IDF 2012: Intel shows the future of wireless

In the future everything that computes will connect, Intel CTO Justin Rattner said during his closing keynote at the Intel Developer Forum. He unveiled a series of technologies from the company's lab designed to connect these devices wirelessly.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Intel CTO Justin Rattner said he has learned not to make predictions about technology. But he said it's clear that in the future everything that computes will connect. In his keynote, on the last day of the Intel Developer Forum, Rattner unveiled a series of technologies from the company's research lab designed to connect all sorts of devices wirelessly.

Rosepoint: The "Moore's Law Radio"

A decade ago, at Spring IDF 2002, Intel's Pat Gelsinger envisioned a "Radio Free Intel" where all chips would include integrated communications. "It was more of a fantasy at that point," Rattner said. "It has taken us 10 years but we think we did it."

Intel's Rosepoint is a test chip, manufactured on Intel's 32nm process, that combines a dual-core Atom with a Wi-Fi transceiver (transmitter and receiver) on the same silicon chip. Intel first presented Rosepoint at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference back in February (Wired posted one of the first stories on Rosepoint), but this is the first time Intel has demonstrated the digital radio for a broad audience.

Although many mobile processors have digital basebands, the RF transceivers still consist of analog components. Digital circuits get smaller (and usually run faster and use less power) with each new generation of process technology. But analog circuits don't follow Moore's Law; in fact, the performance gets worse with scaling. Wi-Fi radios are typically on a separate connectivity chip, often combined with other radios such as Bluetooth and FM.

To put everything on the same chip, Intel first had to "rethink the radio." Yorgos Palaskas, from Intel's Radio Integration Lab, talked about the development of new digital blocks such as the frequency synthesizer, phase modulator and power amplifier. The result was what Intel called the "Moore's Law Radio," a 32nm digital Wi-Fi radio that, Rattner said, is power-efficient and delivers better performance as it scales. Palaskas demonstrated the digital transmitter and receiver, connected to FPGAs, streaming video over 802.11g.

Justin Rattner IDF 2012

Of course a digital radio is only useful if it can be integrated onto a chip with other components. Intel has come up with techniques to mitigate the interference between the RF transceiver and CPU cores, enabling it to combine the WiFi radio with the Atom cores in Rosepoint. Rattner held up a 300mm wafer containing hundreds of Rosepoint test chips. He did not say when Intel might start shipping processors with integrated radios, but at one point he mentioned the 10nm generation, and previous reports have stated the technology could appear in the middle of the decade, which would be around the time Intel should introduce that process node.

This is different from integrating 3G or 4G technology, part of Intel's acquisition of Infineon, onto Atom SoCs for smartphones and tablets. In that case Intel is talking about the baseband processors, which are already digital. Intel is also working on this in order to compete with companies such as Qualcomm, which already have integrated basebands, but it is less technologically challenging than integrating RF components.

Getting rid of the wires

WiGig, or Wireless Gigabit, is an emerging standard designed not only for Internet access, but also for wireless sync, wireless docking and wireless displays. Unlike Wi-Fi, which operates at 2.4GHz and 5GHz where there is a lot of interference, WiGig uses 60GHz so it is better-suited for demanding applications such as video streaming or file synchronization (it is also backwards-compatible with Wi-Fi). Ali Sadri, an Intel executive and head of the WiGig Alliance, said the industry has been working on WiGig since 2009 and "it's very close to a reality." After some minor glitches, he gave a demonstration of video streaming from an external hard drive through an Ultrabook to an external monitor--all wirelessly. Sadri said the certification program will begin in mid-2013 and the first products will ship later next year.

Spring Meadow: Smarter Smart Connect Technology

Intel's Smart Connect Technology is a shipping product (Rattner showed a Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook that already has this technology). The technology makes Ultrabooks behave like always-on smartphones and tablets, but it isn't very efficient, so Intel Labs is working on a better version. Charlie Tai, an engineer at Intel Labs, demonstrated a Spring Meadow prototype that analyzes incoming network traffic and removes anything that isn't necessary, or can wait until later, to reduce power and CPU utilization. Tai said there is no performance--Spring Meadow can download files in the same amount of time as a current Ultrabook--but it uses about half the CPU power.

Improvements to video streaming

Wireless networks have lots of room for improvement when it comes to video streaming. Chris Neisinger, who is in charge of network planning at Verizon Wireless, and Jeff Foerster, an Intel Labs engineer, talked about a university research program called Video Aware Wireless Networks (VAWN) to deliver high-quality video streams to more users over constrained wireless networks. Neisinger said the wireless companies have lots of tools to optimize their networks for voice quality, but are behind the curve on the tools for handling video traffic. Foerster showed side-by-side demonstration of streaming video on tablets with and without this VAWN technology.

A better solution for passwords

Multiple passwords for different online sites and services is a universal problem. But few people use fingerprint readers because they are unreliable, so Intel Labs has been developing an alternative biometric solution. Sridhar Iyengar, Director of Security Research at the lab, gave a demonstration of a tablet with a sensor attached to the side. When he waved his hand in front of the sensor, the tablet recognized him and it was then able to pass this authentication information on to other services, such as online banking, eliminating the need for usernames and passwords. The device also uses an accelerometer, so when it is set down momentarily it automatically locks. Intel's approach uses open standards, such as OpenID, but service providers would still need to modify their sites to support it and hardware companies would have to integrate the sensors, so it is unclear when (or if) this technology might be implemented.

Better wireless infrastructure

China Mobile, the worlds' largest wireless carrier, has nearly a million 3G basestations, but that still isn't enough to support its 688 million subscribers. The company recently announced plans to roll out 4G LTE including 20,000 basestations this year, 200,000 next year and 350,000 by the end of 2014. Dr. Chih-Lin I, Chief Scientist at China Mobile Research Institute, said at this growth rate the company needs to come up with ways to make the radio access network (RAN) more cost-effective and power-efficient.

The company has been working with Intel on a so-called C-RAN (Cloud Radio Access Networks) using software-designed radios running on standard Xeon servers. Last year the companies demonstrated the first LTE basestation running on a 2nd generation Core (Sandy Bridge) processor. This year China Mobile demonstrated multiple basestations running on a single server with two Intel Core i7 processors. When the load increases at peak times, to 10 or 11 mobile devices, the systems can shift some of the load from one CPU to another; at times when the load isn't high, such as the middle of the night, it can put all of the work on a single CPU and shut the other serer down to save power. Intel says its C-RAN not only uses less power, but also reduces equipment and operating costs. In the future, China Mobile hopes to be able to support 100 basestations on a single server. Obviously this isn't an end-user technology, but it is a promising way of using standard PC hardware and software to make wireless networks better for everyone.

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