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Intel says we're close to a very cool future for mobile devices

In Shanghai this week, Intel will share news about its research into extending the intelligence of mobile devices. It's still a work in progress, but things are getting interesting.

Personal digital assistants, cell phones, smartphones--whatever you want to call them--keep getting smaller, thinner, and lighter. Congrats to the engineers who keep coming up with this stuff, but I'm going blind trying to keep up with them.

My tired eyes could use a break, though I know this is the equivalent of tilting at windmills. We get older and our bodies inevitably start betraying us--sometimes sooner, sometimes later. But if the inventors of tomorrow's gadgets are going to continue to think small, they've also got to start thinking big. From a purely design perspective, Apple did a nice job with the display on the iPhone. Still, that's only a half step. You're still stuck staring at a relatively small screen surface, not to mention you input data via hunt and peck.

Some attempts to answer those questions will come out of the developer forum Intel is hosting this week in Shanghai, China, where the company will provide updates about the progress made by its researchers. In particular, Intel has been trying to find new ways to extend the intelligence of personal devices. The company's marketing term for this is "carry small, live large."

OK, it's corny, but while this remains a work in progress, things are getting interesting. With enough computation resources and built-in sensors, Intel says a device could connect to the Internet via wide-area connectivity and sense physical motion (a la the Nintendo Wii), wirelessly dock with a nearby display in an office, or store and "borrow" the use of a bigger display.

I recall sitting through sundry Comdex video keynotes, in which "tech visionaries" promised a future where regular folks would be able to easily do similar things, beaming business cards or enacting transactions wirelessly. To date, the performance hasn't come close to the hype, but Kevin Kahn, who directs Intel's communications technology lab, says the pieces are finally coming together.

Kahn allowed that one big issue in the field of sensor research remains how to accurately interpret data so a device can recognize an activity, mood, or physical item. Still, he said, the research is bearing fruit.

"One and a half years ago, this was entirely a PowerPoint presentation," he told me before leaving to attend the IDF conference. "Now, a lot of pieces are becoming real in a lab sense. We're looking at technologies which will be very real."

"Obviously, the screen's a limit in terms of the visuals," he added. "Certainly, you can access the Internet but you have to be careful. Some sites don't render well on small screens. So we've been looking in the labs at what would be a more idealized version of mobility."

In Shanghai, Intel will demo a multi-band, power-efficient CMOS transceiver, with the ultimate aim being a true digital multi radio. But this will involve a lot more work on multi-radio integration and miniaturization, as well as the resolution of authentication questions so that a device knows that display X is the one where you want to display your data, and not some random screen.

Beyond any technical hurdles, Intel also will face industry politics: the consumer electronics and computer businesses don't have a great history of talking to each other. But as fragmented as it often seems, the PC side has done a marvelous job when it comes to agreeing upon standards. When it comes to the consumer electronics business, well, just look at the pile of television remote controls piling up on your coffee table.

But Kahn says 2011 or 2012 is a realistic time frame. If so, we're going to find ways to use everyday personal digital devices in very cool and unexpected ways.

"I'm going to be in China," he said. "If I have camera and an Internet connection, I ought to be able to point that device and ask, 'What does that say?' and get back an answer in a sensible way."

Click here for more stories on IDF Shanghai.