Intel Developer Forum - Day Zero

It is September. I find myself in the bar of the Marriott in San Francisco.

It is September. I find myself in the bar of the Marriott in San Francisco. There is a drunken hack on the lash to my left, a garrulous Intel executive off the leash to my right, and a nervous PR considering career options in the background. This can mean only one thing. The Intel Developer Forum is upon us. And it's shaping up to be a rare 'un.

San Francisco is not doing very well. Many shops, fixtures in the area for the decade I've been coming to IDF, have shut down – a CompUSA is now a temporary mens' clothing end-of-line warehouse, while an erstwhile Sony outlet now sprouts a canvas notice for "Phatt Matt's Food! So good, you'll want to slap yo mama!". And the Intel executives have been evicted from their usual cut-above hotel and are slumming it with us. Fantastic – even if I can't reveal which keynote regular unwisely told Mike Magee about the DIP 10pm Internet traffic peak. DIP? Drink Induced Pornography. "Don't quote me," said the off-message exec. "And if you do, blame it on Mooly Eden."

I'll leave that call to Magee.

Day 0, the Monday before the Tuesday kick-off, normally sees intensive pre-show briefings, tech workshops and so on. This time, there's been almost nothing. A mobility "sneak peak" party had a small collection of laptops and mobile Internet devices – and a solitary drink per attendee. The highlight of the evening was a design showcase in the basement of the Marriott, where various Intel-sponsored student ideas were being shown off as concept models. Some were ho-hum augmented reality or location-based services, but four stood out as being very good, very bad or just very bizarre.

Let's start off with the very bad: Eio.

A monstrous misshapen toy cow stuffed with sensors and displays, designed to relay your young child's experiences and hugs to you when you're out working, and to let you respond somewhat in kind. "A real life imaginary friend that invites parents to experience their child's world", according to the leaflet. The designer billed it as a way to avoid having to miss out on all those special moments when your kid does something for the first time; I can't help but see it as something that'd do quite the opposite, amplifying the distance. And what it'd do to a young un's psyche... the designer, 21, has not had children. But he has spoken to people who have. Hm.

Along the same lines was a helmet with a big LCD screen where your face would normally be.

You wear this thing and press a few buttons, and the screen relays to the world your emotional state by producing ultra-simplistic smiley-like pictures. I was so bemused by the futility of this that I failed to record the name of the idea or of its designer.

The most bizarre concept by a mile were the Nuisance Machines. Now, it has been said that Intel has produced a few of those in its time, but none as unwaveringly bonkers as these two.

One is a modified lightbulb that waits until someone walks underneath it before releasing a small dribble of red die; the other is a floor-mounted motor with a long wire baton attached. If you walk past it, it administers a sharp caning to your ankle region. But why? The inventor, a tall, long-haired blond Brit called rather delightfully Andrew Friend, said it was to bring groups of people together through shared unpleasant experiences, and inspire conversations – but he refused to rule out the theory that it was just him finding ways to annoy people.

Finally, a great idea called Punch.

This is a digital camera that produces physical pictures – but needs no batteries or ink and can work on any bits of paper you have lying around. The digital image capture bit is bog standard: however, when you want to print something out, you feed your paper into a slot and then crank it through with a manual winder. This also turns a shaft on which rows of five different sizes of tiny hole punch are mounted. By varying the punch size, the camera prints darker or lighter regions just by the size of the tiny holes, and the winding action also recharges the batteries. No consumables, no power source, nothing else needed. The output is low resolution but with a charm of its own: I'd buy one tomorrow.

Ah yes, tomorrow. HP has a breakfast briefing at 7:30, and as HP normally does is telling us nothing about whether it's worth attending or not. However, the company was most insistent that we RSVP – although why we needed to bother, as we're a captive audience with a need for breakfast, isn't clear. I did RSVP anyway, being a dutiful chap, and got an immediate reply from the PR flagged as our point of contact. Or rather, her email system sent me a reply, saying that she herself was out of the office and would attend to my missive on her return – after IDF.

It's going to be one of those shows. Goodie.