Fri, Feb 21, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Intel envisions the future through an anthropologist’s eyes

A ‘feral kid from Australia’ leads the team of scientists helping the chipmaker focus on the people using its products

By Natasha Singer  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Mountain People

Behind the gray, noise-absorbing cubicle walls at Intel Corp in Hillsboro, Oregon, researchers who forecast the future of computing can sense her arrival.

Reverberating down the hall comes an emphatic Australian voice and the rhythmic “thwack-thwack” of pointy-heeled boots on carpet. Then, Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who is Intel’s resident tech intellectual, materializes — auburn-haired, big-ringed, trailing clouds of Chloe perfume.

She may still see herself as “just a feral kid from Australia.” However, for Intel, she personifies something grander: the company’s aspirations to be regarded as more than just a chipmaker.

Bell’s title at Intel, the world’s largest producer of semiconductors, is director of user experience research at Intel Labs, the company’s research arm. She runs a so-called skunk works of about 100 social scientists and designers who travel the globe observing how people use technology in their homes and in public. The team’s findings help inform the company’s product development process and are also often shared with the laptop makers, automakers and other companies that embed Intel processors in their goods.

Some years ago, for instance, Bell’s team interviewed parents in China who regarded home computers as distractions from their children’s schoolwork. Intel developed a prototype “China Home Learning PC,” eventually manufactured by an Intel customer, with a key that parents could activate to prevent their children from playing online games during homework time.

“My mandate at Intel has always been to bring the stories of everyone outside the building inside the building — and make them count,” said Bell, who considers herself among the outsiders.

“You have to understand people to build the next generation of technology,” she added.

By “outside,” she is not referring only to consumers outside of the US. Bell and her team are responsible for discovering the attributes that people everywhere love, or wish they could have, in their PCs, televisions and so on. Over the past few years, they have been concentrating on consumers’ appetites for hyper-personal technology, like voice-recognition systems and fitness trackers. In essence, they are pushing Intel toward a more people-centric era of personal computing.

Lately, that work has become all the more important to the company. That is because Intel, which has long dominated the laptop processor field, was surprisingly slow to acknowledge the burgeoning market for smartphone chips. In fact, Bell and her team, among others, had forecast the mobile trend early on, said Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel’s data center group, but Intel did not prioritize it at the time. Although the company recently introduced new chips for mobile devices, PC makers are still Intel’s largest customer base, accounting for US$33 billion of its US$52.7 billion in revenue last year.

Now, attributable in part to the efforts of Bell and her team, Intel is trying to catch up, entering realms like wearable gadgets that could showcase its new, lower-powered, very small chips. Futurists on Bell’s team are also developing a customizable personal robot, about the size of a big teddy bear, based on the new minichips. Where even a decade ago, Intel still focused largely on turning out increasingly efficient technology for its industrial customers, the company now looks toward consumer happiness as a starting point of product development, its executives have said.

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