Intel Striving Not To Miss Next Wave Of Computing: Wearables

Intel was a powerhouse in the age of personal computing, making its revenues from powerful chips built into PCs. But it has largely missed the mobile computing revolution. With PC sales slumping, Intel is intent on becoming relevant in the next wave of computing — wearables.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, let's hear about a company that largely missed out on the mobile device boom. Intel - the giant computer chip maker. Chances are you won't find anything from Intel in your smartphone. But they are looking for ways to get in the game as the world of computing moves to new places - like your wrist, and in your ears. Here's NPR's Steve Henn.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: For a couple of years now, Intel has kind of reminded me of GM in the early 1970s. Back then, GM was making these big powerful cars. And when the VW Beetle and the Toyota Corrola showed up on American shores, big sedans were done.

In computing, the mobile revolution has hit Intel like the gas crisis. All of sudden it was really important to produce computer chips that sip power from a tiny battery instead of gulping it from a wall socket.

SERGIS MUSHELL: I don't think they've ever denied it, that they're behind the curve and they're coming in and putting all their efforts in to go after mobility.

HENN: Sergis Mushell tracks this industry for Gartner Research. He says today you not only need to make a fast chip, you need an energy-efficient one as well.

MUSHELL: It's all about performance.

HENN: And as our devices get smaller and computers are built into things like watches and glasses, batteries shrink and this problem gets even harder.

Mike Bell at Intel says his company is determined to compete in this space. Bell runs Intel's new devices group.

MIKE BELL: In my mind, this technology is going to take off technology when it is embedded that people look at things and don't even realize there's technology there. Like people look and go, wow, that has a computer inside of it?

HENN: Bell shows me a pair of ear buds designed by Intel. They look normal, but actually monitor your heart rate, and an app for athletes connects that heart data to your music collection.

BELL: And if you are below your target heart rate zone, it plays fast music to speed you up.

HENN: Then he shows me a tiny computer - it's just about the size of a postage stamp. Intel calls it the Edison. It has a Linux processor and connects to the net wirelessly. And it's small enough to build into clothing - like a new born baby's onesie.

DULCIE MADDEN: My name is Dulcie Madden. I am the CEO and co-founder of Rest Devices and we make the Mimo smart baby monitor.

HENN: A baby monitor your baby wears.

MADDEN: The actual onesie itself has two green sensors on it. When you clip on a little turtle that is about the size of a nilla wafer - thereabouts - a mom or a dad will put it on their baby and then they can see in real time their babies breathing, skin temperature, body position, activity level - so if the baby is awake or asleep, and then you can listen to audio,

HENN: It's cute. The green sensors look like leaves and the turtle is crawling over the rim of the baby's belly. Intel's little computer goes inside that plastic turtle - and it's small enough that Madden and her team had to do a lot of work to make sure it wasn't a choking hazard.

But no, it's not a poopy diaper alarm. It's really aimed at anxious parents.

CORRIE LUONGO: I'm a very laid-back parent in the day-to-day stuff, but at night, I couldn't shake the anxiety.

HENN: Corrie Luongo helped test the Mimo wireless onesie on her third baby, Callan.

LUONGO: They were very good sleepers. They slept through the night from a very early age, but I never did.

HENN: This wireless onesie let Luongo check that every thing was OK from a warm cozy bed. She liked it so much she now works for the company.

But Dulcie Madden says helping anxious parents sleep is just the beginning of what a little wireless onesie computer could accomplish. Already, her team has designed a bottle warmer that learns a baby's feeding habits - without you havening to program anything - and turns itself on when automatically when that onesie sends it a message that your baby is waking up.

Madden says, the coffeemaker could be next.

Steve Henn NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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