Intel has been outlining its research into the future of the internet, and is predicting a greater merging of the online and real worlds.
Jerry Bautista, Intel's director of technology management and microprocessor research, said in his keynote address to the Semicon West 2009 conference that Intel is working on what it terms an 'immersive connective experience' (ICE) where devices will increasingly overlay the digital world onto the real one.
"There is another web coming, an ICE web," he said. "The digital world and the actual world are going to be connected, and we will find that we can create other worlds as well."
Bautista highlighted a number of areas where this is already taking place. Intel is working on automating the creation of 3D avatars which could be used to augment videoconferencing, for example. The computer could create an avatar of the participants and the room they are in, so that everyone appears to be in the same room and has realistic facial expressions.
Intel's laboratories have also been researching visual computing, using computers in conjunction with cameras and GPS in a smartphone. For example, a user could take a picture of a road sign on their smartphone, and the handset would use GPS to determine the global location, get a translation of the sign and provide directions from an overlaid mapping application.
Bautista explained that applications such as Second Life are merely the first generation of virtual worlds, and the experience will get much more immersive. Intel has been using software modelling techniques to render 3D images more effectively, including making computer-generated environments obey physical laws of movement and building in behavioural int elligence.
Another example of this would be users generating their own 3D images by sending in 20 pictures of an object to be rendered and letting the computer build the object automatically.
Bautista estimated that the techniques of using the camera to produce visual searches for data of a photographed object would come online in 2010, with information overlay on camera views by 2012 and a 2D and 3D visual overlay available by 2014.
He pointed out that there are plenty of virtual worlds bigger than Second Life; teen site Poptropica pulls in 21 million users and Neopets over 45 million. More than 50 per cent of all virtual world users are aged between four and 12, and the idea of interacting in virtual worlds will be normal and natural as they grow up.
However, all these functions will require a huge increase in computing power. Intel estimates that such a system would require servers to work 10 times faster, using 100 times the current bandwidth and a new generation of " many-core" computing processors.
"This is where Intel smiles," said Bautista. "This requires a pretty heavy computing load. If you try and access sites like Second Life with an old laptop the site brings it to its knees."
Intel's data showed that viewing 20 web pages takes up about 20 per cent of a computer's central processing unit (CPU) and very little graphics processing unit (GPU) power. By contrast, using Second Life takes about 70 per cent of CPU time and around 35-75 per cent of the GPU's power.
However, Bautista said that the current limitations are down to software, not hardware. Intel claims that it could put more than enough cores on a chip (the record is currently 80) to handle the new demands of ICE.
Another issue is reshaping distributed computing. Networks need to get much smarter in terms of routing data to ensure that data flows are smooth and reliable. Part of this would include setting up distributed datacentres to do local processing and route data to mobile devices.
Battery life is also an issue, but Intel is trying to overcome this by using much smarter power management. Processing wiill be shifted to a few active cores, and the processor will shut down spare ones to save power.
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