Robots and Oculus Rift…what they have to do with NetApp

Just a few days ago I had the pleasure of being a guest at BT’s Showcase facility at their Adastral Park site in Ipswich. It’s an extremely impressive facility and you really get a sense while you’re there that in many of the inconspicuous buildings and behind unmarked doors there is some ground-breaking research being done.

I was there to spend time in the BT Showcase area and to meet the team that runs it. I have to say, in an extremely positive way, it was not at all what I expected.

Technology Scout
My host Simon Farr introduced me to Iain Monteath, whose role is Technology Scout. This means he gets to explore the world of future technology, look for ones that have potential to change industry and then bring these back into the showcase so companies can see what a potential future could look like. I’m sure many of you are thinking that this is a dream job, I was. I also know what he does is much more than this, so I hope he doesn’t mind my gross over simplification.

A Tour Through The Future
The first part of the showcase is effectively mockup’s of different industry environments. For example, Advanced Hydroponic systems with sensor connections to show how crop yields can be increased or protected by using sensor information about the soil conditions.

BaxterNext, I was introduced to Baxter, a collaborative robot from Rethink Robotics. Baxter was on a simulated factory production line. Iain showed me how incredibly simple it is to teach Baxter how to perform tasks. Switch it to learn mode and then move its arms to perform the task that you need it to perform. That’s it, now tell it to repeat and that’s exactly what it does. You can easily see how this level of automation is clearly going to change industries where there is a need for repetitive tasks.

As the tour continued I went through warehouses where all items were tagged, identified and moved using RFID chips. There was a shop with clothes using RFID tags to allow a customer to guarantee that the item they want and the specific size is available in the shop before even going there and to an Operating Theatre where you can see how technology is changing the way that hospitals and operations can be run. This was indeed a good day!

A New Reality, Virtually Speaking

OculusAt this point Iain said ‘you have to try this’ and produced an Oculus Rift headset. I’ve not used one of these before but am no stranger to Virtual Reality, being a child born of the 70’s. I remember when in the early 90’s VR was going to change the world.
There were films made about it, there were VR games in the arcades, it truly felt as if we were on the cusp of a VR revolution, however there was one small problem…it was terrible. We just didn’t have the processing power to make it any good. The VR simulators, whilst an interesting experience, had hopeless graphics and terrible movement latency.

As you can imagine I wasn’t expecting too much from this. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I put the headset on and a few seconds later I was in a helicopter in a heavy storm coming in to land on an oil rig. Then it switched out of the helicopter and I was exploring different rooms inside the rig. The graphics and latency are just incredible. My mind was spinning with the ideas and possibilities that this technology could offer for the future.

NetApp’s Role
But what does this have to do with NetApp? At the end of the tour Iain took me into the small Data Centre that runs the showcase. And lo and behold there’s a NetApp FAS system and Cisco UCS servers being used to run it. This was a great example for me as to just how flexible and adaptable our platforms are. Yes, they are running many apps that you run inside your companies today, but here at the Showcase they are running the apps and technologies that your companies may run 2, 3 or 5 years in the future.

Many thanks to Simon Farr and Iain Monteath at BT for making the trip happen and for taking the time to give me the tour. I have come away with a new sense of just how far into the future BT is looking and what a creative and inventive company they are. I’ve also seen just how relevant and adaptable our technology is to be able to support this.

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