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Intel plans tiny energy suckers to watch environs

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Intel's research labs have worked on some truly sci-fi concepts in their time - shape-shifting micro-robots and online-gaming "anti-cheat" technology, to name just a pair.

Now the chip giant’s laying plans for tiny sensors that are capable of transmitting data on their surrounding environment while powered by ambient energy.

Intel’s chief technology officer Justin Rattner has revealed the company is combining two over-the-horizon technologies - wireless sensing and wireless power - into a single research initiative to deliver on its plan. The project is called the Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform, or WISP.

WISPs are tiny sensors designed to be embedded in anything from your home to your skull, where they'll report a wide variety of data to radio receivers to monitor anything from temperature and pollution levels to heart rate. As the technology shrinks, it may even be possible to have the little buggers keep an eye on viral infections.

Perhaps more revolutionary is they'll be powered, as Rattner put it, by "scavenging" energy not only from current-technology radio frequency identification (RFID) readers, but also from a wide variety of ambient-energy sources such as WiFi hotspots, cell towers, or TV broadcast signals - even from sunlight or body heat.

The advantages WISPs have over current sensing technologies include the fact that since they're self-powered they are, Rattner said, able to be "install-and-forget kind of systems." Also, since they're intended to be both inexpensive and tiny Rattner said "we could... litter the planet with these things."

Now, whether or not you think that littering the planet with billions of micro-spies is a good idea, you must admit that highly granular environmental data could be a good thing. For example, one implementation that Rattner proposed was a WISP-populated data center in which the tiny sensors would provide wide-ranging and instantaneous temperature data to a central controller, which could then balance computing loads with cooling capabilities.

As pie-in-the-sky as virus-detecting WISPs coursing through your gut may sound, Intel has already conducted one pilot project in San Francisco, where street sweepers were equipped with sensors that monitored air quality. Rattner projects that WISPs won't become marketable products for three to five years, but EETimes Europe has quoted him as saying that WISPs "might turn into a business opportunity" sometime in the future.

Just don't let your employer squirt one into your arm. ®

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