router and a sense of purpose. That purpose is to shoot one of the most insanely complicated and misbegotten episodes of Dialogue Box mankind has ever dared to conceive - and more on that later.

Day 0 of the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, and a saki-induced hangover swiftly dissipates as I stride into the cool morning air with two laptops, a wireless router and a sense of purpose. That purpose is to shoot one of the most insanely complicated and misbegotten episodes of Dialogue Box mankind has ever dared to conceive - and more on that later.

Job done, I return to the fray and a two hour briefing with various Intel research bods, held in a cavernous underground hotel basement bunker so far removed from natural light that I'm sure it's where corporate America will carry on going forward after a nuclear attack.

There's not much revealed in this briefing that hasn't been aired before, but some bits trigger the skyward eyebrow. For example, the idea of "Navigating Future Moneyscapes" -- my personal moneyscape makes Swindon look interesting. And Intel is getting very excited about CVC - Connected Visual Computing, or playing with pictures on the net. Into this brand-new three letter world, Intel is packing simulated environments (games, Second Life and the like) and augmented reality, where graphics overlay real-world images. And who is Intel relying on to drag us into this brave new world, distinguished chiefly by its enormous appetite for very fast processors? Pre-teens.

Pre-teens are already there, it seems. Spending sixteen hours a week online, they're the ones who are introducing their parents to all of the above. Whether this will be reflected by Intel advertising enterprise server solutions in Jackie and the Beano, I cannot say.

Another part of the brave new world is sensors. Andrew Chien, the director of Intel Research, reiterated what the company had said last IDF in Shanghai - that sensors are essential to making technology that can integrate itself more fully with our lives, but that it's very hard work making good use of the stuff they produce.

However, there were a couple of very interesting applications - both, significantly, in digital health (which, as I keep saying, Will Be The Next Big Thing in IT. Got that? Good. Write it down). One is DermFind, an interactive search-based decision support system for melanoma detection that grabs pictures of skin lesions and queries a large medical image database to find the most similar cases on file. While it doesn't make a diagnosis, it does present a lot of pertinent information to the clinician - who is quite likely to be suspicious of a machine that claims to know more than they do. Being circumspect is good in lots of ways.

Something even more interesting was an automated stem cell monitor, This is a video camera that clips over a microscope and lets researchers follow the life cycle of stem cells en masse, identifying what sort of cell they are and how quickly and often they reproduce. I had a long chat with one of the researchers behind this - it's producing information that wasn't just hard to get before, it was impossible. The techniques behind it are similar to much video compression, in that it identifies objects in a field and then tracks them as they move, but it also spots cell birth and death. Able to track hundreds or thousands of cells automatically, it's non-invasive -- until now, the only way to find out what's going on is to use techniques that poison or kill the cells -- and has huge potential for understanding biological systems and helping produce new medicine.

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Intel's also been putting accelerometers in TV remote controls and instrumenting thirty parameters of how people use them. The idea is to find out whether ordinary items of home technology can distinguish who in the family is using them by how hard the buttons are mashed, how much shaking goes on, and so forth. So far, Intel says that it can get 85 percent recognition using naive Bayesian analysis. This might seem a bit pointless, but the company's concerned with making machines that understand you well enough to promote an emotional bond - and that means being able to identify you from any biometrics going. Either that, or Intel's well on the way to a TV remote control that's smart enough to know who's just thrown it at the telly - and why.

Likewise, there's Situational Awareness. This phrase is lifted from aviation where it means having a shrewd idea where the other bits of floating metal in your area are, in order to avoid ruining your afternoon. In Intel's hands, though, this means stuff like Mobile Wellness Management, which sounds awful. It's even worse. This is a mass of sensors that adhere to your body like alien soul-sucking seaweed and report back to HQ on your every vital sign, how many calories you're eating, how much you're moving, and so on. The test version that a hapless (and slightly adipose-disposed) Intel employee demonstrated for our pleasure turned all that into a stream of advice illustrated by an animated turtle. It said that he'd been sitting down for too long and need to get up and jog. The more the poor chap ran around the bunker, the happier the turtle was - until it decided he'd run too much and told him sternly to "Calm down, please!". "This sort of avatar could motivate you to hit your personal fitness goal," said the Intel inquistor behind the demo: yes, and it could motivate me to see how many cigars and martinis it takes to drive that bleeding turtle back into the Pacific. For your viewing entertainment, here's a little Flip video I took of the whole grim business. (If it says 'Video no longer available' then try later - YouTube is taking its time processing the thing.)

Ah, did someone say martinis? The evening beckons - and tomorrow, the show proper. See you then.

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