Intel Sees Fewer Power Cords in Your Future

Wireless electricity

More than a hundred years ago, Nikola Tesla envisioned building a global power network that would provide the entire world with an unlimited supply of free power, delivered wirelessly.

It’s unclear whether the Serbian electrical genius might have succeeded, since his work was ultimately sunk by funding problems.

But a century later, Intel is working a project similar in spirit, if not technology, to Tesla’s vision. As part of the final day of the Intel Developer Forum (IDF), Justin Rattner, Intel’s CTO, introduced the company’s own wireless power efforts, complete with pictures of Tesla during the keynote.

The Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) project is not quite like what Tesla planned. Tesla had been working on a broadcast-style, one-to-many design, while the Intel wireless power effort is one-to-one or one-to-several.

The company’s on-stage demo used a transmitter and receiver, each two feet across and made up of circular loops of copper wires and plastic frames. When the receiver got close to the transmitter, a light bulb attached to it turned on.

The present generation of the design can transmit fairly high power levels over two to three feet, with 75 percent power efficiency, according to Rattner.

“We expect to improve the distance as the effect and design of transmit/receive antennas and circuitry improve,” he said.

Intel researcher Alanson Sample later told that unlike a continually broadcasting Wi-Fi transmitter, Intel’s transmitter does not attempt to send out electrical power until a receiver comes within range, since both sender and receiver can sense each other.

Intel also said the technology can transmit around partial blockages and poses no danger to humans who get between the transmitter and receiver.

Additionally, Rattner noted that the transmitter does not need to be a dedicated antenna: for instance, it could be built into a desk, he said. All you would have to do is place your laptop, mobile phone, iPod, digital camera, or any other device on top of the desk and it would charge — thus sparing device owners from the common problem of wrestling with a bird’s nest of power wires.

If the transmitters were ubiquitous enough, the technology could help mobile devices move away from needing on-board batteries, Rattner said.

“It might make more sense to charge a capacitor quickly rather than a battery slowly,” he added.

As CTO, Rattner doesn’t deal with the Intel’s current products, or even the ones just around the corner, like Nehalem, its successor Westmere, or the next-generation Atom, called Moorsetown. His job is to look 10 to 20 years down the road, at innovations like wireless power.

Sensing robots and shape-shifting materials

He had several other demos of other innovations, as well.

One project he showed off was a robot able to detect and interact with objects. The robot detected that Josh Smith, an Intel researcher on-stage with Rattner, was holding an apple — then proceeded to grab it and reported “Got it.” Then, when Smith took the apple away, the robot reported “Lost it.” When it grabbed the apple again, it handed it to Rattner and said, “Please take this.” After Rattner took the apple, however, the robot asked for it back.

“We’re teaching machines to do tasks humans do everyday,” Rattner said. “What are we doing to make humans more like machines, to give them capabilities beyond the five senses we use every day?”

His answer came from Tan Le of Emotiv Systems, who also joined him on-stage to show off technology used to manipulate computers and video games using mind control.

During the on-stage demonstration, an engineer donned a metallic headgear that enabled him to control a video game through facial expressions, body movement and brain activity. He scared off the game’s creatures by making faces and then fixed a broken bridge by raising his arms dramatically.

“Use the Force, Zack,” Rattner joked to the engineer. “Wow. Mind control — this is getting scary,” he added to the audience after the demo.

Rattner also showed something even more amazing: what he called programmable matter. The matter — millimeter-sized pellets with a CPU, memory and magnetic outer shell — could be reshaped into anything, he said. The animation Rattner presented to the audience showed a car coming out of a solid piece of material, changing both shape and color.

Jason Campbell, a senior staff researcher at Intel’s research center in Pittsburgh, Penn., described ways in which programmable matter could be used for 3-D visualization in medical scans, enabling a doctor to see an organ or tumor in three dimensions. That could prove far more effective than being limited to viewing an organ only as a flat, two-dimensional slice, he said.

If Rattner and his cohorts are correct — and assuming the projects don’t fall prey to the woes that hindered Tesla — the public may see these wonders appearing as actual products at the IDF in 2025 or so.

In the meantime, the next IDF is planned for April 2009 in Beijing, China.

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