Business Report

Seeing the Future of the Office Internet

Cisco’s chief futurist predicts digital avatar assistants—and more.

Inside the headquarters of networking giant Cisco in San Jose, California, lies a technology showcase where executives can test out advanced technologies like high-definition videoconferencing, a digital avatar named Halie who researches spoken questions, and even a concept dashboard for a car whose mechanical and entertainment systems are fully Internet-connected.

Network effect: David Evans, Cisco’s chief futurist, stands with a concept dashboard for a fully Internet-connected car.

It’s called the “executive technology experience room,” and the man behind it is David Evans, the company’s chief futurist and chief technology officer of its Internet business solutions group. Evans, who built many of the demonstration systems on display and now advises clients on how new technologies could help their businesses, spoke with Technology Review about how these advances could boost worker productivity.

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TR: The technology we use at work is changing very quickly. What is the biggest force you see today?

Evans: I think it comes down to us not really needing to go to the office anymore—all our work and connections can come to us, wherever we are. There’s a perfect technology storm of reliable wireless connections and new forms of hardware. I just got my Cisco Cius tablet.  Tablet technology has the potential to revolutionize enterprise collaboration and communications.  It means you can take your full desktop and videoconferencing anywhere, and you are never away from your desk phone number. It can give you a full keyboard-and-screen experience, too. We will see a lot more devices like that in the workplace.

Can these new mobile devices really displace a traditional computer with screen and keyboard?

Laptops aren’t going to go away, but I think we’re going to see more classification of workers, and some people just won’t need them. For some people, just having a smart phone might be enough. I think it will be job-specific.

Will the technology in these devices evolve to be used elsewhere in the workplace?

The multitouch screens will. I think every surface is going to become an interactive display, and you’ll see that multitouch capability we know from the iPad absolutely everywhere. One example is a technology for LCD displays where every fourth pixel is a camera, so you have a display with hundreds of cameras inside. You can put your business card down on something like that to scan, and in real time it could look up a person on Facebook and get all kinds of information. We made a demonstration using Microsoft’s Surface, a multitouch table, showing it can do things like recognize pill bottles and give advice about your medication.

Will completely new types of devices start to appear in offices?

Cisco telepresence today gives a rich, immersive experience, but the drawback is that you have to go to the telepresence suite. I’ve been experimenting with robotic telepresence, where you [control] the body of a robot and it becomes an extension of you, a physical avatar. We are already seeing robotic avatars used by some doctors to do their rounds, and patients find it really offers them much the same relationship to having a doctor walk by in person to check up on them. It allows doctors to scale their skills to more patients, so they are more productive. It will do the same for businesspeople when the costs come down. When you can visit Europe, India, and China in a single day [using a robot], you can maintain better relationships and be more productive.

The first of those robots are on sale already and are relatively simple. How will they become more sophisticated?

Maybe the experience today isn’t as high-fidelity as it could be, but over the next few years the quality will become HD or super-HD, and maybe they’ll be semiautonomous. You could be in control of more than one robot, and tell them to wander by themselves and let you know when they find something interesting. A robot might have facial recognition and say, ‘Hey, Dave, I just ran into Bob, who you met before at this particular event.’ When I look through the eyes of the robot I might not just see the video feed, but also information about the person.

What about technology that allows us to do less, so we can dedicate more time to what matters?

A good example of this is the interactive avatar I developed, Halie. She can understand what you say to her, uses facial recognition, and can do things like manage your calendar or book business trips. Ultimately that technology will allow everyone to have their own virtual personal assistant, so they spend less time on administration.

How will all these new technologies change the people that make up the workforce and how they operate?

Already it is clear that people and collaboration matter so much more at work than they did before. You can no longer do your job without collaborating with others, and we will soon rely on being able to access any person, regardless of place, and [use] tools like social networking at work.

That might change how employment works. It could become the norm for people to have multiple employers, because they can more easily share their expertise with multiple employers very easily with this technology.

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The Future of the Office

The explosion of mobile devices, together with social technologies and smart apps, is creating a new distributed workforce. It’s transforming physical offices and how work gets done. This month, Technology Review examines the implications of this trend for business efficiency, productivity, and security.

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