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From open sesame to open innovation through the door to tomorrow

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30 June 2017

Dr Nicola Millard

Blogs by author: Dr Nicola Millard, Head of Customer Insight and Futures, BT

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“Research is the door to tomorrow”. That was the phase that, until recently, welcomed the many researchers who walked through the doors of Adastral Park (and, indeed, BT’s previous research HQ, Dollis Hill).

Despite being tucked away in rural Suffolk, Adastral can be regarded as one of the jewels in BT’s crown. Behind the door to tomorrow are treasures that the Arabian Nights would probably give up their magic carpet to see. Fortunately, you don’t need a secret password to get in, as biennially we open Adastral up for innovation events. Innovation 2017 gave thousands of customers and employees the opportunity to talk, play, and innovate with BT experts and our innovation partners, who are creating the future today.

It’s a door I’m lucky enough to go through almost every day. I’ve worked in and around Adastral since the 1990s. I remember being part of innovation events in the past that showcased early incarnations of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), interactive TV, mobile internet, video conferencing, wearable computing, and augmented reality. Some of these have become very much part of our present. Many are still part of the fabric of the future, as technological capabilities evolve.

One of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the past decade is the MASSIVE explosion of data around us – as more and more devices and people are connected to the network. Dominating the Smart Cities zone at Innovation 2017 was a simulation of a city in Lego (something that provided much entertainment for the STEM students - our future innovators - who were on site for the RoboCup competition).  Aside from being very cool to play with, it demonstrated the power of connected devices to make cities like Milton Keynes and Manchester more efficient.

The data that surrounds us also provides brain food for artificial intelligence – because it is dumb without data. AI is being applied to improve customer service, as well as defend against cyberattacks. Advanced network analytics can be used to optimise network availability, and deploy workforces (even Lego ones) more effectively. Pattern recognition can be used to catalogue standard equipment simply by taking a photograph of it.  Contact centre advisers can be augmented using machine learning and chatbots such as Digital Genius. Tools like Saturn powerfully fuse machine learning and data visualisation to spot anomalies that may give early warning of a cyberattack.

It would be remiss to mention AI without talking about robots. Far from being anti-social, robots like Baxter and Bo demonstrated that they can work alongside people, rather than terminate them. Bo helped our visitors to navigate their way around the bewildering number of exhibits. Baxter was taught how to do repetitive tasks by simply being shown how to do them (no programming required). Sadly for our valiant human volunteers, Baxter didn’t quite have enough manual dexterity to thread Innovation 2017 badges into lanyards!

Video is finally coming of age as a powerful channel for interacting with customers. Aside from conventional video conferencing between customers and experts, applications like SightCall can enable customers to use the camera in their phone to show remote advisors their issue. Overlaying visual analytics on top of video can automatically help customers identify the right equipment to plug into a particular socket. These technologies can save customers time and frustration, as well as reducing the need for an engineer to visit. For the YouTube generation who don’t really read anymore, Idoomoo’s Personalised Video was also being showcased as an engaging way of presenting customers’ own information (like their insurance, mortgage, or billing data) in video format.

Much amusement was extracted from wearable technologies in the form of both augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) headsets. I’m not sure who was having more fun – the people plugged into an immersive version of BT Sport, training simulations for engineers, or into a Microsoft Hololens augmented workplace – or the people laughing at their colleagues wearing the rather unflattering headsets.

If you missed Innovation 2017 and can’t wait for the next one, we can’t quite yet recreate the full experience in VR. However, we know we can’t innovate on our own – so we open the doors to tomorrow to customers all year around. It might not quite be on the same scale,but we run a rolling programme of customer hothouses, hosted showcase tours, and tailored innovation workshops at Adastral Park. Research may be the door to tomorrow, but the treasures behind that door are more about “Open Innovation” than “Open Sesame”.

Innovation is at the heart of BT’s business, find out more about what we do.