You may remember the splash that Intel (INTC) made at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. While much of the fuss at CES 2014 was around photo-friendly technology like Samsung’s (SSNLF) curved 105-inch Ultra HD TV, all-in-one PCs running Google’s (GOOG) Android and smartwatches galore, INTC was introducing its new Intel Edison system-on-a-chip. Most tech companies were looking to impress consumers this year, but INTC seemed to be positioning itself for a longer game. We recently had another glimpse of INTC’s plans when the company introduced a 3D-printed robot kit powered by an Intel Edison chip.
It’s no secret that INTC arrived very late to the smartphone and tablet revolution. As a result, instead of Intel chips, most mobile devices are powered by CPUs manufactured by Qualcomm (QCOM), while Apple (AAPL) uses its own custom ARM (ARMH)-based designs.
Even as it struggles to gain a foothold in the mobile market, INTC has increasingly emphasized its determination to be leader in the next wave of technology. AT CES, it positioned its Intel Edison chips as being the ideal solution for powering wearable tech and connected devices: These Intel Edison system-on-a-chip CPUs are tiny, extremely powerful, affordable, energy efficient and able to support a wide range of inputs and sensors.
The same features that make Intel Edison chips a legitimate contender as wearables and the connected home heat up also give INTC a leg up in another high tech field that’s even further down the road: personal robotics.
Today, robots that end up in the home tend to fall into one of three categories: toys, expensive hobbies or specific-purpose devices like iRobot’s (IRBT) Roomba vacuum cleaners.
However, INTC thinks it can take robotics much further and that the Intel Edison chip is the key to leapfrogging the Apples, Samsungs and Googles while their attention is focused on mobile and wearables. Its 21st Century Robot Project is aimed at making that leap.
At the Re/Code conference, the “Jimmy” robot was introduced, a $16,000 humanoid robotic kit powered by an INTC NUC mini PC (see our review here) with an aircraft-grade aluminum exoskeleton and advanced servo motors. At this price point, Jimmy is aimed at researchers and universities — but that’s where the Intel Edison chip comes in.
According to Re/Code’s James Temple, a consumer version powered by the Intel Edison chip will hit the market by the end of the year, priced at $1,600. The body parts are printed by the consumer using a 3D printer while the motors, battery, wires and Edison chip are part of the robot kit. INTC thinks it can get that price down to around $1,000 within five years.
Things just got a little more interesting.
And, although it may have effectively sat out the smartphone and tablet boom, INTC was clearly watching how things played out and learned a few lessons. Intel is looking to Google’s Android as a model with its robot kit, with an app store for consumers (and professional users) to easily expand the capability of their robot while offering developers the opportunity to make money selling those apps. And by making the Intel Edison-powered personal robotic kit open source (like Android), INTC is hoping to bring more hardware partners on board to either expand the capabilities or to offer their own robot kit — so long as it’s “Intel Edison Inside,” INTC is happy.
According to the International Federation of Robotics, in 2012 there were a little more than 3 million robots sold worldwide for domestic and entertainment purposes. The association projects rapid growth in the sector, estimating an additional 22 million will be sold by 2016.
That’s decent enough growth, but if the Intel Edison-powered robot kit is able to kickstart consumer interest in robotics, then the field has the potential to expand even more rapidly.
If a robot in every home sounds implausible (after all, what would you use a robot for?), just seven years ago, no one would have imagined consumers would adopt the smartphone en masse either. According to Comscore, there were just 9 million owned by consumers the year Apple released the iPhone, and smartphones made up just 4% of the U.S. mobile market.
Expect to hear more about INTC and Intel Edison chips when the consumer version of the Jimmy robot kit starts shipping, likely in time for the holiday season.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities