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Intel's new Joule system can help gadgets see and understand the world

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Computer vision in a tiny package

Intel today introduced a new chip module it calls Joule, a tiny board for developers designed to bring powerful computer vision technology to cheap and easy-to-make prototypes. Joule is essentially a tiny and powerful computer with all its standard up-to-date parts. But it also has enhanced sensors with support for Intel's RealSense tech that make it suitable for powering software for drones, robots, and other gadgets to help those devices see, analyze, and collect data about the real world. Intel says this type of vision and data collection should let Joule be used for automation as well.

In an onstage demo today at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, wearable company PivotHead showed off Joule powering a pair of industrial safety glasses. Because all of the computation happens on Joule itself, the glasses can perform real-time analysis of a scene. In PivotHead's case, the glasses were performing volt verification on a piece of aircraft. There's no need for wires, or a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection, as Joule is capable of handling all the processing. That makes it useful in areas with poor connectivity.

Joule is a tiny computer with big potential for computer vision, AR, and VR

Joule developer kits are available for purchase now from sites like Newegg, Intel says, and the company plans on certifying the board for use in more than 100 countries by the end of the year. The system is also already today in use in a number of industries with custom-made products. Those include a bartender robot with Joule-powered computer vision made by Japanese company VStone and a heads-up display from French company EyeSight built into the highway police motorcycle helmets.

As for why Intel is pushing so hard to power obscure and mostly experimental devices, it all comes back to its chip making roots. Intel's biggest priority right now is ensuring both its hardware and its software is powering the next wave of computing devices, from drones and robots to augmented reality glasses and VR headsets. With Joule and RealSense, Intel can stay involved in the more cutting-edge sectors of the market because it's giving away the technology at a low cost and letting anyone take advantage of it.

One of Intel's biggest missteps of the last 10 years was ceding ground in the smartphone chip industry to rivals and upstarts, leaving one of the world's biggest PC players out of the mobile boom. Krzanich's entire philosophy as CEO as has been to prevent that from happening with the Internet of Things. Products like Joule and Intel's Quark, Edison, and now Curie line of microcomputers for wearables are designed to keep the company competitive as more new devices — many of them everyday objects like accessories, clothing, and appliances — come online every day.