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See through: A prototype ultrabook called a Nikiski has a large, transparent touch pad that stretches the full width of the device.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas today, chip maker Intel refreshed the familiar notebook computer with ideas borrowed from more glamorous competitors.

Touch, voice control, and even gesture control—the latter popularized by Microsoft’s Kinect gaming controller—will be coming to lightweight laptops dubbed “ultrabooks,” said Mooly Eden, Intel’s vice president for sales and marketing, at Intel’s press conference this morning.

Intel dominates the market for desktop, laptop, and server processors, but has been a spectator to the rapid growth of smart phones and tablets. Worse for the Santa Clara, California, chip maker, high-powered smart-phone and tablet processors based on designs from U.K.-based ARM are beginning to show potential in Intel’s traditional realm.

Smart phones, tablets, and Apple’s super-lightweight MacBook Air have made conventional laptops look rather staid in recent years, threatening a major source of revenue for Intel. Eden’s presentation made it clear that Intel has spent considerable effort in its labs developing new technologies to refresh the notebook. Touch, voice recognition, and novel hybrid tablet-laptop designs have all been developed and will be licensed to partners such as Asus, Acer, and HP, which make ultrabooks.

Eden also showed a brief demonstration of an ultrabook able to recognize hand and arm gestures made in front of its screen, using software developed by Intel. A simple game involved using a slingshot, operated by extending an arm into the space in front of the ultrabook, making a grasping motion in thin air, then pulling back and releasing to fire the catapult. “We believe that we’ll see gestures even with our ultrabook,” said Eden. He didn’t explain how the technology worked but the ultrabook appeared to have a normal camera, suggesting it was using machine vision software to process video from its webcam.

Eden presented all those new twists on the notebook as logical moves enabled by more power-efficient processors and by a better appreciation of the importance of human-machine interaction. “In the last 30 years, the number of transistors went up a million percent, but we didn’t do enough with the man-machine interface,” he said.

There was no reason for touch to have appeared in phones and tablet devices but not laptops, said Eden. “Let me tell you something, it’s not going to skip the ultrabook,” he said. Trials in Europe, the U.S., China, and Brazil involving prototype ultrabooks with touch screens have found that people used the touch panel for around 70 percent of operations, he said. Eden also dismissed claims that people would find operating a touch panel in a notebook tiring: “People say that it’s very easy.”

Eden was dismissive of tablets, labeling them devices well suited to consuming movies and other content, but not to doing work or creating content. Intel’s anthropologists had discovered that being able to do both is important, he said. “People don’t buy the story that consumption is enough,” Eden said. “We are people; consumption is for cows.”

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Credit: Technology Review

Tagged: Computing

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