Director of Intel Research Seattle Focuses on Game-Changing Technologies, Opening New Markets

On a clear day, David Wetherall can see Mount Rainier from his desk. On a clearer day, he can see the future of Intel. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Wetherall, the director of Intel Research Seattle, has certainly been charged with leading an exploratory research effort for the chip-making giant—blue-sky, “off-roadmap” stuff that won’t be in Intel’s products anytime soon, but is nonetheless vital to the company because it could help create the broader future of computing.

Intel Research Seattle, located three blocks from the University of Washington campus, is one of three Intel labs tied closely to universities around the country—the others are at UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. The Seattle lab, which opened in 2001, has 20 full-time researchers, with about an equal number of students, interns, and visiting researchers at any given time.

I sat down with Wetherall yesterday as he was doing last-minute preparations for today’s annual lab open house. Wetherall has been director of the Seattle lab since mid-2006. He is also an associate professor of computer science and engineering at UW, and his own research has focused on wireless networks and distributed systems. It’s an unusual model, in that Intel hires its research lab directors for three-year terms, after which they typically go back to academia full-time. (Wetherall is the third director of the Seattle lab.) “The lab has a charter, to bring in new people from the university,” says Wetherall. This helps “invigorate things” and keeps the lab’s research on the “cutting edge.”

As Wetherall explains, it’s a pretty open and forward-looking effort. “We have a lot of joint research, projects where university people work here, and we also fund research at the university. It’s a big way we get things done. There is a joint, open collaborative agreement between Intel and UW. People don’t have to sign an NDA,” says Wetherall. “We’re not focused on an immediate product, we’re focused around opening markets…We’re chartered with doing disruptive research that’s not on the product map. Intel is interested in new computing technologies. We’re trying to invent them, and stay ahead of the game. We’re a small scout organization looking for game-changing technologies.”

The Seattle lab’s research theme is “focused on future computer systems woven into the fabric of everyday life,” says Wetherall. It’s the next step in the evolution of computers as they migrate from desktops to mobile devices to embedded devices. “We try to figure out what technologies and usage models work, how to power them, how to provide privacy, how to do sensing,” he adds. Researchers at the lab have expertise in hardware, robotics, machine learning, wireless networks, and human-computer interfaces, among other disciplines. “We believe in prototyping, from hardware through software systems, and we have a user-centered viewpoint,” says Wetherall. “We are finding out what users want.”

It sounds a lot like the “connected computing” (or ubiquitous computing) trend that the founders of Voyager Capital were telling me about last week, from an investor’s perspective—the confluence of software, wireless, and digital media. I asked Wetherall what connections the Intel lab has with the local innovation community in these areas. … Next Page »

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