Cisco has been showing journalists its vision of the future, which bears a remarkable resemblance to the past. It's somewhere around 1998 by our reckoning, only this time in high definition.
The publicity drive comes with the refurbishment of its Innovation Centre, at its Feltham offices, which has been rebuilt to show how Cisco sees the world of tomorrow making use of networking technologies. In most cases, though, the company's vision seems to be been lifted from a business plan proposed just as the last boom collapsed.
First up in this tour of forgotten technologies was the Virtual Assistant, she of the pretty face and dodgy accent. This time around she makes use of Microsoft's voice tech to perform actions based on natural language recognition. Ask her "What is a bouncy castle?" and quick as a flash she's reading out the Wikipedia entry on the subject - but ask what her favourite colour is and the poor girl is stumped.
Damian Sunne from the Innovations Team waxed lyrical about how the animated lass could watch stocks for you, manage your travel, automatically invite people to a meeting and even book a restaurant to hold it in. In proper bleeding-edge style none of this is working yet, so the bastard daughter of Ananova is restricted to reading out Wikipedia entries for now.
Cisco hasn't addressed the real problems with internet agents - interoperability, where they are hosted, how users pay for them, or who takes responsibility when she screws up and books you 2,000 return flights to Reykjavik. Sorting these basics out seems rather more important than providing you with fast access to the facts on party inflatables.
If it's good enough for Aberdeen
We move on to Dr Duncan's Video Symptom Show - allowing an untrained "nurse" to operate medical sensing equipment so the doctor can see you over a high-definition video link without leaving the comfort of the 19th hole. Cisco has created prototype sensors including a stethoscope, temperature sensors and high-resolution cameras, but thankfully no proctoscope as yet. Cisco is keen to emphasise that the "nurse" may not be necessary, as punters might like to have the kit at home to collect the details of their symptoms.
None of this is new, but that's not stopped Cisco running trials in Aberdeen. It reckons similar offerings are simple point-to-point systems while Cisco's use of IP should allow connections to be routed to the next available doctor, regardless of location. Load-balancing doctors might be handy, but the rural areas where it would be most useful are (at least for the moment) those most lacking in the necessary infrastructure.
It's even harder to find a justification for the next demonstration - all the joys of online shopping from the comfort of the supermarket, as Cisco sees the future of retail.
Apparently the shopper of the future will be able to browse CDs by looking at the cover art and even clicking on an album to hear a track or two, on their mobile phone, while standing in the supermarket - clearly something shoppers have been crying out for. Marginally more useful is the ability to view a map of the store with their location marked, assuming their phone supports Wi-Fi. Getting directions to a specific product is also possible, which is great, assuming shoppers can operate their mobile satisfactorily while juggling a loaded trolley and pack of offspring.
Retailers themselves can look forward to telephones with screens - yes, real colour screens, onto which head office can display urgent product recalls and suchlike to stores that lack a computer. Quite how many chain-store branches don't have a single computer in the place - or how many chains are interested in fitting smartphones into every store - seemed unclear. However, Cisco retail specialist Cindy Etsell was adamant that the XML-based notification system would remove the need for computers and thus revolutionise retailing.
Next up was public services, with a demonstration of automated CCTV monitoring using software that could recognise the shape of a human and sound an alert when one crossed a virtual line. Questions as to whether individuals with boxes over their heads could be recognised were dismissed with a laugh - so clearly terrorists won't think of that. A demonstration showing how the system could spot an abandoned suitcase had a case of the fails when the case in question was left in the wrong place for the system to spot.
Getting terrorists out of their box
More practically noteworthy was a Wi-Fi box that automatically finds the best connection - 3G radio, WiMAX, or whatever is available. Still, this is much closer to the company's core competency, so it should come as no surprise that it's quite good at it.
The Visual Quality Enhancement (AQE) also plays to Cisco's strengths, even though it's clearly a consumer technology and built on the company's acquisition of set-top box specialist Scientific Atlanta. The premise is that compressed digital loses frames, especially when squeezed over an ADSL connection, but using AQE the set-top box can connect to a server and request the missing frame be resent, while playing out its 200ms buffer. The results were impressive, though Cisco will have to convince operators that it's worth buying when the temptation might be to just throw bandwidth at the problem.
Speaking of bandwidth-hurling, Cisco reckons it's created usable telepresence by building half a meeting room and fitting three huge plasma screens on which to display the other half. With clever technology to cut out mobile interference, and 5Mb/sec of bandwidth being used for each screen (two of which were displaying the empty parts of the room, at least during the demo), the experience was compelling and could save money for companies which are spending enough on air fares to pay for 15Mb/sec of bi-directional bandwidth.
Cisco is only taking its first steps into the consumer space, and is still deciding if it wants its recently redesigned logo to appear outside the server rooms and racks where it's a trusted brand. But it's clear that the company has a lot to learn about what normal people want, and can only impress when getting down into the networking technologies for which Cisco is best known.
Cisco apparently spent more than $4.5bn - 13 per cent of its revenue - on research and development last year. Hopefully not all of it was on recreations of retro visions of the future - it does make pretty good routers, and it would be a shame to forget that in the wash of nostalgia. ®