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Intel CES Keynote Focuses on Wearables You Probably Won't Wear

By Wesley Fenlon

Intel's making small, exciting computers, and showing them off in pieces of technology that you probably don't want, and almost definitely don't need.

At Intel's 2014 CES keynote, chief executive Brian Krzanich could have focused on the technology Intel is developing to compete in the mobile market. Smartphone and tablet processors are a huge market, and one that Intel is still struggling to compete in. Intel wants to get its chips into many, many more devices than PCs. Mobile, then, is the obvious choice. But Intel went with something less obvious: wearables.

Smartwatches, smart earbuds, smart chargers, smart you name it. That's the future Intel's shooting for, and the one Krzanich talked about in his CES 2014 keynote. The "smart" echo also follows the trend of CES's past, which promises that processors and wireless transmitters embedded in our washing machines and watches will make them better. The questions of how and why are usually left unanswered.

The key piece of technology behind Intel's smart initiative is Quark, a very very small system-on-a-chip. Intel did not announce Quark at CES--the company announced the SoC many months ago, but now we're hearing about how it may be used in the future. Intel's examples included a pair of earbuds that include biometric capabilities, reading a jogger's heartrate and calculating how many calories they burn, and an "always listening" headset called Jarvis, which pairs with an Android smartphone and offers voice assistant features like Siri or Google Now.

Like many products shown at CES, these are reference designs, which means you'll probably never be able to buy them. Similar products will probably go on sale eventually, and Intel says it plans to work with fashion designers to make attractive wearables. Intel is, at least, thinking about answering the how and why--The Verge quotes Krzanich stating: "Wearables are not everywhere today because they aren't yet solving real problems and they aren't yet integrated with our lifestyles...We're focused on addressing this engineering innovation challenge."

But the "why" in this case, at least for Intel, is that the company needs to branch out from the shrinking PC processor market. And the how is, for them, an "engineering innovation challenge." Intel can make an incredibly small and capable processor, but it will largely be up to other companies to decide how to use that technology in a way that matters, and a way that makes our lives better.

Will smart earbuds improve our jogs over a smartphone fitness app? Will the integration of biometrics into the earbuds be a useful convergence, or make the earbuds too expensive, or negatively impact audio quality?

You could ask the same thing about the nursery products Intel used to show off Edison, a small computer running on Quark that fits into the form factor of an SD card. Edison runs Linux, has built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and will run software from its own app store. Edison will likely be a very useful small form-factor computer, but "Nursery 2.0,"--which Intel used to demonstrate Edison, isn't convincing. A baby onesie with a turtle-shaped sensor embedded in it monitors the baby's vitals and transits that data to a coffee cup, where an LED display shows off the data. Or the sound of a baby crying can trigger a cup of milk to begin heating up.

Does Edison know that the baby wants milk? Is a connected coffee cup with an LED more useful than existing baby monitors? Are smart turtles the future of technology?

Edison is likely a significant advancement in miniature computing, and Intel plans to give out $1.3 million in prize money to developers who make useful applications for it. The ability to run Windows and Android simultaneously on one chip, which Intel gave only a vague mention during the keynote, is also an important step forward for uniting mobile and PC hardware. These are bits of technology to remember, because they'll probably pop up in some meaningful device a year or two down the road--but that device, in all likelihood, won't be one of the ones Intel showed off during its keynote.