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Cisco takes us back to the future

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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.

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