Intel on Monday demonstrated what may be the largest wireless ad-hoc network ever set up, as part of a discussion of its research and development efforts. Such networks, which can be formed and disbanded without any help from a systems administrator, could one day be used for applications as diverse as sensing disease, helping put out forest fires and locating children lost in the woods.
The network was made up of about 1,000 nodes, which took the form of a circuit board about the size of a 50p piece. Distributed to attendees of a keynote speech at the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose, the nodes spontaneously formed wireless connections with one another and with a hub placed on stage.
While the network -- under development at the University of California at Berkeley -- didn't have any useful purpose, others of its kind could carry out functions that would be impossible with current technology. For example, thousands of tiny network nodes -- called "motes" -- could be outfitted with simple heat sensors and dropped over a forest-fire area. They would then form a network and communicate back to a central location, giving a detailed map of the fire's spread.
Such "motes" could also be used to map the ocean floor or to locate people lost in remote locations.
The demonstration was part of a keynote speech by David Tennenhouse, Intel vice president and director of research, showing off some of the research areas into which the chip giant is investing roughly $4bn this year. Intel is looking to simplify computers and other digital devices and allow them to act without human intervention, freeing up their owners.
As part of that drive, Intel sees so-called "embedded" computers, such as the chips in PDAs, consumer electronics and appliances, gaining the ability to exchange information with each other. Ad-hoc networks are crucial to allowing diverse types of devices to link up under unpredictable circumstances.
"Essentially we are talking about pushing the Internet into every location, but also deep into all the embedded platforms in that location," Tennenhouse said. "That will mean a 100-fold growth in the Net."
Intel has, however, been accused in the past of blurring its focus on its core business of PC chips. While the company has begun to diversify into high-end servers on the one hand, with the IA-64 line of processors, and embedded chips on the other, with the Xscale platform, its revenues still mainly spring from desktop PCs.
"I'm not sure why Intel is investing in some of these things, other than that their computer processors make so much money, and they have to invest it in something. It might as well be computer technology instead of, say, biotechnology," said Peter N. Glaskowsky, an analyst with MicroDesign Resources.
He said it was difficult to see Intel processors ever making it into disposable networked devices like "motes", and noted that the nodes used in Monday's demonstration were not based on Intel chips.
Tennenhouse responded that Intel was looking to foster this important emerging area of computing, even if its own chips were not used directly. He noted that Intel has a large business in microcontrollers, which he said fetch high margins.
ZDNet UK's Matt Broersma reported from San Jose.
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