IDF 2016: Pow­er­ful chips, su­per-fast data lasers and ro­bot brains

Brad Cha­cos re­veals the high­lights from this year’s In­tel De­vel­oper Fo­rum


The In­tel of to­day isn’t the In­tel you know, and that truth was ham­mered home at the com­pany’s re­cent an­nual In­tel De­vel­op­ers Fo­rum in San Fran­cisco.

Sure, it’s still by far the most prodi­gious PC chip­maker in the world, but its fo­cus has shifted away from com­put­ers alone to em­brace the idea of bring­ing smarts to all sorts of de­vices. While the IDFs of yes­ter­year leaned heav­ily on PC pro­ces­sors and new tech de­signed to make com­put­ers more po­tent, at IDF 2016 PCs shared the stage with drones, DJ ta­bles, robots, Rasp­berry Pi-es­que maker boards, and even 5G net­works.

And that’s not even men­tion­ing the an­nounce­ment about In­tel and ARM – or the sur­prise mic-drop mo­ment from AMD. The times are def­i­nitely chang­ing, but at the same time, IDF has al­ways been about what’s com­ing next in the world of com­put­ing – and IDF 2016 de­liv­ered wild vi­sions of the fu­ture in spades. Let’s dig in, start­ing with some rad­i­cal new PC hard­ware.

Project Al­loy

The star of IDF’s day one key­note wasn’t a fe­ro­cious new pro­ces­sor or an ar­cane In­ter­net of Things in­ven­tion. In­stead, it was Project Al­loy, a wire­less VR head­set cre­ated by In­tel with help from Microsoft.

Project Al­loy uses dual In­tel RealSense 3D cam­eras to de­tect the out­side world, of­fer­ing ‘five-fin­ger de­tec­tion’ to help you ma­nip­u­late vir­tual ob­jects. Whereas the Ocu­lus Rift and HTC Vive fo­cus on straight vir­tual re­al­ity – plac­ing you wholly in­side vir­tual worlds – and Microsoft’s HoloLens uses aug­mented re­al­ity to over­lay dig­i­tal ob­jects in the phys­i­cal world, Project Al­loy is a mar­riage of the two. In­tel’s head­set uses its cam­eras to dis­play real-world ob­jects in­side a 3D-ren­dered vir­tual world.

In­tel didn’t dive into specifics; we don’t know when Project Al­loy will be re­leased, or for how much, or even what chip pow­ers it. But the com­pany plans to open-source the de­sign of this po­ten­tial PC saviour some­time mid-2017.

Win­dows Holo­graphic

Open-sourced VR head­sets are only part of the equa­tion, though. Hard­ware is use­less with­out soft­ware. For­tu­nately, Win­dows chief Terry My­er­son strode on stage shortly af­ter Project Al­loy’s re­veal to an­nounce that Microsoft is bring­ing Win­dows Holo­graphic to the masses. Win­dows Holo­graphic, which pow­ers Project Al­loy and Microsoft’s own HoloLens, uses aug­mented re­al­ity to show dig­i­tal ob­jects over­laid in the phys­i­cal world, such as Minecraft blocks or wall-sized cal­en­dars. Microsoft will push Win­dows Holo­graphic to ev­ery Win­dows 10 PC some­time in 2017 – pre­sum­ably around the time In­tel open-sources Project Al­loy’s de­sign.

Kaby Lake

Vir­tual re­al­ity de­mands more com­put­ing per­for­mance than most tasks. At IDF, In­tel for­mally showed off its next gen­er­a­tion of CPUs, dubbed Kaby Lake.

In­tel ac­tu­ally spent more time talk­ing up the card’s graph­ics per­for­mance than its com­put­ing chops, which may not be sur­pris­ing when you con­sider that the chips were hastily added to In­tel’s road map as Moore’s Law slows. The sev­en­th­gen­er­a­tion Core pro­ces­sors fea­ture hard­ware-ac­cel­er­ated video de­cod­ing and graph­ics cores pow­er­ful enough to push 4K video, In­tel says. The com­pany also showed those in­te­grated graph­ics cores run­ning Over­watch smooth as silk, though In­tel didn’t say which graph­ics set­tings or res­o­lu­tion were used in the demo. Don’t ex­pect Kaby Lake’s built-in graph­ics to play games at 4K res­o­lu­tion, is what we’re say­ing.

