Intel's Vision For a Wireless Future Could Be Bunny Ear PCs

In the closing keynote at its Developer Forum, Intel CTO Justin Rattner wore headgear that moved artificial bunny ears according to his mood. Don't laugh -- wireless technology that can connect devices to monitors, charge batteries and authenticate users may, in fact, herald the era of the 'bunny ear PC.'

At the Intel Developer Forum, there is one must-see keynote that many attendees unfortunately miss because it comes last. This keynote, by Intel CTO Justin Rattner, whose taste of whimsy makes his presentations more memorable than most, gives us a glimpse of what's coming soon from Intel Labs.

This wasn't always the case. About a decade ago, these presentations tended to promise the impossible. This point hit home when Rattner, wearing psychic headgear that moved artificial ears according to mood, opened with a video showcasing a decade-old keynote given by his predecessor, Pat Gelsinger, now CEO of VMware.

What Gelsinger promised—and Intel is, a decade later, planning to deliver—is the first analog radio built from digital technology. The engineers watching that keynote in the early 2000s thought that was impossible and, likely came close to a coronary upon seeing Gelsinger's promise, but they developed it anyway.

This advancement is now a cornerstone of Intel's wireless future and will be key to the company's capability to compete with long-time digital radio makers for future smartphones, tablets and other small, connected devices from sensors to micro robotics. Let's explore this unwired future.

Digital Analog Radios Coming to a Smartphone Near You?

Ratter demonstrated the first true digital analog radio, which could break an existing innovation barrier: analog doesn't scale down well. According to Intel, once you shrink under 100 nanometers, performance drops off a cliff and the technology becomes nonviable.

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This is very different than digital technology, which becomes cheaper and faster as it shrinks, until the limits of Moore's Law are reached. Digital's innovation curve has given us devices that have increased in performance massively while at the same time dropping in price sharply. The analog limit, on the other hand, has us bottlenecked on bandwidth at the moment. It's the reason we are seeing throttling and other problems associated with network capacity limits.

By going back to scratch and basically reinventing the analog radio around digital technology, Intel can demonstrate an analog radio that scales according to digital rules. While it performs in line with its analog counterpart, it can now scale and improve with the rest of the system. Critically, it can also be built into the same chip with other digital components, which paves the way for the same dramatic improvements in performance and cost reductions. This is Intel's key weapon as it moves into smartphones—and it significantly increases the probability that your future smartphone will have Intel inside.

Intel Shows Off Wireless Monitor Connections, Biometric Security

One of the biggest problems associated with the new class of thin ultrabooks and smartphones is ports. The size of the port often limits just how thin the device can be made, and the resulting cable—which you have to carry and, let's be honest, often forget—greatly contributes to problems associated with ease of use.

Rattner showcased WiGig, which allows a device to generate a wireless gigabit stream that's subsequently received by a projector, monitor(s) or TV. Not only does this eliminate of a socket and cable, but it's a massive improvement in terms of being able to connect these devices in the home and at your desk. While Intel isn't alone here—this is a standard effort—it does suggest that VGA, HDMI and DVID cables and sockets could be made obsolete within the next two years.

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Meanwhile, we have been arguing that passwords are not secure enough since the 1970s, yet there's no widely deployed alternative. Fingerprint readers come closest, but they've proven to be unreliable and difficult to use, and, while they can log you in, they don't track when you leave.

This week, Intel showcased a palm scanner that can read your hand from a distance and reportedly connect more quickly and more securely than most fingerprint readers. Coupled with a second sensor such as an accelerometer in a tablet, you get quick and easy security and a product that locks up whenever the user walks away.

Authentication occurs at the device level; then the device validates that the user is who he represents himself to be. No passwords are used in the process. This makes authentication faster, easier, more reliable, far more secure—and wireless.

Intel: Imagining the Future of Wireless Power

Intel is also in the midst of an aggressive effort to broadcast power to a device. While this wireless charging effort isn't as far along—it's due in 2014—combined with Intel's other work it promises a future where you don't have to carry cables, remember passwords, worry about someone stealing your digital stuff or think about battery life. In such a world, your devices know who you are; access is automatic, instant, and secure, and the only thing you worry about is getting the job done. Simply put, the technology just works.

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This will force us to rethink the fundamental designs of these devices. If you don't have to physically connect a device to anything, then it could be anything built into a case, an article of clothing or any other object you might carry but never actually put on a desk. This path suggests that the PCs of the future may not be seen or heard but will still be wherever you are. In fact, they may look more like the bunny ears that Rattner wore on stage than any of us are willing to admit now.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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