Can "Perceptual Computing" Help Intel Get Its Groove Back?

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When you peruse the tech-dominated headlines these days, a lot of the talk is about how smartphones and tablets are taking over for notebooks and laptops – which had taken over for desktop PCs.

But with the confusing mix of keyboards, track pads, touch-screens, and even voice and gesture commands that are in use today, there are at least as many different ways to interact with all those computing devices as there are different devices themselves.

But Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) is pioneering a new type of technology the chip-giant says will bring order to this interface confusion.

And it refers to this invention as "perceptual computing."

No doubt, this is Intel's latest attempt to regain its relevance in a world that is going mobile at an accelerating rate – a transition that has transformed the once-dominant firm into a veritable also-ran. And most of these earlier attempts amounted to almost nothing at all.

But I believe perceptual computing is different – and, in fact, could have two important results.

First, it could bring about a major change in how we interact with our computers and mobile devices.

And, second, it could put Intel back in a position of some prominence in the high-tech realm.

You see, Intel says perceptual computing represents a new kind of interface that will let users switch easily among the afore-mentioned keyboards, track pads, touch screens, voice commands, and gestures. More to the point, users could interact in several different modes at once.

In that regard, it's more like Web-based cloud computing. It's technologically agnostic … and doesn't matter what platform you use. Perceptual computing is designed to take it all in.

Here's how Intel's strategist and product manager Barry Solomon described it for the prestigious online journal MIT Technology Review:

"We're not trying to replace anything. We're just trying to augment existing modes of interaction. We're adding senses to the computer's brain so it can perceive its surroundings, [see] who's interacting with it, and make those interactions more intuitive.

"We want to go beyond simply delivering technology. The tech world has morphed into delivering experiences."

Several trade journals that have looked at the Intel system have compared it to the "gesture computing" employed in the sci-fi action flick Minority Report, or even to something out of Star Trek.

That's why this is important technology for the Era of Radical Change.

Right now, the Intel system requires users to clip a 3D video camera to their laptops or PCs. So, Intel is working with Creative Technology Ltd. (OTC: CREAF), which supplies a camera for about $150.

With the Creative Tech camera, the new platform will be able to sense gestures being made between six and 36 inches away from the lens. The camera is slated for sale later this year, but Intel wants developers to start writing applications now, so it's inviting those folks to buy the camera and get right to work.

Intel is quick to point out that the add-on camera is just a bridge technology. As new Intel-powered laptops come on the market, they will be delivered with this tracking technology built right in.

For advanced-voice recognition that covers nine different languages, the chipmaker is working with Nuance Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: NUAN). Nuance is best known as the force behind Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant inside iPhones from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL).

Other built-in features will include a voice assist that makes it easier to post news and updates to social-networking sites, search Wikipedia and, of course, to control videogames.

Intel first described its new approach last fall at a developer's conference in San Francisco. It actually unveiled the system at last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which gave the Silicon Valley giant a ton of buzz.

Based on my decades of tracking high-tech breakthroughs, I predict Intel's new platform will launch with quite a few quirks. Early versions either contain bugs that will need to be fixed, or just won't perform up to expectations.

But that's just the nature of the beast. What's really important here is that I believe that Intel is breaking new ground. And that means the world's No. 1 maker of semiconductors – long a tech laggard – could become one of those most intriguing turnaround plays in all of technology.

For those of you who prefer to invest in smaller tech concerns … don't worry: I see plenty of opportunities like that still to come.

I already mentioned two small-cap tech players already working with Intel.

And you can bet that other fast-growing firms will jump to the fore, creating profits … perhaps even of the magnitude that Intel itself generated in its early dominant days.

As those companies hit my radar, you can bet that I'll be passing them along to you. Because that's what we look for – here in the Era of Radical Change.

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About the Author

Michael A. Robinson is one of the top financial analysts working today. His book "Overdrawn: The Bailout of American Savings" was a prescient look at the anatomy of the nation's S&L crisis, long before the word "bailout" became part of our daily lexicon. He's a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer and reporter, lauded by the Columbia Journalism Review for his aggressive style. His 30-year track record as a leading tech analyst has garnered him rave reviews, too. Today he is the editor of the monthly tech investing newsletter Nova-X Report as well as Radical Technology Profits, where he covers truly radical technologies – ones that have the power to sweep across the globe and change the very fabric of our lives – and profit opportunities they give rise to. He also explores "what's next" in the tech investing world at Strategic Tech Investor.

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