Lap­tops based on Kaby Lake – like the Asus Trans­former 3 pic­tured above – will start ship­ping some­time this au­tumn.


But Kaby Lake is evo­lu­tion. AMD’s forth­com­ing Zen ar­chi­tec­ture is a CPU revo­lu­tion for the com­pany, and the firm pig­gy­backed on IDF for a ma­jor re­veal of its own. It’s been teas­ing Zen de­tails for a while now, but pulled back the cur­tain pretty far at an evening event in San Fran­cisco.

The high­light was a de­mon­stra­tion of two PCs – one pow­ered by an octa-core Zen chip, the other by In­tel’s octa-core Core i76900K – set to 3GHz clock speeds and fac­ing off in a mul­ti­threaded Blen­der ren­der­ing task. AMD’s Zen chip beat out In­tel’s lat­est, great­est octa-core pro­ces­sor by a hair.

Con­sid­er­ing that the in­ter­net ru­mour mill pegged Zen per­for­mance as roughly on par with old-school In­tel ‘Ivy Bridge’ chips, that’s in­cred­i­bly ex­cit­ing. For more de­tails read our fea­ture on page 80.

Knight’s Mill

In­tel’s truly awe-in­spir­ing hard­ware is des­tined for dat­a­cen­tres, though. Dur­ing day two’s key­note, In­tel took the wraps off ‘Knight’s Mill’ – a pow­er­ful, se­cre­tive new Xeon Phi chip loaded with dozens of CPU cores and cut­ting-edge stacked mem­ory in order to chew through ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence tasks.

Knight’s Mill isn’t a di­rect re­place­ment for the 72-core Knight’s Land­ing chip, nor Knight’s Hill (aka Knight’s Land­ing’s even­tual suc­ces­sor). In­stead, the pro­ces­sor’s cores fo­cus on ‘low-pre­ci­sion cal­cu­la­tions’, which can be strung to­gether for ap­prox­i­ma­tions that can help the chip make de­ci­sions in neu­ral net­works. It’s a di­rect re­sponse to the me­te­oric rise of Nvidia GPUs for AI tasks.

Pho­tonic con­nec­tors

Af­ter 16 long years of test­ing and teas­ing, In­tel is fi­nally mak­ing good on its prom­ise to move be­yond cop­per. At IDF 2016, the com­pany an­nounced that it has be­gun ship­ping sil­i­con pho­ton­ics mod­ules, which use light and lasers to tur­bocharge data trans­fers be­tween com­put­ers.

This ini­tial broad­side fo­cuses on op­ti­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­ogy in­side of data cen­tres, at blis­ter­ing 100Gb/s rates. And while it’s based on the widely used eth­er­net pro­to­col, servers will re­quire spe­cial switches to sup­port sil­i­con pho­ton­ics.

But the re­ally in­trigu­ing tit­bit is what lies be­yond this rollout: over time, In­tel will bake op­ti­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rectly in­side its chips, which means blaz­ing-fast beams of light will push the data in­side PCs.

DDR5 mem­ory

The fu­ture of mem­ory was ex­plored, too. No, we’re not talk­ing about In­tel’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary 3D XPoint mem­ory (though it made an ap­pear­ance in an en­ter­prise-only role). In­stead, we’re talk­ing about DDR5 RAM.

“What? Isn’t DDR4 mem­ory just start­ing to roll out?” you ask. Yes in­deed, dear hy­po­thet­i­cal reader, but DDR5 isn’t ex­pected un­til 2020. But see­ing its mere ex­is­tence on an IDF 2016 slide is eye-open­ing, as many hard­ware ex­perts ex­pected DDR4 to be the last ma­jor DDR RAM it­er­a­tion be­fore the tech­nol­ogy gives way to bet­ter, brighter things (like the afore­men­tioned 3D XPoint, or phase-change mem­ory).

DDR5 DRAM will have many ben­e­fits: users will be able to cram more mem­ory into PCs, and ap­pli­ca­tions will run faster.

In­tel CEO Brian Krzanich shows off the new Joule chip

Kaby Lake

Project Al­loy


Pho­tonic con­nec­tors

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