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Intel steals the show at CES 2016 with an inspired, futuristic keynote

Many companies in the computing space have decided they’re too cool for CES. Apple never had a presence there. Microsoft has pulled out of the event. Dell has no showing on the floor, nor does HP, even though they’re North America’s two largest computer companies.

Intel bucks that trend, and at CES 2016, the company proved it’s not a matter of tradition but instead a way for it to harness the buzz of the coming year. It’s easy to forget that Intel is one of technology’s oldest, and makes most of its money from a portion of the market – computer processors – that’s said to be in decline.

RealSense grows up

It was three years ago at CES 2013 that Intel first headlined the RealSense 3D camera, and it didn’t go over well. Seemingly invented as a way to justify the incredible processing power of Intel’s hardware – processing video from a 3D camera isn’t easy – the technology was long on promise but short on application. The company had demos of games, and some creative applications, but that was about it.

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Frankly, RealSense still isn’t that great for the PC, though it does support Windows Hello – a win in my book. But Intel has expanded the technology, partnering with drone and robot manufacturers to help their devices see and make sense of their surroundings.

One of the biggest announcements was the Yuneec Phantom Typhoon H, the “world’s first fully intelligence consumer drone.” It not only follows or leads the user, but also avoids obstacles while doing so. That’s possible only because of the RealSense camera, which easily discerns the distance from objects in its field of view. The Ninebot from Segway operates on the same principle, using the RealSense camera to identify and interact with its owner without the need for any dongles, wearables, or smartphone apps to track the user’s position.

RealSense will certainly help keep up Intel’s reputation as a leader in innovation.

I’m doubtful that these uses are what Intel originally intended. They do little to promote the goal of selling more 6th-generation Core processors. But they do give Intel the opportunity to enter new markets, and just as importantly, keep its image from getting stale. The company has always been a master of brand control, keeping itself relevant despite the fact it builds products most people don’t understand. RealSense will certainly help it keep up its reputation as a leader in innovation.

What’s small is big

Intel’s other big push at this year’s keynote involves another new category — wearables. The story here is actually a lot like RealSense. The company has been talking about wearables for a long time, and low-power processors for even longer. Yet nothing has caught on; anyone needing a chip that draws very little power goes with ARM.

The company hopes to change that with Curie, a tiny new chip built by Intel specifically for wearable devices. It’s designed to run off a coin-sized battery, yet provide enough power for complicated software.

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How complicated? One of the more interesting examples shown was Oakley’s Radar Pace, a wearable, virtual fitness coach that can integrate into a pair of smart sunglasses. The coach can analyze a user’s current activity and make suggests on how to improve it. If it believes you can run faster, it’ll say so. If it thinks you’re pushing too hard, it’ll tell you to back off. That’s more than current wearables provide, and it does require a reasonably strong processor to collect the data and make judgments both on data collected over time, and in real time.

With all this said, Curie is new, and in some ways it shows. Intel gave everyone at the conference a wristband with the chip inside, which lit up based on gestures, and was supposed to interact with performances on stage. Most of those demonstrations didn’t pan out – perhaps they worked, but if they did, it wasn’t obvious. And while Intel ended the keynote with an interesting performance by award-winning composer A.R. Rahman, featuring performers who used wearables in place of instruments, the number felt a bit raw in parts, forced in others, and at the musician’s movements didn’t always seem to result in the intended sounds.

Intel is acting like a start-up, and that’s good for innovators

Obviously, Intel’s strong showing is a win for the company. It would be easy enough for the brand to follow HP and Microsoft down the path towards pop culture pariah. Awesome keynotes help the company prove that while it may be old, it’s no dinosaur.

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But the impact is broader than that, as made obvious by the constant stream of partners that marched on stage. Companies you’ve heard of, like New Balance, and those you haven’t, like Daqri, which makes a “smart helmet” that is somewhat similar to the HoloLens. Intel’s decision to reach out to smaller companies that have strange new ideas, but may not have the hardware to execute them, is a win-win for everyone.

Frankly, Intel may have stolen the show. There’s no company of similar size involved in more interesting projects. Strangely, that may be because of its failure in some mature products. While Samsung and Sony talked about the technologies of today – phones, computers, and televisions – Intel’s stage showed everyone the technology of tomorrow.