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Computers

Intel meets its 'makers,' with chips for DIY set and the firms they'll found (Q&A)

The next wave of consumer electronics could come from the maker movement and indie developers. Intel's Edward Ross wants to make the company's chips a key part of that trend.

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At a maker event last month, Intel's Edward Ross sits near an LED cube built by a teenage intern at the company. Intel wants to produce the chips of choice for the maker movement. Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Intel's Edison chip has been launched in a rocket, floated in a weather balloon, fitted into a futuristic light-emitting dress and used to power a dancing robot spider.

The postage stamp-size processor, which Intel launched last month, is part of the chipmaker's push to power the next big wave of consumer electronics expected to come from the maker movement and independent developers.

Behind that effort is Edward Ross, Intel's senior director of inventor platforms, who leads the team working on the Edison and Galileo chips. The Galileo chips were first introduced about a year ago as electronic training wheels for beginners and "makers" -- the growing cadre of do-it-yourselfers who show off their inventions at Maker Faire events. The smaller, more powerful Edison is targeted at "pro-makers" interested in taking their designs a step further with potentially market-ready products.

Aided by open-source software and crowdfunding, thousands of new companies could crop up to address small segments of the consumer market and help build the Internet of Things -- a network of everyday objects connected to the Net and each other, allowing for all sorts of tasks to be carried out automatically or controlled remotely. Intel is hoping Edison, too, will be a part of that niche-company trend.

Ross said in an interview last week that Edison has enjoyed "an awful lot of success" so far, and Intel plans to expand it into a series of chips to address different kinds of markets. "We believe this is going to be a huge space and we're excited to see what people make," he said. Here's an edited transcript of that interview.

Q: How did Intel first get into creating chips for makers?
Edward Ross: Our new CEO [Brian Krzanich] is hugely supportive of this whole maker movement, and the Galileo project was something he kept going on the side in his previous role, because it was something he believed in. As he became CEO, this platform was introduced at Maker Faire Rome and targeted towards Intel participating in this whole maker culture, which...mainstreamed this idea of people who are tinkering but shifting tinkering into consumer electronics.

Are Edison and Galileo part of a broader effort at Intel?
Ross: Maker movement aside, Intel has been a huge proponent of education. We've been sponsoring science fairs, and we have a rather large division focused on pushing education and science education into both K-12 schools and universities worldwide, and so that was an extension of that strategy.

What's the potential size of the market Galileo and Edison serve?
Ross: We're huge believers in this idea that there are going to be 50 billion connected devices by 2025. The things that will be made will be made to solve a very specific type of use case: as an example, a company we worked with -- Rest Devices -- created an infant onesie to track movements and biometrics. So, the opportunity side associated with these things isn't the size of a laptop or a mobile phone. The types of companies that are going to be chasing the opportunities around these smaller segments are obviously going to be typically smaller companies.

So, these connected devices will mostly involve smaller firms?
Ross: I don't want to discount the larger companies' participation in this, because the larger companies will absolutely participate. What we're finding is that larger companies are also very interested in using this. By using Intel Edison, this is shortening their development process or their prototyping process by like six to nine months...So we're having an awful lot of success, just in the two weeks since we launched, in entrepreneurs [and] Intel's legacy customers.

What are some examples of people using Galileo and Edison?
Ross: On the Galileo front, it's all sorts things...There are some examples of customers taking Galileo and integrating it into [apartment and office] air conditioning units so the unit can tell a central office if they're running into problems and then they can send a technician out. Another example, there was a program...for an environmental-sensor kit that captures all sorts of environmental information. And these units are being put on the top of telephone poles to give a city a good understanding of what's going on with air quality. Previously, it was cost prohibitive for these guys to do this on a broad scale. On the Edison side, we're just getting started. On the prototyping front, we're working with a bunch of robotics companies. We're participating in Major League Hacking, which is a college hackathon consortium. One team made a glove that you wear that, based on the motions of sign language, will print out that text on your computer. Another team hacked together an Edison connected glove [for mountain climbing], where you tap a certain part of the glove and a green or red light would show up on the other person to say go or not go.

Has it surprised you how many different things people have come up with using these chips?
Ross: Oh my gosh, absolutely. It's actually so much fun to see what people have come up with, whether those are enterprises or students. On the student side, it's so much fun to see their eyes light up and the pride associated with showing off what they came up with. It's been so much fun, the participation in the Maker Faires. And I love how when I was growing up being a nerd wasn't really that cool but now it's cool to be into that sort of stuff. In the beginning it's a tinkering kind of playing type of thing, but then what's starting to happen is some of these kids are creating businesses around this.

What's the future for both these products?
Ross: I'm really proud of what we've done in a year with Galileo. The fact that we launched something and then [updated it] in seven months -- very, very fast -- shows how committed we are in this space. You'll continue to see evolutions of Galileo targeted toward that "I'm learning" realm -- helping people to explore the space. And we're huge, huge, huge supporters of the Maker Faires, so you will see Intel participating in the various Maker Faires and you will see us in universities and K-12 environments helping to teach and spread the word on how easy and fun it is to go invent stuff. On the Edison perspective, this idea of putting all the complicated or difficult part of computing on this really, really small compute module...to make that really easy to build your application experience, that's something you're going to see us continue to focus on. In this Internet of Things space, you can imagine different use cases are going to require different levels of computing [and pricing]. So the version of Edison that we launched is the first of many of these that are going to come.

Why did you name the chip after Thomas Edison?
Ross: We called it Intel Edison for a very specific reason. As you look at the guy, Edison, he actually didn't invent the lightbulb, he made the lightbulb useful. And before he did that, he tried a lot of different things, and he tried and he failed and he tried and he failed. But he frankly didn't mind that he failed, because he said things like, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." That's the whole idea around the product. You go back in history and look at this guy: It was failure after failure after failure after failure, and then he went off and created whole new industries. Intel Edison, we feel, enables people to go off and create something amazing.