Welcome to the world of yesterday tomorrow

15 July 2008

Cisco decided to hold an open day at its recently refurbished demonstration centre in Bedfont Lakes, one of those anonymous business parks almost unknown to public transport lying halfway between Heathrow Terminal 4 and the Feltham Young Offenders' Centre. No, really, it's lovely.

Apparently, we were supposed to be able to see and play with demos of a "self-learning artificial intelligence", "a high-street shop of the future", "technology being deployed to support disaster relief", "the future of healthcare" and "experience a Cisco TelePrescence meeting".

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"We hope to demonstrate some cutting edge and future concept applications of Cisco's technology - which use the power of the Internet to deliver some very powerful applications," gushed the invitation.

The reality? Let's step back, back in time to about, ooh, 1998. The self-learning AI turned out to be a flashback to the agent technology of the late 1990s, tricked out with a slightly more realistic avatar that did weird things like lean into the screen until you could only see its eyes. I am still mystified as to where the self-learning came in as the natural language processing seemed to come entirely from off-the-shelf Microsoft software and the agent was apparently programmed to obey 'business rules'.

The future of healthcare was our old friend telemedicine. This time around the video looks better. You'd hope so as it was chewing up about 5Mbit/s in each direction and on modern codecs versus the 2Mbit/s-max with MPEG2 of last decade's telemedicine trials. According to Cisco, telemedicine is all better now because it uses networks rather than point-to-point links.

What could follow that? Why, yes. Video on demand. By this time, I'm looking around for a blue Police box. Yes, the bandwidths we are dealing with now mean it's HD video-on-demand and it's delivered over IP. Yet, so little else seems to have changed.

The shop of the future was arguably the scariest demo. Picture this. You have in your hands an iPod Touch or iPhone that lets you log in when you enter the store just so it can show you some special offers and plot a path through the emporium using WiFi routers that track your handheld. And we were definitely dealing with a pre-Cluetrain shop of the future as the idea was to "cross-sell and up-sell" the customer. I am absolutely going to log into a store with my pocket computer so I can get up-sold. Oh yes.

Disaster relief was MIA. Instead, it was about tracking hoodies via CCTV with image recognition. Stop me if you've heard this before, won't you?

And so we were in for the finalé. A videoconference telepresence demo. I could see the point of this as, having visited the Computer Laboratory at the University of Cambridge on Friday, where the videoconference suite does not get a whole lot of use, this was one demo that actually made you think that, only 40 years on, the world might just be ready for videoconferencing. Then again, with three gigantic plasma screens and a two-way link crunching through some 15Mb/s of bandwidth, you'd hope it would look good.

If anything, the telepresence demo was a testament to the way that bandwidth prices – if not costs – have plummeted in the last ten years. It may be the one thing that pushes telepresence into mainstream business. But, let's face it, we hear about telepresence and videoconferencing whenever a recession threatens a clampdown on business travel. And, up to now, the technology has slunk away into the corner as people realise they can get just as much done on the phone and, if they're feeling adventurous, a WebEx session (admittedly now a part of Cisco).

I wonder we'll go through another ten years before seeing this collection of technologies get together for a reunion or whether, this time, maybe, just maybe...