Intel: Late for Mobile, but Won't Miss Wearables

The chipmaker showcases new innovations to power robots, cars and watches.

Intel's "Jimmy the Robot" uses cameras to respond to its environment and will soon be available for customers to recreate on 3-D printers.

Intel's "Jimmy the Robot" uses cameras to respond to its environment and will soon be available for customers to recreate on 3-D printers.

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Intel Corp. was one of the founders of Silicon Valley, having started in 1968, but in recent years it's arrived late to the tablet and mobile revolutions that made fortunes for younger rivals Google and Apple. Now, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich appears determined not to miss out when it comes to the growing ecosystem of devices that connect to the Internet.

After taking control of the company in May of 2013, Krzanich steered the chipmaker to expand investment in connected cars, 3-D imaging, facial recognition robots, smart watches and even a bowl to wirelessly charge such wearables. Intel on Wednesday also announced a joint research project with Ford Motor Co. to enhance the digital experience in vehicles. The announcement of the partnership, called Project Mobii, occurred the same day as Google unveiled its Android Auto software for cars, highlighting Intel’s renewed pace of innovation to match Silicon Valley’s new entrants.

Some of the chipmaker’s new innovations won’t be on the market until at least the end of 2014, but U.S. News got a sneak peek during a showcase Thursday in the nation's capital. Apple and Google are designing products in some of the same areas, but Intel sees such companies as “partners” that can use its technology, says Tom Foldesi, senior director of Intel’s New Devices Group.

[READ: Google Android System Hits Cars, TV, Wearables]

“Our corporate philosophy is if a device computes or connects, it runs best on Intel, whether it’s on the server space, the PC space, the Internet of things or mobile and wearable,” Foldesi says.

Richard Libby shows off Intel's vision of a car that syncs with devices and responds to a driver's needs.
Richard Libby shows off Intel's vision of a car that syncs with devices and responds to a driver's needs.

Cars that connect with devices are meeting a demand from younger customers who want to take the Internet with them on the road. Intel is trying to develop technology for vehicles that can sync with devices and predict the needs of drivers, while keeping its designs adaptable to automakers whether they are using software from Google, Apple or Microsoft, says Intel technology evangelist Richard Libby.

“We want to stay agnostic in the operating system world,” Libby says about the company’s smart car ambitions.

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Krzanich turned heads in January during the Consumer Electronics Show when he debuted prototypes like Intel’s bowl that wirelessly charges devices such as phones and smart watches. The bowl can charge multiple devices within its magnetic field, but there are no compatible offerings on the market yet.

Starbucks plans to roll out wireless charging pads at its cafes, but that technology is an inductive type of charger, similar to the charging stand of an electric toothbrush. Intel’s wireless bowl, meanwhile, uses a resin to charge devices, and the company and its partners hope to make the technology – dubbed Rezence – an industry standard.

Intel's wireless charging bowl uses a magnetic field to re-power devices.
Intel's wireless charging bowl uses a magnetic field to re-power devices.

“The efficiency is similar to … about the same time to charge [with an extension cord],” Foldesi says, adding that charging speed will vary by phone and battery status.

Intel is even designing for inventions dreamed up by the "maker community," with a Galileo development board to lend simple computing power to personalized gadgets like LED light displays or banana pianos.

RealSense technology on the latest laptops powered by Intel also incorporates facial recognition and 3-D cameras for gaming or 3-D printing programs, and that technology could eventually be used to create floating touch-screen displays on public terminals, says Achin Bhowmik, a chief technology officer at Intel.

Like Intel, Microsoft has faced a similar challenge of how to adapt its corporate culture that boomed in the PC heyday but stood on the sidelines during the growth of the mobile business. This ambition has prompted new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to tell his company, “Our industry does not respect tradition, it only respects innovation.”