Intel Outside: the story behind Edison

edisonI’ve just written up for The Reg a news story based on one of the most interesting interviews I’ve done since moving here to Hong Kong: Intel Labs China’s chief scientist, Randolph Wang.

There wasn’t enough time to put everything in that piece so here’s the unabridged version (unfortunately without pics as most of the gadgets mentioned here have never formally been shown to the public).

Wang joined the labs around three and a half years ago but spoke about the recent launch of Intel’s SD card-sized computer Edison with the zeal and excitement of a start-up founder.

This is probably pretty accurate, since he told me the labs function “more like a start-up” than part of a global chip behemoth.

He walked me through the process by which Edison was developed in those labs, by as few as 10-20 people on average, with the focus on “creating something new”, not reliant on preconceived notions on buzzwords; of “going to work, playing around and having fun”.

It started life apparently as an actual smart SD card which they plugged into an off-the-shelf camera and went about seeing what applications they could run on it.

The idea of a “slave device” soon became limiting, however, but they decided to keep the size, pluggable form factor and self-contained design and work with that.

“Over time we got rid of the constraints, so the SD card could be born to tell the device about it – to be a master not a slave,” he said. Eventually they got rid of the final constraint by building devices (30-40 odd of them) themselves to fully exploit the potential of Edison.

At this time the idea was not just to build simple, box-like prototypes but, in partnership with Tsinghua university’s industrial design department, to “build something beautiful”.

He told me about a pair of “crystal speakers” made of a transparent material where the light inside responds to the music being played, or of a smart bird feeder – as described in The Reg article – which recognises which bird lands on it, takes and pic and sends an alert out to the owner if it’s an interesting breed.

Another project he was keen to promote was the porcelain cup demoed by CEO Brian Krzanich on stage at CES last month.

“There’s an LED matrix embedded in the cup wall that allows the cup to display subtle info or alerts. At CES, our CEO Brian Krzanich demonstrated that the porcelain cup was working with the baby monitors (also powered by Edison) developed by Boston area start-up, Rest Devices,” he explained.

“If the baby’s respiration or temperature info is abnormal, the cup displays alert info. Alternatively, one can put applications in the cup so that it displays current temperature, or current Intel stock price, or as I was saying, with a pair of cups, the boyfriend cup lights up when the girlfriend puts coffee in her cup.”

What excited him so much was that the cup was made in a town called Jingdezhen, which has been making ultra-thin, high quality porcelain for over 1,700 years. Being so thin enables the light to shine through better, he explained.

Wang continued:

This is a remarkable story of marrying 2000 year old craftsmanship with the latest silicon technology. But it’s more than that. The town, though famous, is located in an impoverished area. One of the things talked about by the proponents of the “Maker revolution” is the idea of spawning new industries and generating new wealth at the most unlikely places, because the democratising effect of the “Maker phenomenon”. There’s a local “porcelain research institute” that we’re collaborating with, who see great potential in producing a new line of porcelain married with the latest cutting edge Intel technology to open new markets, thus breathing new life into an ancient local industry.

This kind of thing is not the end but the beginning for Edison, and with true SoCs, in which everything including Flash and DDR memory is on-die, set to land in a couple of years there’s the potential for the micro-computer to be made even smaller and cheaper in future.

The strength of the project will, however, depend on how developers take to it, Wang concluded.

“Each Edison-powered device is meant to house multiple applications that users can download into them and third-party application writers could write for. And these things can work together,” he said.

“We’ve tried to do something with the best intentions but I’m fairly certain that the best is yet to come and probably not from inside but outside.”

From Intel Inside to Intel Outside in a few short decades.

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