Intel strives to develop tiny chips to run wearable computers

Chip maker is 'exploring' chips half the size of its Atom processor

BARCELONA -- Is your memory as sharp as it used to be?

If you sometimes need a nudge to remember things, that nudge might someday come from a wearable device the size of a brooch or a Bluetooth earpiece that records your daily activities and conversations. If you can't remember what happened on a particular date a few weeks or even several years earlier, the device would be able to give you a digital reminder of an important meeting or a particularly beautiful sunset.

Intel evangelist Manny Vara, in an interview Monday, said wearable computers could be two to five years away. Unlike some early models that were too bulky, the devices Vara envisions would be small, light and convenient.

Intel is working on creating the tiny microprocessors that would power these devices.

"These will be wearable computers that are very small and unobtrusive," Vara told Computerworld during Intel's European Research and Innovation Conference. "Imagine wearing something that would tell you, before you shake someone's hand, that she's Mary and it will tell you where you met her last. I would like that. That would help me."

Vara said he has seen early versions of wearable computers that were the size of the palm of a person's hand and had a thick cable leading to a large memory device that had to be lugged around.

"The concept worked, but you'd never wear it because it would be ridiculous," he added. The devices that he is talking about would be much smaller and lighter.

In an effort to help make such devices a reality, Intel is working to develop computer chips that would be smaller than the company's low-voltage Atom processors, which power mobile phones and tablets. According to Vara, the chips could be less than half the size, or perhaps less than a quarter of the size, of an Atom chip.

"With Atom, we're talking about 1 or 2 or 3 watts. With these, it would be in the milliwatt range," said Vara. "These are being explored."

As a way to minimize the size and power requirements of these next-generation chips, Intel probably will forgo the instruction set normally found today's microprocessors, said Vara.

"Potentially, it could have graphics built in," he said. "Right now, it's early in the game so we're looking at what makes sense to put in there. You'd want to have some memory built in and maybe some graphics, because you'd want to have one chip ... maybe two chips, but size-wise you want to keep it small."

Other challenges are memory and batteries.

A chip in a wearable device wouldn't have enough memory to record what you do all day. Therefore, it would probably have to feed any recorded information to a flash memory device that the user would keep in his pocket, for example. The device would also need a high-capacity battery.

Last summer, Google made a splash with its Google Glass computerized eyeglasses, at its Google I/O developers conference. The Android-powered eyeglasses are equipped with a processor, memory, a camera, GPS sensors and a display screen.

According to industry analysts, in the not-so-distant future, computers will be worn, possibly incorporated into a pair of glasses or a piece of jewelry, such as a bracelet or a pendant.

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at ZK Research, said trying to get in on the wearable computer market before it takes off is a smart move for Intel.

The company has struggled in recent months as the PC market, where it collects much of its revenue, has been weakened by a sluggish economy and by competition from the burgeoning tablet business. Getting in on a new wave of technology would be a step in the right direction, Kerravala said.

"PCs have virtually no growth right now," Kerravala said. "The only way Intel can grow is to find other uses for its chips.... Think of all that is possible here."

Vara said the advent wearable computers that record people's activities and conversations would likely necessitate the development of privacy and security technologies to protect users of such devices -- and the people they encounter.

For instance, individuals who prefer that their activities remain private might be interested in carrying small jamming devices that could stop other people's wearable computers from recording.

"I think one of the things we really need to do is be very conscientious about the fact that people like their privacy," Vara said. "People would like this, and they'd be eager to use it, but some people aren't going to want to be videotaped.... That's a really important thing to figure out before letting loose some of these things in the market."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or on Google+, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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