This week was lab day at Intel, a company that uses its labs much more strategically than most. There really aren’t that many large lab efforts in the world anymore because, while many created amazing things, those things remained in the labs, never making it out to product. In other cases, the labs were focused on more tactical efforts and became redundant to product groups. Intel takes a very long view and has come to the conclusion that if it can drive innovation broadly in technology, the market for the parts it builds will grow and so will its opportunity and profits. The company realized that companies like itself run into problems if innovation or related markets stagnate, so it works strategically to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Justin Rattner: The Mastermind
At the top of this strategy is Justin Rattner, Intel’s CTO. He has implemented a very unique process in which his groups collaborate with major universities worldwide to create open source projects. This is very orthogonal thinking because, typically, labs are focused on locking up what they invent to make sure the funding firm gets all of the benefit. But Intel will never build the majority of products the labs create; it wants other firms to pick up the ideas, create markets and then buy Intel’s products to make the products work.
While the lab does work on next-generation processors and does keep those efforts more confidential than other stuff, virtually all of what they are showcasing is designed to build new markets for products that don’t exist yet and will use Intel’s technology. This sharing helps create an opportunity for the next Apple, Samsung or even IBM to create a technology wave and helps assure that, because Intel is part of the process, Intel is part of that wave. The idea of an open lab from a technology vendor is almost impossible to get your head around, but it is this effort that likely will assure Intel outlasts many of its contemporaries.
Products Out of Intel Labs
This results in some amazing initiatives. For instance, the lab has efforts on broadcast power (not showcased this time), which should be close to showing up in devices. This is different from induction, in that the power source can be located some distance from the device being powered. Think of a smartphone that would charge just because it was in the car or in your office, for instance.
One of the more amazing products the lab is working on with a leading European car company (please be Jaguar, please be Jaguar) makes rain and snow invisible to headlights. The lights pulse and you effectively can see right through rain and snow storms. Given that rain falls in a straight line and snow doesn’t, predicting where snowflakes will be in order to route the light from the headlights around it makes it seem like Harry Potter needed to be part of the solution. It worked, though I couldn’t hope to explain why.
The lab also showcased the ability to use your phone to project a touch display onto a flat surface using the phone’s camera to tell where your fingers are. This needed a bit of work, but imagine being able to project a web page you currently have to scroll around on your phone into full size on a table or wall. This could be a game changer.
Genevieve Bell: Intel’s Secret Weapon
The other thing I think is magical is that Intel somehow got that technology companies just aren’t understanding that tech products have to work with people. So it raised Genevieve Bell to the role of Fellow and gave her a research budget, even though she isn’t an engineer but more of an ethnologist/sociologist. Her focus is to bring people back into the equation and help develop products that adopt to us more and force us to adopt to them less.
It amazes me to watch companies like Facebook and Google struggle with social network issues and appear to wonder why. The companies are run by engineers, not exactly a class of people who are known to stand out as examples of social excellence. In fact, social engineer is probably an oxymoron. No wonder they are struggling, after all. If you want to solve electrical problems, you hire an electrical engineer. If you want to solve social problems, perhaps an expert like Genevieve Bell would make far more sense. Her folks are trying to model the future as it actually will be and come up with solutions that will improve that future rather than, like most, assume either the future will be utopian or unchanged.
Brian (Crystal Balls) Johnson
The lead futurist, Brian David Johnson, is also doing some incredible work. One of the more amazing ideas is to create a 3D printer project for personal robots. Apparently, Intel intends to invade the Burning Man event with a small army of these. But the idea, given the increased number of 3D printers out there, is to create a library of plans that kids of all ages could use to create their own personal robots, limited only by their imaginations and the availability of actuators and logic systems (which can’t yet be printed). So if, in a few years, you are up to your armpits in weird little robots that your kids and husband have made, you’ll have Brian to thank.
Another project that is even more interesting falls out of Johnson’s Science Fiction Prototyping efforts. He is actively engaging large numbers of kids in an effort to get them to help imagine, and create, the future in which they will live. This is both brilliant and transformative; kids tend to think tactically about what they want near term and not think much about the future until it is largely too late to change it. By cycling them in early, there is a chance they could become more engaged in creating a better future. We’ll hope that this future isn’t predicated on getting rid of us older folks.
Wrapping Up: Corporate Immortality
Truly thinking strategically is a lost art, but one that Intel showcased at its labs event this week. It is creating open source products that will assure innovation continues to benefit the company, assure that people are increasingly considered when new products and product classes are created, and make kids a major part of their own future. If that isn’t a showcase on how to make sure your company will be immortal, I don’t know what is.
Now excuse me, as I’ve got to go online and shop for some robot repellant. I understand the “Crystal Balls” brand is best. Oh crap…