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Intel has more than chips on the brain

Researchers at the chipmaker are still attuned to boosting chip performance but are also investigating how people use their products.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Research at Intel is no longer just about transistors or circuit design; social science is becoming almost as important as electrical engineering.

Intel Research opened its doors to the press and analysts Wednesday at its headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. The company showed off plenty of projects in its traditional domain, such as reducing the power consumption of notebook PCs or finding ways for wireless signals to reach their targets in crowded environments. But it also displayed some of the work it has done in recent years to learn more about how and why people use technology.

For example, two Intel researchers spent months traveling throughout Asia observing what emotions people attached to handheld devices such as mobile phones. Many people considered their phones as social devices that brought them closer to friends and family. But the team was struck by a man in Japan who loaded a picture on his phone of a temple and referred to the picture in times of spiritual crisis, said Todd Harple, an anthropologist in Intel's Digital Home group.

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"It's all about the associations people make with technology," Harple said. Intel researchers hope to use their findings to design products that do more than just deliver performance, he said.

Of course, performance concerns aren't going away just yet. Plenty of Intel researchers were showing off projects that the company envisions for the "terascale" era, when home PCs are dealing with terabytes of data and performing a trillion floating point operations per second. Hundreds of cores on a single processor will be needed to deliver that level of performance, said Jerry Bautista, director of technology management in Intel's labs.

Those systems will also need to be able to communicate with other computers, inspiring new research to improve the performance of wireless radios. Despite reports that Intel might be thinking about cutting back its wireless investments, the company is working on projects such as boosting the performance of a wireless signal in a crowded environment or developing radios that can transmit signals over a variety of networks.

Power consumption is also a huge topic for Intel's researchers. Jeremy Lees, a senior electrical engineer with Intel, is working on a project in which notebook displays are programmed to disconnect themselves from the rest of the system and store the image on their own if they are going to be showing the same image for an extended period of time. The technique involves encouraging display manufacturers to build memory into their products, and developing an interface on a system's chipset that can let the display know when it doesn't plan to update an image very often, such as during a PowerPoint presentation, he said.

Correction: This story misspelled the name of Intel anthropologist Todd Harple.