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Intel's next frontier: Powering robots

Intel largely missed the mobile revolution, but the company is now looking past mobile to robots and IoT. And in the process, it's also looking more like a software company.

Intel and robots
Intel is making a major foray into robots, and we're not just talking about Google Android. Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

When I was in San Francisco for the Intel Developer Forum a few years ago, I was chatting with a fellow tech journalist who told me that he never goes to IDF.

"I'm not much of a chip nerd," he said.

I remember thinking to myself that Intel's big confab was about a lot more than the latest Intel chips to bump up the speed of PCs. In fact, I consider the event one of the best kept secrets in the industry since Intel makes a lot of the underlying pieces that other companies use to power their products--from IoT to data centers. That often makes IDF a future indicator of where the industry is moving and how it's changing.

If that still holds true, both the industry and Intel itself are about to turn an interesting corner.

In the decade since I started coming to IDF, I've never seen Intel set an agenda as ambitious as the one it rolled out at IDF 2015 on September 18-20 at Moscone West in San Francisco. Let's go down the list of the things that CEO Brian Krzanich highlighted:

- RealSense--Using 3D cameras, Intel's RealSense can enable devices to understand 3D spaces, measure distances, do 3D scans, and react to 3D gestures, for example. It's like Microsoft Kinect for computer, tablets, and smartphones, but it can do even more. It can give sight to robots like the ones from Savioke. And, Intel is bringing it to more than a dozen different platforms, from Linux to Windows to Android to OSVR.

- 3D XPoint--This new architecture aimed at dramatically increasing high performance computing is bread-and-butter Intel stuff. Krzanich called it the biggest advance in memory and storage in 25 years and said it would power breakthroughs in medical research, cloud computing, and immersive experiences (VR). It's traditional Intel territory, but still ambitious.

- Identity IQ--"Wearables can help solve the password problem," Krzanich said. Intel showed off a security bracelet called Identity IQ that uses a combination of the bracelet, cameras, and password to authenticate you. Once approach the computer and it recognizes the bracelet and your face on the camera and you enter you password, then when you walk away it automatically locks your computer and when you return it automatically unlocks it. If someone else tries to approach with your bracelet, it knows (via facial recognition) and prompts for the password.

- 'Curie' IoT chip--Krzanich showed off the company's IoT chip named for scientist Marie Curie. It's the size of fingernail and also includes an end-to-end software platform. Obviously, it's aiming to take on ARM chips in the IoT race.

- EPID--Enhanced Privacy Identification is the company's security platform for IoT. We've started hearing IoT security nightmares recently like the Jeep Cherokee hack that allowed attackers to access and control the vehicle remotely. Krzanich said that security concerns have consistently been a top issue it's heard from IoT customers. EPID is the company's approach to boost IoT security by strengthening the digital signatures that authenticate and verify the identity of people and devices.

Intel also showed off mirrors that can change the colors of the clothes you're trying on with just a gesture, smart vending machines that recognize customers and can be controlled without touching them (and spreading germs), and a smart clip for a baby's car seat that connects to a smartphone and helps keep new parents from forgetting the baby (apparently a prevalent hazard of the connected age). In partnership with Mark Burnett, Intel also announced a reality show called America's Greatest Makers that will turn geeks and innovators into TV stars.

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But, the most ambitious and interesting thing that Intel touted at IDF 2015 was robots.

"The robotics industry is on the brink of transformation," said Krzanich.

Intel missed the mobile revolution, even though it saw it coming. ARM-based chips now power virtually all of the smartphones on the planet--and most of the tablets, too. After years of fighting to get a foothold in mobile, Intel is now seemingly looking past it. The company is placing its bets on the future of IoT and robots.

IoT is going to be a tough sell because the same things that caused Intel to lose in mobile--its chips are too expensive and too power-hungry--are even more of an issue in the IoT world, where devices are often even smaller, more energy-conscious, and more price-sensitive.

However, when it comes to robots, Intel may have a fighting chance. What robots demand is raw computing power, and that's where Intel shines. Robots are also larger, more expensive, and already demand lots of power, so none of ARM's advantages over Intel chips come into play.

The other thing that Intel has going for it in robots is that it's making investments into sensors like its RealSense cameras, which are already showing up in real world products, from the Lenovo Yoga 15 and the Savioke Relay robot that's being used as a delivery assistant in hotels.

Krzanich said, "We want our devices to behave more like humans."

In the demos at IDF 2015, RealSense behaved promisingly. It made 3D scans of people and turned them into lifelike avatars. From laptops like the Leonovo Yoga, it sensed movements of people and translated it into games at a much more accurate rate than Microsoft Kinect, for example. And, it helped turn the Savioke Relay into a usable robot that's already showing up at hotels in Northern California.

So, if you want to know where Intel is going to invest its valuable time and resources in a world that doesn't need nearly as many new servers and PCs as it used to--and where the company has already lost the mobile revolution--the answer is very likely to be robots.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener: