Intel Teases Compute Stick, Announces New Mission

Last Thursday, at the Intel year-in-review and thought leaders presentation for 2014, out came the new Compute Stick.  Teased for the first time at Intel’s investor conference in Santa Clara last month, the Compute Stick puts a fan-less Atom class processor, roomy RAM and adequate storage on a thumb-drive sized dongle to be plugged into myriad devices for control and display of software running on the Windows 8.1 operating system. 

The Compute Stick will be formally introduced early in 2015 and yet, even now, hardware developers should be scrambling to either exploit or defeat it.  And while chip makers Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and STMicroelectronics have carried the bulk of the handheld and wearables segments up till now, the Compute Stick threatens to change the landscape overnight.

Computer on a stick

Other than the spectacular miniaturization of an entire computer onto a dongle, the Compute Stick decouples a handheld device’s processing, memory and storage components from its input/output peripherals. Meaning, handheld devices no longer need to be monolithic slabs or black boxes.

Picture yourself gearing up for the day’s work.  Do you bring the flat slab of a touchscreen or the folder that adds a physical keyboard?  The choice is real though decided casually because you can always bring your workfiles, your entire ecosystem of choice, to either one, no fuss. 

Plug the Compute stick or its evolved offspring into the I/O set that suits you—use a touchscreeen or a touchscreen with keyboard when in the field, then plug into your desktop display, keyboard and surround-sound system when you get home or to the office.   Like the old-school monitor and keyboard on your desktop, the handheld touchscreen or screen with keyboard remain otherwise dumb and impotent without the compute stick to use it, with all I/O peripherals remaining absolutely modular, replaceable and cheaper.

New mission 

This latest tease of the Compute Stick happened last week at Intel’s year-in-review and thought leaders presentation for 2014.  Here, Calum Chisholm, Intel’s country manager for the Philippines, presented an actual sample of the Compute Stick but only after he had declared and explained Intel’s new mission statement:  “Utilize the power of Moore’s Law to bring smart connected devices to every person on Earth.”

The de-facto chip-maker to the world, Intel has been rolling out next-generation chips on a “tick-tock” cycle.  A “tick” phase is when they do a die-shrink, cramming more transistors (that throwback generic for logic switches) into nanometres (nm) of real estate. A “tock” phase is when they come up with a new micro-architecture for processors to then exploit the advance in miniaturization. 

They’ve been doing it this way since the 1980’s, since the time when 800nm processes rolled out 80386’s with their 245,000 transistors, and all the way to the present with their chips now having a billion.  Clearly, Moore’s Law—Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore’s observation that the number of transistors in dense integrated circuits doubles every two years—holds true, and might even be a conservative estimation.

The last “tick” happened just recently with the introduction of the Broadwell, the 14nm die-shrink of the Haswell architecture introduced in 2013.  The next “tock” in the cycle, the new architecture to exploit the 14nm process, they’ve already named Skylake and are expected to roll out in 2015.  In 2016 will come the 10nm die-shrink for the Skylake architecture, and onwards through 2018’s 7nm and into 2020’s 5nm tick-tocks.

With dramatic upgrades now coming on a yearly basis, Intel intends not just to embed mainstream functionalities for connectivity, malware protection and even security in their chips, but even go beyond where mere trends draw a picture of what the future might look like.  They’re investing in possibilities, speculating on entire paradigm shifts.

Changing the interface mix

Even now, that HDMI jack on the Compute Stick is already being planned into obsolescence.  An HDMI jack for plugging the Compute Stick into smart monitors assumes that it needs a visual display for showing information and capturing commands from its users. What if visual cues and tapped instructions are no longer the only way to go?

Before March when Intel acquired fitness smartwatch maker Basis and spurred so much speculation about them diving into the wearables segment; even before CES 2014 in January when CEO Brian Krzanich announced the “Make It Wearable” challenge with $1M in prize money for the best next application of wearables technology using Intel’s Edison modules; the technology leader watched by everybody had quietly acquired Indisys in September 2013.

Indisys’ significance?  They’re a tech company with deep research into computational linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and machine learning.  At the time, Intel didn’t disclose any details on how they might use Indisys technologies.  But in light of recent revelations, it could very well be that Intel is changing the interface mix. 

The staples of displays, keyboards, pointing or tracking peripherals for desktops, laptops and handhelds, don’t work well with wearables.  Too big, too rigid and too obtrusive, these inevitably get in the way of users seamlessly wearing and using computers. Fitness tracking smartwatches that have gained popularity feature rudimentary displays showing actionable data and little else.

Unreal wearables

To put computing capacity full-tilt into wearables will entail a different set, an evolved vocabulary, of control and feedback mechanisms, a whole other way for your wearable computer to say or hear what you need it to.  Say, hear, or gesture:  with Intel’s acquisition of Indisys, it gained strong research into processing hands-free verbal and non-verbal signals that could become the next instruction set for ubiquitous wearables.  It may not yet be true at present but with Moore’s Law relentlessly delivering even more computing power, it could happen within a decade from now. 

In the here and now, the creations that made the shortlist of Intel’s $1M “Make It Wearable” challenge already demonstrate how these can capture data and cue the user without a keyboard, physical or otherwise, nor even a screen in sight.  There’s the short-listed Proglove from Germany, a wearable tool worn by production workers on an automotive assembly line to tell them what the next step at their station, and this after learning the steps from the wearer himself.  And then there’s Nixie, the “Make It Wearables” winner.  It’s a quad-copter mounting a camera that launches from and is controlled with a wristband.  Launch the copter and gesture it a distance away while the camera stays trained on you, the wearer of the wristband.  We saw footage of it being used by a climber hundreds of feet up a sheer rock face documenting his ascent.

With Proglove and Nixie, the control and feedback language have evolved so much these would’ve been unrecognizable if they weren’t intuitive.  Put another way, the interface has been made so intuitive, keyed to non-verbal gestures and inputs that are so natural, that “simple” is a monumental understatement.  True to the slogan, these creations are supremely wearable, and very cutting edge. 

Substance and renaissance

The Compute Stick, the Proglove and Nixie give substance to the Internet of Things with connected appliances, even mere tools, already proven feasible and utile. And the short development time for the Proglove and Nixie creations underscore the relentless speed in Intel’s tick-tock innovation cycle.  Suddenly, the bringing of smart connected devices to every person on Earth seems not so fantastic.

Intel raised the bar with their new mission statement, and they’ve done it only after they’d set things in motion, only after they were assured of momentum. While acquiring Indisys and Basis to integrate vertically in more conventional ways, they at the same time put up a contest and found wearables champions in Proglove and Nixie—discovering the revolutionary among crowd-sourced genius. They not only went out of the box, they went outside their corporate boundaries to do it.

Their priorities are clear, their methods elegant.  So yes, it might very well be a renaissance in the making.