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Intel strives toward 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 your memory needs a nudge, you may someday be able to wear a device the size of a brooch or a Bluetooth earpiece to record your daily activities and conversations. Then days or years later you can get a digital reminder of that important meeting or particularly beautiful sunset.

Intel evangelist Manny Vara, in an interview Monday, said wearable computers may be two to five years away. Unlike some early attempts that were too bulky, these 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 your 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.

To get there, Intel is working on 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, or even 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 milli-watt range," said Vara. "These are being explored."

To help reduce the size and the power of these small chips, Vara said they probably would not have the instruction set normally found in a microprocessor.

"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, 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. That means the device would need a high-capacity battery. It would also have to feed any recorded information to a flash memory device that you keep in your pocket, for example.

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, camera, GPS sensors and a display screen.

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

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with 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 Intel has much of its business, has been weakened by a sluggish economy and the burgeoning tablet market. 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 wearable computers that record a user's activities or conversation would need privacy and security features that protect both the user and the people he encounters.

For instance, users could carry a small jamming device so when they approach someone who might be able to record them with a wearable computer, the device would run interference.

"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, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is [email protected].

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.


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