PORTLAND, Ore.—There were more 1,000 of them from all over the world; Intel researchers and scientists chatting and sharing knowledge and information about transistors, systems, software, validation, voltage, augmented reality, power—and perhaps most importantly, new user experiences.
Some of Intel's best and brightest—principal engineers, senior principal engineers, Fellows and Senior Fellows—met for three days last week at Intel's first-ever "TechFest" to discuss and debate critical technical challenges that require an "exponential change" in thinking, as Intel Vice President Dadi Perlmutter put it in one of the keynote addresses during the confab in Portland, Ore. The private invite-only event was hosted not far from Intel's sprawling Hillsboro, Ore. campuses including the company's main Silicon research and development facility recently visited by President Barak Obama.
Intel's new Director of Creative Innovation will.i.am even attended and mingled with the crowd as did Chief Technology Officer and Senior Fellow Justin Rattner who keynoted.
While Intel researchers tend to focus on narrow topics (even atoms on a particular section of the transistor), Rattner said he wanted researchers to know one another and to better understand each other's disciplines.
This exchange of technical knowledge, argued Rattner, is key to Intel's future success.
And so is "creating a sense of urgency in everything we do," said Perlmutter, who is general manager of the Intel Architecture Group.
The dominant themes at the conference were more and better collaboration, better user experience and the compute continuum.
"We can still make the PC exciting, but we need to change our world view..." - Dadi Perlmutter
Getting out of the box
This year's conference was a marked departure from the prior model in which isolated disciplines — micro architecture, platform architecture, SoCs, graphics, power, user experience, graphics and visual computing, and systems software — each held their own mini-conference.
"It's no longer feasible for teams to work in isolation," said Rattner in his keynote. "We can't live in our boxes anymore, focused on only one narrow area of expertise."
Rattner called out the visionary thinking of Carver Mead, who wrote in his landmark 1980 text, "Introduction to VLSI Systems," that "tall, thin engineers work at every level of integration from circuits to application software."
Intel engineers — tall and thin or not — have to be able to see all items in the vertical stack — from materials to microarchitecture to programming to user experience — and not just be experts in their own narrowly focused area, Rattner asserted.
Sundar Iyengar, a principal engineer in IAG, shared at the event that since Intel is so process driven, it will take time and a change in culture to break down silos. But he said success can be achieved through collaboration.
Jill Sciarappo, director of strategy for low-end products in the Embedded Computing Group, said she adheres to the Netflix model of business groups being "highly aligned, loosely coupled." Business groups in that model still exist in loose silos, but work together on strategy and goals rather than tactics.
Ask users first, then design
Genevieve Bell, Intel Fellow and director of Interaction and Experience Research (IXR) group in Intel Labs, said in a keynote that Intel has to stop believing it is only a transistor company, urging the audience to make the user experience part of Intel's DNA.
"User experience is part of how Intel will win the future," said Bell, and it's not just the "soft and fluffy stuff" as some engineers will call it. "As we did with Centrino when people told us they wanted to be connected everywhere and we created the mobile experience, we need to create more product categories and accelerate and move faster," Bell said.
Perlmutter said "99.9 percent" of the people outside of TechFest don't care about "optimized drivers" and clock speed or the silicon in their devices; they care about the experiences their devices give them.
Azam Barkatullah, principal engineer in Intel's New Business Initiatives group, said the user experience track at TechFest opened his eyes to the company's traditional method of developing products and then looking for a problem they need to solve. Instead, he added, Intel needs to find the problem end users have, figure out a solution and then develop a product around that.
Compute and continue
Many speakers at TechFest echoed the message that the company must deliver experiences and capabilities that span the continuum — everything from smartphones to PCs to smart TVs to cloud computing.
"User experience is part of how Intel will win the future." - Genevieve Bell
In his talk on "Compute Continuum Connectivity," Intel's Joshua Boelter pointed out that just 25 percent of the world is connected and 80 percent of those devices are computers and phones. We are only at the "beginning of an explosion of connected devices" Boelter said, by 2015, we should see a billion additional users and 10 billion more connected devices.
Technology users, he added, want all their devices to work together. For example, their smartphone controlling their heaters at home, their tablets transferring photos to their smartphones.
'Nothing is sacred'
"The world is changing and we need to think beyond the PC," said Perlmutter. "We continue to see the world through the lens of our past — the CPU lens and the PC lens. We can still make the PC exciting, but we need to change our world view to be successful in the future, and look at the user experience lens, the better battery life lens, the 2x performance lens."
An exponential change is needed, he told the audience. "We need to break the old rules. Nothing is sacred."