Dell's 'Project Ophelia' might be my favorite gadget at CES

The most interesting gadget at this year's Consumer Electronic Show isn't for consumers and is barely electronic. But it could very well change how people compute.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

LAS VEGAS -- To be a consumer electronic, or not to be -- that is the question, here at the International Consumer Electronics Show.

At a trade show with tens of thousands of square feet of floor space overflowing with exceedingly consumer gadgets -- pink sparkly phone covers, pocketable and share-ready cameras, headphones in every color of the rainbow -- an awful lot of pressure to shun the business market here. (And we know what happens when a company does not.)

But enterprise companies are here, lurking in the shadows, conducting business deals in bars, restaurants and hotel rooms up and down the strip. If you know where to look, you'll find some intensely interesting stuff. I found one such thing last night, and it may very well be my favorite device at CES.

Late last night, the folks at Dell Wyse -- the cloud computing subsidiary of the American electronics company -- pulled back the curtain on its latest product. It's called "Project Ophelia," after the controversial, tormented female character in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and it intends to bring computing to the masses by packing access to that capability into a thumb-sized device.

When I say computing, of course, I mean the full package. Ophelia allows you to convert almost any TV or computer monitor into a full-on computer. Simply plug it in, ensure you have a reliable Internet connection and watch as Google Android (version 4.1 "Jellybean") boots up and gives you everything from web browsing to apps to keyboard and mouse support. All that computing muscle? It's in the cloud. Ophelia is a pocketable gateway to your personal datacenter.

Thin- and zero-client computing has always promised this, of course, this outsourcing of computational capability to a rack of powerful servers somewhere else. But those devices over the years have resembled wired set-top boxes the size of ceramic bricks. They weren't the kind of thing you could throw in the breast pocket of your suit jacket.

With the pocketable, self-powered Ophelia, the cloud benefits remain the same: nothing of import is stored on the local device; it can be locked down by IT with a click, using software-as-a-service management; it's cheap enough that leaving it in a hotel room wouldn't be the worst thing in the world. (Face it, you've spent more at the bar.) Plug it into an available display, and access everything you were working on back at the office, wherever you are. For a more personal use case, access the photos, videos, music or games you have back at home. It's the next logical extension of cloud, mobility and BYOD in the workplace, and begins to refine these concepts to their conceptual end points.

One Dell executive who worked on the project said he didn't even take his work computer with him on family vacations anymore. If he needed to power up and get real work done -- not just smartphone-based e-mail management, but the whole computing hog -- he just plugged Ophelia into an available display. And really, why not take advantage of that big-screen, high-definition TV sitting in your hotel room?

There's a key point I haven't yet made: Ophelia will cost less than $100, insisted Dell Wyse GM Tarkan Maner at last night's event. (If I heard him correctly; it was awfully loud in there.) That's nice for tech professionals in developed markets, and important for cost-sensitive markets like the education sector. But it's even more critical for people in developing countries, for whom a personal laptop or smartphone is still too expensive. Ophelia is very much designed to bring connected computing to these people -- the billions who do not have smartphones or other connected devices, Maner said. The more Dell Wyse can shrink Ophelia's price point, Maner said, the better the opportunity for this underserved market. 

All this, from a plastic stick that's essentially an assemblage of ports (MHL, USB) and radios (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth).

In a brief demonstration, Dell Wyse executives played jitter-free 1080p video on a regular monitor perched on the table in a bustling Las Vegas restaurant. That kind of performance extends to video games and resource-intensive enterprise applications, too.

There is one catch: the MHL ("Mobile High-Definition Link") port standard that allows Ophelia to get power from its "host" device isn't all that prevalent -- it is simply too new, having been first introduced just four years ago. As Slashdot's Mark Hachman points out, Dell and Samsung offer the format in some of their products, but few others do.

Dell's Project Ophelia doesn't look like much. It isn't much, really. But it has just the right parts to make it a tremendously powerful enabler of computing. It's not hard to imagine everyone walking around with their own little cloud key. If you ask me, that's the most consumer electronic of all.

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