Look in the toy store for future enterprise technology

Don't rule out the consumer domain as a potential source of enterprise technology. A robotic fish finder holds its own with the Navy's unmanned technology.

Sometime around the advent of the personal computer, back in the Ronald Reagan era, consumer and business technology started to merge. Three mid-1990s developments — Windows 3.1, Netscape, and the 28K modem — combined to spark an explosion in consumer technology such that millions and millions of curbside trash pickup piles included boxes from companies like Dell, Gateway and Compaq.

For the first time, people other than mechanics or tailors used the same technology at home that they used at work.

I’ve read dozens of accounts of this year’s CES. (The operators don’t want us using the words Computer Electronics Show, but almost everyone still does). Unlike in earlier years, it seems like consumer and business technology are veering away from one another again. Or are they?

At the AFCEA Bethesda chapter’s monthly breakfast the other morning, I moderated a panel of federal technology executives at agencies ranging from Homeland Security to the Railroad Retirement Board. Their issues are modernizing legacy systems, cybersecurity, figuring how to orchestrate the delivery of online services to multiple agencies, brokering cloud services, and generally becoming more agile, both in software development specifically and in agency operations generally.

Many of their challenges don’t have a consumer-oriented solution. For example, the Railroad Retirement Board runs 12 million lines of COBOL code. CIO Ram Murthy says one of his biggest problems is how to extract the business rules embodied in that code so he can convert to a modern programming language.

Most of what I see from CES seems to have little business relevance. For instance, virtual reality toys. Those clunky headsets look like some weird, latter-day View-Master. (It turns out Mattel is still turning out View-Masters — and it’s getting into virtual reality). Eventually, this technology will merge with training applications in highly specific fields, perhaps lowering the cost of products like flight simulators by orders of magnitude. Nvidia, a prosaic maker of graphics boards, has branched into virtual reality and related new products. It provided the opening night keynote. The world has changed since the days then that spot was reserved for Bill Gates.

Self-driving cars and other connected vehicle technologies made a big splash at CES. Automotive provided a whole track to the conference. Along with TV and toy robot makers, you could see major automotive industry suppliers like Visteon and Harman — the one-time hi-fi maker. How’s that for convergence? To me, much of this technology is gadgetry in search of a market, like the personal helicopters of yesteryear. But then I still miss the manual choke. In truth, the learning from equipping multi-ton vehicles with autonomy in the nearby presence of other multi-ton vehicles will eventually converge with federal initiatives such as the swarming-drone technologies sought by the Defense Department.

Many sectors — for instance, defense, manufacturing, and health care — seek a robotically-powered future. Maybe your agency won’t ever need the PowerRay FishFinder. But products such as this — even if traditional sport fishermen consider them cheating — potentially change the economics of the sensor, artificial intelligence, and communications technologies required for a robotic future.

Wolf Tombe, the chief technology officer of Customs and Border Protection, once told me he goes to CES and visits every booth, looking for ostensibly consumer technology that might have law enforcement application. You may not want to spend a small fortune stuffed in a mobbed trade show with 175,000 other people and eating $12 hot dogs. Just don’t rule out the consumer domain as a potential source of enterprise technology.

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