Intel shows off technologies of the future

The Intel Developer Forum starts tomorrow in San Francisco, hopefully with some good news about the processors and chipsets we'll be drooling over in the coming Spring.

As an appetiser, however, the company has today been looking further ahead with one of its occasional "technology showcases", introducing a few projects from its labs that are currently mere prototypes, but which could change our everyday lives in years to come – the most striking of which you'll find below.

LED data encoding

The first project to catch my eye was headed “Line-of-Sight Marketing”, though in fact I'm sure the idea has worthier applications than advertising.

The project, demonstrated by Intel research scientist Rick Roberts, encodes digital data into LED lights. To the eye, the lights appear to shine constantly, but in reality each one flickers in a programmed, very high frequency pattern. A smartphone app can be used to observe and decode the information in less than a second.

Fundamentally it’s a similar idea to QR codes, but less intrusive. Information can be embedded into ambient light or dual-purpose displays, such as the advertising hoardings envisaged by Intel. A 30fps camera (as found on a typical smartphone) can decode 15 bytes of information per second from each LED, so a display comprising a few dozen lights could in theory convey a decent paragraph of information – or a link to richer online resources, such as Augmented Reality overlays.

As Roberts admits, though, there’s as yet no standard in place to specify how such information might be encoded, nor how to tell smartphone users to scan the light in the first place - both issues that will clearly need to be addressed before the technology can go mainstream.

Any-surface displays

One of Intel’s more touchy-feely projects is a social networking concept that invites you to categorise images according to emotional responses and "energy levels", with a view to finding friends who share your responses. Frankly I'm not sure the idea appeals, but what did excite me was the technology used by Intel research scientist Margie Morris to showcase it:

Using nothing more than a domestic projector and a regular Microsoft Kinect motion sensor (as pictured at the top of this post), an entire wall was turned into a photo browsing interface that could be dragged and interacted with by “touch” – or, in reality, by tracking the user’s hands and triggering actions based on their movements.

Admittedly, the concept merely builds on previous ideas – including Intel’s earlier “Oasis” project, showcased back in 2010 – and it's not perfectly smooth or flawless. Nevertheless, the fact that it's possible to get get this far with mainstream hardware raises intriguing possibilities for future entertainment systems. Not for nothing does Intel call it "display without boundaries".

To make the point, researchers also showed how the technology could be used with non-flat surfaces, such as this attractive but flagrantly impractical bowl interface:

Micro digital signage

On its face, Intel’s micro digital signage project is a very simple idea: replace the traditional paper pricing information on supermarket shelves with a network of small LCD screens. When prices or product details change, all the signage can be updated instantly via a single data update at the back-end. Over time, and across all the many products stocked by a large supermarket, the idea could save considerable manual labour.

The prototype on display was built from smartphones running Android, and product director Tom Birch showed how using smartphone-style touchscreens additionally allowed customers to find more information about products. I’m not personally convinced there's much demand for extended information about groceries, but using smartphone technology also brings you something much more interesting – a camera attached to each digital sign.

With cameras on board, micro digital signs can be not merely a way to communicate pricing information, but a way to monitor everything that’s going on in the store. Birch described work already underway on algorithms to detect when items on facing shelves were out of stock, further reducing the need for manual stock-taking.

He suggested it might even be possible for the cameras to identify the products opposite them and pass that information across to the relevant signs – enabling each sign always to automatically show the correct information and price for whichever product was placed next to it. And when no one's around, the screens could go to sleep, saving energy.

At present the prototype hardware is, in Birch's own words, "really expensive", and certainly not a viable investment for retailers. With further development and economies of scale, however, it's easy to imagine how micro digital signage could eliminate enough drudge-work to make an attractive investment for large retailers.

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