By DON CLARK and ORR HIRSCHAUGE
Intel Corp. is joining the race to reshape reality.
The chip giant is developing a wearable headset to deliver augmented-reality experiences, people briefed on the company’s plans said. Intel plans to exploit its 3-D camera technology called RealSense, these people said, a potentially distinguishing feature in a crowded field that includes Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and a wave of startups.
Augmented reality, sometimes called mixed reality, superimposes information or images on a view of the real world shown through glass or on the display of a device like a smartphone. In virtual reality, by contrast, users see only computer-generated scenes.
The augmented-reality project is one way Intel hopes to exploit vision-related technologies to build new businesses outside the shrinking market for personal-computer processors. The Silicon Valley giant is likely to offer the headset design to other manufacturers rather than market its own model to end users, according to these people, who weren't aware of any manufacturing partners lined up yet.
Achin Bhowmik, who oversees RealSense as vice president and general manager of Intel’s perceptual computing group, declined to discuss unannounced development efforts.
Daqri CEO Brian Mullins, left, showed the Smart Helmet to Intel CEO Krzanich at the CES show. The augmented reality helmet displays real-time information to the wearer using Intel technology. PHOTO: ETHAN MILLER/GETTY IMAGES
But he said Intel has a tradition of creating prototypes for products like laptop computers to help persuade customers to use its components. “We have to build the entire experience ourselves before we can convince the ecosystem,” Mr. Bhowmik said.
Under Chief Executive Brian Krzanich, Intel has been developing components for new markets like wearable fitness trackers, smart jewelry and drones. Augmented reality presents an additional opportunity, requiring not only the company’s microprocessors but also special-purpose image-processing chips and 3-D camera components.
Intel has acquired at least five companies working on augmented-reality technology and has invested in and joined with with others. In June 2015, for example, the company bought Recon Instruments, whose goggles for sports enthusiasts project information like maps and distances on a small display near the wearer’s right eye.
Matt Margolis, chief analyst at Wall Street Forensics, estimates that Intel’s acquisitions and investments in the field exceed $300 million and may be as high as $500 million. The company hasn’t provided its own estimate.
Intel’s partners include Daqri, a Los Angeles startup that sells a kind of high-tech hard hat for industrial settings that includes augmented-reality features. The company cites applications where thermal sensors on its helmets could detect pipes or valves that are heating up dangerously, allowing workers to steer clear or take action. Daqri recently introduced a redesigned helmet using Intel components, shifting from chips sold by rivalQualcomm Inc.
“There is an awareness at Intel that they didn’t play as big a role in the mobile space as they would like,” said Brian Mullins, Daqri’s chief executive. “They understand that wearables and augmented and virtual reality are the next big platform.”
With RealSense, Intel can add more visual capabilities. Its 3-D camera modules were initially marketed as an enhancement to personal computers, either facing the user, for such purposes as using gestures to control actions in games, or facing externally to track and measure objects and distances in the real world.
More recently, Mr. Bhowmik said, Mr. Krzanich asked the RealSense team to help Intel build new markets in fields like drones and robots.
The company is demonstrating benefits of adding 3-D vision to various kinds of head-mounted displays. In virtual-reality applications, which now tend to require users to be stationary, front-facing cameras can help users move without hitting obstacles.
At the CES show in January, Intel demonstrated the combination of RealSense with a smartphone-based headset from a startup called IonVR. It allowed users to see an image of their arms and hands as they reached out to touch simulated objects. Intel plans to show off mobile virtual-reality experiences at a conference later this month
Intel isn't alone in pushing such concepts. Microsoft has described plans for a headset called HoloLens that projects 3-D images akin to holograms. One person briefed on Intel’s headset plans said it is collaborating with Microsoft; a spokesman for the software company declined to comment.
While Intel might show the way to developers by designing its own headset, the more important goal is making sure a big market takes off based on its components, saidPatrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.