Intel continues IoT push with Joule, fingers firmly crossed

Intel has been trying to reposition itself these past few quarters, into a company with a firm focus outside its core offering of PC and server processors. Drones, machine vision, and the IoT have been recent additions to the portfolio, and at its Intel Developer Forum (IDF) the company unveiled a new pursuit – a VR headset called Project Alloy. After its mobile failure, Intel needs its IoT plans to pan out.

Its more IoT-specific announcements saw it unveil the Joule developer board, which is aimed at those looking to experiment with its RealSense 3D vision camera technology, as well as the commercial launch of its Aero drone-based developer kit. As the IoT is data at its core, a new AI-focused Xeon server chip called Knights Mill was also launched – which aims to outperform GPU-based big data arrays.

Much will be made of Intel’s decision to add ARM chips to its own x86 foundries this week, which can be read as something of an admission of the rising power of ARM in the silicon world. However, there is still time for Intel to foster some success with its low-power chip families – although the company has been in something of an uphill battle for quite some time now.

The Joule 570X kit centers around the namesake Atom-based System-on-Module (SoM), which sits on the familiar developer board backing – which provides access for a pretty wide range of peripherals. The key I/O device for Joule developers will be the RealSense depth-sensing cameras, which can provide machines with a 3D mapping function – to enable autonomous navigation (drones) or advanced object recognition and gesture control (consumer electronics).

Intel notes that the low-power package provides the performance needed for these kind of advanced functions. The 570X kit houses a 64-bit quad-core Atom T5700, with a base-clock of 1.7GHz and a burst turbo of 2.4GHz. 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM and 16GB of eMMC flash storage flesh out the computational specs, with Bluetooth 4.1 and 802.11ac MIMO WiFi providing the wireless connectivity, and a plethora of physical I/O options – including USB 3.0, MPI, CSI, DSI, GPIO, I2C, and UART.

Intel notes that a Linux-based OS “tailored for the IoT and smart devices” is also included, but doesn’t specify which one. Canonical has announced that it is providing its Ubuntu Snappy Core for the platform, which might be a more familiar platform for developers than the home-brew Intel OS, called “Reference Linux OS for IoT.” Microsoft’s Windows 10 IoT Core is also mentioned in the announcement.

On stage at IDF, Intel showed off a pair of augmented reality (AR) glasses made by PivotHead for Airbus, which provided real-time audio feedback to engineers for quality control. Also on display was a conversational bar-tending robot from Japanese robotics company VStone, aimed at providing companionship to Japan’s elderly population; a highway patrol motorcycle helmet display from EyeLights; Microsoft’s Bamboo Robotic Companion, for parents of children with diabetes to help set reminders and monitor blood sugar levels; two robots from Canonical, running the Robot OS; and Easy Robot’s educational robotic kits, which are based on Joule.

In other developer kit news, Intel also announced that its drone/UAV kit, called Aero, has now been made commercially available. Aero houses a 1.6GHz Atom x7-Z8700 processor, which turbos up to 2.4GHz, aided by 4GB of RAM, 16GB of flash storage, 802.11ac WiFi, and an Altera Max 10 FPGA that allows developers to reprogram an 80-pin GPIO connector. Aero runs the popular Yocto Linux OS, and costs $400.

Other RealSense kits have been unveiled, which include the ZR300 and the Euclid Developer Kit, which is a self-contained “candy-bar-sized” unit that combines camera and processor with wireless connectivity – making it something of a one-stop shop for developers looking to give eyes to a project.

The opening keynote of IDF was used to unveil Project Alloy, an all-in-one merged-reality headset that Intel says will redefine what is possible in VR. Project Alloy will be offered as an open platform in 2017, and Intel is working with Microsoft to optimize Windows-based content for Alloy.

APIs for the hardware kit will also be made available to developers, and Intel hopes that these developers and some specific partners will build their own branded designs from Alloy. Windows Holographic is an obvious candidate, but Apple has yet to make a VR or AR play in either its desktop or mobile portfolios.

For now, the real-world objects that are integrated into the merged-reality environment are markedly low-resolution, but there is huge scope for improvement in this market and environment. Being able to “see” your own hands in the environment is a large obstacle to overcome, and based on the on-stage demo, those graphics are a long way away.

A blog from Krzanich later added that merged-reality is more about natural ways of interacting with and manipulating virtual environments, with a focus on moving away from the controllers that are currently used in VR. By ensuring that the wearer is using their actual hands, Intel believes that VR can feel much more real.

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