"People will buy [broadband] for the speed," Ryan said. "The key, however, is the 'always on' aspect." "Always on" refers to Internet connections that are ever present when the PC or other device is being used. Users don't have to go through complicated or time-consuming dial-up routines to connect to the Web.
Most of IAL's exciting eHome projects involve software, services or a combination, such as "immersive entertainment". Forget about just playing a game. These innovations will allow users to become an object or a character inside the game itself.
As an example of the concept, IAL demonstrated for ZDNet News a World Cup soccer game, now in development. The game creates a 3D model of an actual game based on a TV broadcast. The user can view it from any point of view inside the 3D model -- including the ball's view of the contest.
Intel is developing the game with an unnamed partner, which will likely do most of the marketing. The World Cup game is slated to be available in time for the real World Cup tournament in the first quarter of next year. The game, likely to be offered by subscription, would be delivered on the Web and later via digital television.
IAL is also tackling enhanced video broadcast technologies, which combine video and data to create interactive television.
Content-management technologies are under construction for adding background information and links to broadcasts. Intel officials said they have already delivered some content management tools to partners. These development efforts will tie in with digital TV efforts including HDTV and PCs with digital TV receiver cards that are expected to go to market later this year.
Another area of focus is electronic media distribution. The IAL is developing content protection, rights management and packaging technology that would allow premium content to be commercially distributed via download, streaming or physical media. The technology would allow distributors to control the use of their content by setting rules for viewing and protecting against unauthorised copying.
Three-dimensional graphics display technologies under consideration attempt to tackle the problem of displaying products on the Web. One format in development allows Web sites to animate photos, providing customers with a more realistic view of products.
Another 3D technology, demonstrated for ZDNet News, smooths out rough corners in graphics, making them sharper on-screen. Yet another technology, called Multiple Resolution Mesh, automatically adjusts the resolution of graphics depending on the capabilities of the user's PC's processor.
IAL is busy on the hardware front, as well. The Media Appliance is the labs' attempt to create an all-in-one set-top box. A prototype demonstrated for ZDNet News showed capabilities including that of a cable receiver, video recorder, DVD player, music jukebox and video game console. It also sported an enhanced programme guide.
"On the outside, it may look like a DVD player, but it does much more," said Paul Greer, marketing manager for IAL's content protection capability.
The device should give a whole new meaning to "channel surfing." Using it, a consumer would be able to switch between watching TV, surfing the Web, recording a program and listening to a CD. Additional features could be added to the device through software updates.
The device would include a Pentium or a StrongARM chip as well as a hard drive and remote control, which doubles as a mouse. Although Intel is a strong ally with Microsoft, this box could be powered by the Linux operating system -- Intel execs said the machine was designed to be "OS agnostic".
Intel officials would not even hint about a possible introduction date or pricing for the Media Appliance. The concept seems cooked, however. Intel would likely create, through one of its product groups, a hardware specification for the device using its own chips and an application stack, and then let other companies license and build the product.
IAL is also researching a number of new appliances including a voice-activated television guide, codenamed Ganymede. Another appliance concept, shown mounted next to a bathroom sink, would help consumers monitor health-related issues. Keeping track of medications might be one application.
When it comes to expanding home networking and linking these different devices together, the IAL is working with standards such as Universal Plug and Play (UPnP). Intel recently announced plans to release to open source a UPnP development kit for the Linux operating system.
The development kit will allow companies that use the Linux OS in their electronic devices to tap into UPnP networks. As such, a Linux-based Internet appliance could communicate with a PC or any number of other devices, including printers. Intel expects that the major Linux distributors will include UPnP support in the future. UPnP support may also find its way into white goods, such as refrigerators and washers.
IAL continues to investigate new applications for Intel chips and technology -- the eHome will not always dominate such a large portion of its effort. But what's the next big push for its researchers after the eHome strategy comes full circle?
"We don't know," Ryan said.
So IAL is casting a wide net. One area of future focus could be microelectronic machines. Those are solid-state devices that replace jobs that a machine with moving parts would normally do, such as airbag controllers for automobiles.
"We have hundreds of pure research efforts [to choose to bring into the labs]... about 200 academic research grants," Ryan said.
And as Intel sees it, any one of those could become the next big thing.
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