Intel has made its move to target the emerging market for wearable computers with a new family of low-power chips called Quark.
Intel said its new Quark X1000 chips are about one-fifth the size and consume one-tenth the power of its Atom processors, its current most power-efficient line of chips.
But while Atom processors are aimed at tablets and smartphones, Quark will be for devices with even lower-power requirements, such as smartwatches, glasses and medical devices that can be worn about the body.
"We have been working on wearables," Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco Tuesday, where he announced the new SOCs (system on chips).
Quark is also aimed at the Internet of Things, where compute power and connectivity are embedded into everyday objects, said Intel president Renee James, also at IDF.
The market for wearables is gaining steam, with products such as Google Glass and Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch, and Intel has been in danger of getting left out.
As part of its wearables effort, Intel has hired the designer of the Nike FuelBand, Steve Holmes, and a developers of Oakley's Airwave heads-up display and other eyewear, Hans Moritz. It also recently moved a former top mobile executive to head a "new devices" group.
Krzanich showed rough prototypes of wearable devices, including a watch that appeared to be little more than a computer chip strapped to a wrist band. Another device resembled a chunky plastic bracelet.
Intel won't make the devices, but it will create reference designs for partners to work with, as it does with laptops and other products.
The Quark chips could also be used in car headlights, James said, for a technology Intel has shown before that makes it easier for drivers to see when driving in rain or snow at night. The technology detects falling raindrops or snowflakes and deflects the headlights around them, reducing reflection and making it easier to see.
James also showed a prototype wearable medical patch that she said can monitor a patient's EKG, blood pressure and other vitals, and send the information directly to the doctor.
Intel's challenge has been reducing power consumption of its chips sufficiently to enter such markets, and its top executives apparently have high hopes for Quark. It's "new silicon that can expand the frontiers of where Intel can go," Krzanich said.
It will do battle with microcontrollers based on ARM, MIPS and Power designs, which are strong in those markets today. Microcontrollers are used in all modern cars to run air-bags and anti-lock braking systems, for example.
Customers who need it will be able to use customized versions of Quark, and the chips will run standard x86 software, Krzanich said. Intel has been pushing developers to write new applications for the architecture.
It will be easy for customers to add their own intellectual property to the Quark designs, Krzanich said. "It's more about the configurability than the scalability," he said.
Big changes like DRAM integration may be difficult may be difficult at first but will get easier as the chips develop. Third parties will also be able to attach sensors and accelerators to the chips.
Other chip makers are also building devices to show what their embedded chips are capable of. Qualcomm, which makes ARM-based chips, recently introduced the Toq smartwatch to show its hardware and software technologies.
Intel's experimental chip designs are essentially an evolution of its early Pentium designs, but they have come a long way. It has demonstrated a PC that uses a "near-theshold voltage" chip, which was powered by light generated from a bulb.