Can Intel Edison redefine wearable tech?

Intel's Jim Chase explains the future of Edison and its place in the wearables world
Intel Edison in depth

There’s a revolution going on in technology, and it’s changing everything. It’s not the wearables that are taking the tech world by storm. It’s not the internet of things, which is slowly turning our lives into one giant data connection.

It’s the makers – the start-ups with an idea that are innovating and creating where the tech giants are stagnating and stalling.

In the last five years one of those stagnating giants has been Intel. A behemoth of the PC industry, Intel missed the boat when it came to smartphones, albeit with a half hearted attempt when it was too late to make a difference.

But now Intel is starting to lead once again.

A slew of wearable devices have cropped up through 2014 from the silicon giant, from the MICA band to the SMS Headphones. Intel’s ambition to get ahead in wearable tech is clear, and it sees the new makers and start-ups as the key.

Essential reading: Intel want to show people what’s possible in wearable tech

At CES 2014 the company unveiled Intel Edison; a low-cost postage stamp sized processor designed for wearable devices. Its hope is that start-ups will use the platform to engineer their own devices, and help Intel create a foothold in the wearables space as an ecosystem.

Inside Edison

In essence, Edison is nearly identical to the chip inside your smartphone. It uses Intel’s x86 architecture, which means it’s designed the same as your desktop PC, but it’s lower powered at just 500MHz, and does everything your smartphone can do – even graphic processing; although Intel has turned off these bells and whistles.

“The concept was to create a small powerful form factor compute module for the internet of things. A high performance gateway that might be used for a wearable product,” Intel’s Jim Chase told Wareable, at the Maker Faire in Rome recently.

Power is the key. While most wearable processors lack the power to do anything but manage a few sensors, Edison can run full operating systems if needed. What’s more, Chase says Edison’s smarter power handling means that battery life needn’t suffer.

“The device is full featured and we left all the subsystems on for putting high performance operating systems on so it runs any flavor of Linux,” he explained.

“Also, the SoC has an MCU, for real time sensors, or anything you want to run. You want to do that for two reasons. The first one is that you don’t want to burden the CPU with sensors and the second one is that battery life will suffer.”

Edison starts at just $50, and the chip will plug into PC or Mac via a development board so you can start tinkering right away. You’ll still need to know a hefty amount of code to get anything working, but if you’re a wearable startup looking for the best way to build a prototype, Edison is a great place to start.

Too much power

So does that mean that we’re about to see an explosion of Intel Edison powered wearables? Jim Chase thinks that’s unlikely, because Edison is too powerful for the job.

“In the wearable space where it fits well is first responders or industrial workers who need to keep track of personnel,” he said. “If you’re wearing helmets and garb, it can be useful. It’s not intended to be a watch, not yet, or a bracelet.

“Take a fireman wearing a coat to protect him from heat, he can’t understand his environment very well, so this is designed to give the horsepower to think for people.”

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However, despite Chase ruling out Edison for use in watches and consumer products, it has already started to happen.

Edison is the unifying part of all the entrants to the Intel Make It Wearable competition, which finishes in November. One of the favourites is the Arc Pendant, a smart necklace that guides you around town, which started life on Edison.

While the prototypes run using Edison, the final production unit uses a scaled back Intel architecture. That’s the same for Intel MICA and SMS Headphones – existing wearables from Intel’s labs. It shows that while Edison helps startups create wearables, Intel’s technology can still end up on the shelves.

A real player?

So will this make Intel a major player in the future of wearables, and can it compete with Qualcomm in the way that it failed to in the smartphone market?

“They are different things,” explained Chase. “ARM comes from a different angle. ARM architectures are migrating upwards into higher performance, and they’re very good at that ultra low power ability, but they also depend on systems.

“If you have a requirement for neural network compute engine that’s wearable and runs off a battery you might actually be better suited to an Intel ecosystem, because it actually gets through its compute and get back to sleep faster.”

However, it looks as if Intel is already developing other wearable platforms, which could challenge the ARM gang’s status quo.

“We’re not stopping with Edison on SoCs and we’re experimenting with ultra low power and ultra high performance," Chase continued. "The cell phone chips we made Edison out of were one of several family types, so we’ll push down other types of chip to make simple wearable technologies.”

So it seems that Edison isn’t about to change the wearable landscape just yet. However, Intel’s tech could be the gateway to a host of devices, that wouldn’t otherwise have seen the light of day. It’s a long road, but Intel could be a future wearable superpower.


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