Intel: The Back Story On (Wi-Di) Wireless Display Development
It wasn't incredibly difficult convincing computer industry executives and engineers at such companies as Dell, Sony and Toshiba that people would soon want to beam movies, videos and photos from their laptop screens on to a big screen digital TV. The tough part was making it all happen without adding hardware or extra cost to the manufacturing and selling of laptops.
It was 2006 when a team of Intel engineers began working on what would later be dubbed Wireless Display, or WiDi, technology, which allows people to wirelessly stream video and photos directly from their WiDi-equipped computer to a big screen TV with the use of a small companion adaptor.
"We wanted to create things that we had never done before," said Kerry Forell, who was then in Intel's Mobile Platforms Group collaborating with researchers and engineers inside Intel Labs, Software and Services and other parts of the company.
"We wanted to impact technologies coming in the next two years," said Forell, who was recruited by an Intel Sales and Marketing rotation program 11 years ago after earning his electronics engineering degree from the University of Washington. "We wanted people to experience something they've never done before."
That's what happened when WiDi first hit the market in 2010. Intel built the wireless HD media streaming technology into some of its laptop chipsets being coupled with first-generation Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors and sold exclusively at Best Buy. Dell, Sony and Toshiba were the first to sell WiDi-ready laptops, and they came bundled with a Netgear wireless adapter that connected to the TV. Local Best Buy stores were where many people first saw a laptop wirelessly beam 720p HD video to a big screen TV.
In those first few months of 2010, WiDi won a "Best of CES" award from CNET and favorable reviews from consumer tech experts at The Wall Street Journal, Engadget and publications. PC Magazine even called it the "hottest sleeper technology" of the year, stating that "the technology behind WiDi is very interesting" while hinting that it may end the year without being a huge hit.
WiDi may have been a "hot sleeper" in 2010, but it woke up at CES 2011 when a new and improved 2.0 version of WiDi was released as a standard feature with the new "2nd Generation" Intel Core i3, i5 and i7 processors, allowing every new laptop to wirelessly stream 1080p HD video.
"Essentially, WiDi can roll out anyplace where second-generation Intel Core-powered laptops are being sold," said WiDi Product Line Manager Forell, who estimates that by the end of 2011 about 50 different laptop models will be available in more than 15 countries and sold at 40 different retail outlets.
Significant technical changes were made moving from the 2010 to the 2011 version of WiDi, according to Forell. For one, WiDi was moved off of the chipset and is now built onto the processor, utilizing the CPU's integrated memory, graphics and media compression engine.
"Laptops have mobility, but small screens, so they're not ideal for sharing a rich HD experience," said Forell. "But WiDi unleashes that experience on bigger screen and on bigger speakers.
Forell said you can even have multiple WiDi laptops within a family or even allow visiting friends to take turns streaming to TV or stereo adapters inside a home.
"By adding a real-time media compress engine onto the processor and adding security in the media framework - the Intel Insider feature -- we can take real- time 1080p and project almost anything up to digital TV display," including Blu-ray and premium HD movies and entertainment.
Right Pieces at the Right Time
Gary Martz, product manager for Intel's My WiFi technology, recalls that since the beginning, WiDi was something that needed to be experienced in order to really "get it."
"None of our execs saw the real potential until after the WiDi team had an end-to-end prototype that they could actually get their hands on and try out," Martz said. "This was truly an example where PowerPoint wasn't enough."
After showing Intel executives what the technology could do, the next step was to talk with potential customers.
Forell and a few Intel coworkers traveled to Austin, Texas to meet the CTO team at Dell headquarters.
"When they tried it for the first time - when they saw a laptop wirelessly streaming video to a big screen TV - they stopped and said: "Wow ... we can actually see this working. Our family, friends, wives would actually use this."
Early on, Forell and Martz wanted to dream up applications to put on top of two areas of innovation. Those areas were the WiFi peer-to-peer development Intel engineers were working on, and hardware video compression technology work from the graphics and processor teams."
"We had early notions of using WiFi PAN [WiFi Personal Area Network, which are used for syncing and connecting PCs with gadgets, cameras, keyboards and printers] as a way to deliver a great video experience early on," said Martz.
But he and the team looked around the industry and ultimately chose to develop inside Intel, where there existed a clearer perspective of technology advancements that were in the works and getting ready to hit the market.
The wireless, video and end-to-end solution work for WiDi continues to be done by teams in and around Hillsboro, Ore., where Intel has its largest concentration of research, development and manufacturing.
Forell remembers how the 2007 WiDi prototype didn't quite have all of the necessary pieces.
A key advancement came when Intel My WiFi technology launched in 2009, allowing Intel WiFi cards to make peer-to-peer connections so laptops could connect an Internet access point as well as other device in an adhoc fashion. This same wireless card could be used to connect a laptop to a wireless receiver plugged into a TV.
When WiDi was first built into Intel chipsets in 2010, Intel processors provided enough power to do 720p video compression in software.
In 2011, WiDi was pulled off of the chipset and onto the second-generation Core processor, which also featured a built-in hardware media engine that does full 1080p video plus protected content.
"Fast processors, media engines and wireless," said Forell, were the killer combo of innovations that came together at the right time.
While WiDi is poised to add more excitement to computers, it's also generating new opportunities for other businesses.
WiDi Working with Many Devices
Forell mentions that later this year, Toshiba plans to release a TV with WiDi.
"WiDi is built for easy plug and play," said Forell, adding that this makes designing into new smart TVs easier. "Since they already have the hardware, smart TV makers can take our receiver software and port it to their hardware."
Netgear, D-Link, Belkin, IO-Data and Buffalo Technology also announced that they'd be creating and selling new adapters to work with the earlier and latest versions of WiDi.
Forell foresees WiDi soon moving inside Blu-ray players, game consoles and set top boxes, not to mention netbooks and even smart phones. In September, Intel publicly showed developers a prototype tablet running wireless display.
Audio-only WiDi is also coming, and was demonstrated on a netbook at the recent CES.
"I drove this aspect of WiDi with another hardware engineer from our wireless team and an Intel Capital portfolio company named Ozmo Devices," said Martz. "We started hearing and seeing a lot people using their WiDi laptops and video adapter to stream music from Pandora, iTunes and other services. We also had a market need for a lower-cost WiDi adapter. We prototyped an audio-only adapter ... and got Logitech interested."
Logitech is expected to ship an audio WiDi adapter by mid-year.
"Our motivation beyond enhancing the WiDi ecosystem was been to help drive adoption of Intel's WiFi technology into Netbooks," Martz said.
Insiders believe a netbook with WiDi will be out by summer.
"One thing that often goes unmentioned is the big impact that WiDi has had on Intel's WiFi business in the consumer space," said Martz. "This has been especially important since the Centrino brand went away."
Martz said there continues to be quite a few challenges, both technical and market related.