To inspire software and hardware developers, Intel gets bold and very weird

At its annual developer conference, the chipmaker lays out the future and asks the tech community to help make it reality.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich stands with Relay, a robot made by a company called Savioke that uses Intel's RealSense cameras for computer vision. Walden Kirsch

SAN FRANCISCO -- It was about 10 seconds into the robotic spider dance that you had to remind yourself you were watching a presentation by the world's largest chipmaker, Intel.

CEO Brian Krzanich had just finished his hour-and-a-half keynote address Tuesday at the annual Intel Developer Forum here by discussing not the company's bread and butter -- its processing chips that power the brains of modern-day computers -- but wacky and outlandish proof-of-concepts. The series of technical demonstrations included a vending machine that could remember your face and keep track of the food you like, a full-length mirror that could change the color of your clothing in real time, and a smartphone in collaboration with Google that can see and 3D-map a room.

Oh, and spiders. There were a lot of them, all capable of being controlled in orchestral fashion with the gesture of a single hand. Krzanich acknowledged the implication of impending arachnid Armageddon, and introduced the eight-legged companions by showing a video clip by comedian Jimmy Fallon, poking fun at the obvious terror.

In all, the demonstrations were meant to send a message: Intel has a vision for the future, and it wants to be the company that provides the tools for getting us there. That's a stark contrast to what Intel used to talk about at these events: the latest chips, its newest production facilities and the newest computers being powered by it all.

The reason is that processors just aren't as exciting as they used to be.

The Santa Clara, California, chipmaker grew to a workforce of more than 105,000 people with nearly $56 billion in sales last year largely on the worldwide popularity of the personal computer. But that was in the old days. Now, the PC makers are trying to stave off flat or falling sales that have dogged them in the past two years. The tech industry, meanwhile, has focused on mobile phones and the many so-called "smart" devices, such as sensors and other hardware that Apple's iPhone and Google's Android have ushered in.

Krzanich shows off a robotic spider equipped with the company's RealSense depth cameras that allow it to perceive environments. Intel

Drones, robots, smartwatches, computer-laden appliances and connected automobiles -- all of these gadgets are part of what tech companies call the Internet of Things, in which all devices have embedded technology and communicate with each other and the broader world. Intel wants to be the go-to chipmaker for the new wave of entrepreneurs interested in making this happen faster and in unique fashion, just as it became a hardware partner to other tech titans throughout the evolution of the PC.

Of course, Intel still makes its flagship computer chips. It has a new and faster variety, called Skylake, that is set to power tens of millions of devices when it begins shipping in new computers this fall. But Krzanich made it clear during his presentation that Intel, like fellow chipmaker Qualcomm and resident PC behemoth Microsoft, wants to be at the heart of the next computing revolution. They don't want to be stuck incrementally inching forward the computer industry they've already built.

Intel has catching up to do. It failed to capitalize on smartphones, where its competitor Qualcomm is dominant, and it's still constantly jockeying to maintain its dominance in PCs. It's afraid of being left out when the most important aspect of our computing devices is not how fast and power-efficient they are, but how well they can see and understand our environment, communicate with us and change everyday life.

"Intel has been pretty clear: 'We missed mobility, we're not going to miss Internet of Things,'" said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. Its display at IDF, Moorhead added, "is to get the developers of literally hundreds of thousands of different things to develop for Intel's platforms -- by showing a lot of different corner cases and really cool stuff."

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For these companies, that means investing in low-power processors that can act as the brains for any device imaginable, from wheeled robots and drones to everyday devices like car seats, mirrors and vending machines.

Another common thread in Intel's presentation was RealSense, the company's camera technology that acts as the eyes and ears of a computing device. Introduced last year and found today in select laptops and tablets, RealSense cameras are capable of measuring depth, recognizing faces and enabling gesture control.

In one demonstration, Krzanich showed off a prototype smartphone combining RealSense with Google's Project Tango, an initiative aimed at helping smartphones see real-world environments. The result was a multieyed handset that could, in seconds, photograph and map an entire room.

Intel's collaboration with Google's Project Tango team yielded a prototype smartphone that can see and map environments. Intel

Intel believes a wide variety of companies can build atop its RealSense technology, ranging from those making robots to ones that design hands-free musical instruments.

RealSense is also a powerful software tool when built into PCs or attached as a peripheral camera, Intel said. Twitch.tv, a service owned by retail giant Amazon that helps people stream live video of the games they're playing over the Internet, can use RealSense to quickly capture a player's head and torso. It can then remove the background of the room and overlay the player's image on the corner of the screen, all while displaying the game playing as well.

Software developers are also finding uses for RealSense's ability to identify emotions through facial recognition. Game studio Flying Mollusk used the technology to make Nevermind, a horror game that identifies precisely how and when you begin to feel frightened and anxious and modifies itself to attempt to scare you even further.

"We really want RealSense to become ubiquitous in all of these applications," Krzanich said.

Will this all help Intel catch the next computing wave? Developers are optimistic, if only just for the ability to have some fun.

Gustavo Fricke, a designer at 3D Systems, a leading maker of 3D printers, said problems like facial recognition have kept his company from making more complex software tools. Overly simplistic tools meant it was more expensive and cumbersome for customers trying to create virtual models that could later be 3D-printed. Using RealSense, he was able to create a tall scanning contraption with a vertically sliding monitor that could do the trick in less than a minute.

"It was really difficult to be democratic about it," Fricke said of trying to bring the tools his company uses in the workplace down in cost and make them more widely available.

As I stand next to Fricke, a device the company made using a RealSense camera rises to the height of my face and instructs me to rotate my head, scanning my features. Thirty seconds later, my face appears onscreen.

Soon enough, Fricke electronically put my face atop a Star Trek character, which he sent to my smartphone.

"RealSense allows us to be more creative," Fricke said.