Invisible brains

A demonstration of the adiVerse virtual footwear wall, a form of interactive merchandising that eliminates the need to display 1 000-plus varieties of sports shoe. Shoppers can browse among virtual shelves, examine their selection from all angles and call up technical details on each product. Built-in anonymous video analytics provides metrics on shopper trends, demographics and shopping patterns, enabling the manufacturer to provide personalised experiences and relevant value-add services.
Date:1 May 2011 Tags:, , , , , ,

Computing intelligence is moving into everything, everywhere, from domestic kitchens to family cars, from retail stores to electricity boxes. Interestingly, it works best when no one sees or even thinks about it.

It may have escaped your attention that computers are everywhere. They control or at least influence the way we work, communicate, unwind, go places, buy things, entertain ourselves… even the pursuit of our relationships.

In keeping with the dictates of Moore’s Law, the chips that make them work continue to get smaller and smarter. And when you put a lot of them together, they create the stuff of science fiction – all of which helps to explain why Intel no longer sees itself as “just a chip company”.

Dr Martin Curley, director of Intel Labs Europe and a frequent international speaker on innovation and technology, looks forward to the arrival of “exascale” computers, incredibly powerful machines capable of 1 million trillion floating point operations per second. A step in the right direction came last year when Intel, imec and five Flemish universities opened the Flanders ExaScience Lab in Leuven, Belgium. The lab will develop software to run on Intel-based future exascale computer systems delivering 1 000 times the performance of today’s fastest supercomputers, using up to 1 million cores and 1 billion processes to do so.

Breakthroughs in exascale computing will allow scientists to simulate very complex systems such as the human body or Earth’s climate, hopefully resulting in cures for diseases and a more accurate prediction of natural disasters, including “space weather” – electromagnetic activity in the space surrounding Earth’s atmosphere.

It makes perfect sense for companies like Intel to explore new applications for their rapidly advancing technology. Take their new underbolt high-speed connection, for example. Developed in collaboration with Apple, and running at a formidable 10 Gbps/second, the cable is capable of transferring a full-length HD movie in under 30 seconds. at’s seriously fast, but it doesn’t end there. Their developers are already working with the industry on a number of Thunderbolt-enabled products, including computers, retail displays, storage devices, cameras, audio-video devices, docking stations, and more.

But it’s the realm of embedded computing that has produced some of the most innovative solutions such as adiVerse, a virtual footwear wall that puts an entire aisle of shoes at your fingertips while you are in-store and ready to buy. Powered by 2nd-generation Intel Core i7 processors, it allows you to interact with the footwear at an unprecedented level of detail.

We tried it during a recent visit to the Intel Embedded Lab in Shannon, Ireland – and it found it strongly compelling. Using touchscreens, you select a 3D-rendered product on a virtual shelf, examine it from any angle, rotate it, zoom in, choose a different colour, or request further product and technology information. Then, when you’re ready to buy, you do so via a tablet-based checkout. So you’re choosing a pair of running shoes for your off spring? No problem – this clever machine allows you to e-mail image and other relevant information for approval. There’s more. Built-in (anonymous) video analytics provides metrics on shopper trends, demographics and shopping patterns, enabling the manufacturer to provide personalised experiences and relevant value-add services to shoppers. The result – an emotional connection with the shopper, strengthened brand loyalty, repeat shopper visits, and increased sales.

In similar vein, Intel’s “interactive fashion experience” offers an endless aisle that allows the shopper to visually access thousands of fashion items, combine them into outfits, share them with friends, and finally make a purchase. Although this form of shopping requires a big – and possibly insurmountable – leap of faith, it remains a good indicator of how computing technology could be incorporated into the shopping experience.

Ger McNamara, who heads up the digital signage market in EMEA countries, believes the “invisibility” and reliability of the underpinning technology (that is, out of sight and out of mind) are more important than the psychology of the customers, explaining: “Consumers get upset only when something doesn’t work.”

Having acknowledged the ubiquity of the computer chip, we ask Ton Steenman, vice-president of the Intel Architecture Group and general manager of the Embedded and Communications Group, whether his company is exploring the possibility of an embedded bio-friendly chip… perhaps a first step towards the merging of human and machine, as envisaged by futurist Ray Kurzweil.

"Not yet. Right now, we are concentrating on making the user-machine interface more natural. A big focus inside Intel is creating a consistency of experience."

Expounding on the immersion of computers into our everyday lives, Steenman envisages a person being woken in the morning by a computer-controlled cellphone alarm, getting into a compute-rcontrolled car, driving to the airport past a computer-controlled billboard, stopping at a computer-controlled traffic light, checking in for his computer-controlled flight, drawing holiday cash from a computer- controlled ATM… you get the picture. He's not naive about the concomitant risks, though, adding: "gWith connectedness comes responsibility in respect of privacy and security. We obviously have face recognition capability, but our tech is anonymous by default."

Energy . controlled through a multitude of applications, including so-called "smart grids" – is another important area of research in the Intel community. Steenman presents a possible scenario for the near future: meteorologists forecast the imminent arrival of a storm over Ireland with the potential to produce large dollops of electricity from off shore wind farms.

The power utility offers consumers a chance to buy special low-cost electricity coupons via their cellphones. They take up the offer and use the coupon to charge their electric cars overnight at a reduced rate. Thanks to the storm, everyone scores.

By the year 2015, says colleague Jonathan Walsh, we will be surrounded by 15 billion embedded devices.

Bring it on.

Video: To watch a video showing how the adiVerse virtual footwear wall works. [click here]

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