Last week I went to an open house at Intel Research Berkeley, a research center that occupies the penthouse of the 14–story building that also houses the research facility I run. The views of the Bay Area from up there are probably the best one can see from the East Bay, appropriate for the visionary and lofty goals of the projects that Intel showcased.
The mission statement of the research center is
Drive off-roadmap, high-impact exploratory research vital to Intel
a sentiment that should easily translate to research at most companies. Interestingly, the technology buzztheme Simplicity has made its way into the Intel Research vision:
Essential Computing: simplifying and enriching all aspects of work and daily life
The research center was created in a 2001 Intel initiative to reach out to University talent, opening similar centers near Carnegie Mellon University and University of Washington (Intel Research Berkeley is 1 block from the UC Berkeley campus). Surprisingly, according to Henry Chesbrough in his book Open Innovation, Intel didn’t have much of an internal research effort until 1989, with only external research supporting them until then.
Okay, back to Intel’s open house.
The diversity of the research presented was impressive. There were posters and demos for over 50 projects, categorized into the following broad fields:
- Security/Networking/Distributed Systems
- Human-Computer Interaction
- Technology for Emerging Regions
- Programming Languages
Each project was also assigned a descriptor for marketing appeal:
- Richly Communicative
- Concealing Complexity
- Personal Awareness
- Emergence Engineering
The Security/Networking/Distributed Systems research included projects on power management for routers, fingerprint pattern recognition, and virtual machines for long-term data storage and retrieval. The details in most of these were fairly incomprehensible to me given my lack of expertise in these areas.
Of greater interest (and comprehension) to me were the Human-Computer Interaction projects.
One was titled Data Souvenirs: book-like objects that sat on your table or bookshelf and provided electronic information on the spine and inside the book, such as an lcd screen indicating when you have received e-mail from specific addresses, eliminating the need to constantly check your e-mail at home over the weekend/evening. One intriguing application of this project was called something like Real-Time Journey in which the book represents the long-term progress of an historical event in real time. For example, the book might track the voyage of Lewis&Clark, with the spine displaying their progress over the same time-scale as the actual trip (e.g., distance traveled or states reached). Inside the book would be maps and information on their voyage. As the representation of the virtual trip reaches a landmark (e.g., Mississippi reached), you could open the book and read about that point on their voyage. The possibilities for other creative uses are interesting, although the most difficult part of this project is probably the identification of the key value proposition to consumers.
There were several interesting cellphone projects, focusing on either an application or a combination of application and system architecture. One project addressed problems of application incompatibility between cellphones by designing applications that did not run on the phone itself. They demonstrated an application where people could make real-time adjustments to a remote display with their cellphone, the demo’ed application being a conference meeting where people are adjusting their responses in reply to questions from the speaker. As they made adjustments to their response with their cellphone, they could see those changes in real-time on the remote display being projected.
Another cellphone application was place-based ringtones, where the ring that your phone makes will depend on who is nearby and what signatures they have on their phone. In a separate cellphone alert project, a visual metaphor was demonstrated that would accompany ringtones: instead of simply flashing the name and phone number of the person calling, a landscape image on the phone display would change to indicate if the call was from someone you know, a specific person, etc. For example, a park scene might suddenly show birds flying in the distance of the call is long distance, or a swan floating on a lake if it was a friend. This would personalize the information and encode the data in metaphor that only you could understand.
One interesting project was a combination of human behavior research with statistical analysis for the optimization of computer power management. Several gigabytes of data were obtained from thousands of hours of pc usage to determine when is the best time to power down such computer resources as a computer screen or hard disk. The goal was to maximize battery life while minimizing human annoyance. The challenge was how to measure this passively, without constantly asking people what they like and don’t like. The researcher(s) ended up interpreting user annoyance by identifying associated behavior: if the user immediately shakes the mouse or mashes on the keyboard immediately after the screen powers off, that’s a sign that the person did not want the screen to power down at that time. Data on what the user had been doing and what states the computer was in before power-down was gathered to understand how to predict when the user does and does not want a power-down. A massive hidden Markov model was created from the 50–dimensional data set to predict human behavior such that the power management can better determine when to power components down, rather than rely on simple rules like “turn off the screen after 5 minutes of inactivity.”
There were several projects that focused on providing technology in emerging regions, such as West Africa and India. Applications ranged from providing WiMax connectivity and telemedicine in rural areas (see Cnet video), and literacy programs developed for cellphones. Several projects also addressed green issues.
I was impressed with the variety of projects at this one small facility. How they get that work done with those spectacular floor-to-ceiling views, I have no idea.