Along with some of my colleagues in the Digital Platforms team, I recently took a tour of the London lab of Capgemini’s Applied Innovation Exchange. The AIE is a series of facilities around the world giving Capgemini and our clients a space to explore emerging technologies, with the aim of being able to go from initial experiments to large scale projects. This goes hand in hand with the workshops that take place in our Accelerated Solutions Environment (ASE) - we do love our three-letter acronyms.

The London lab opened in the summer of 2016, and specialises in artificial intelligence and applications relating to the financial sector. Other labs focus on areas relating to the needs of their local market - for instance in Munich they’re largely working with the automotive industry.

The London AIE is an impressive place - it’s bright and open, with a feeling of space helped by the views over the rooftops from the 8th floor of our Holborn office. One wall is taken up with an enormous touchscreen display, and around the room are some of the experiments that the team (led by Graham Taylor) have been working on.

On the surface it might look like an opportunity for Graham and his team to play with shiny new toys, and I think more than a few of my colleagues are a little jealous. There can be a tendency for some engineers to be seduced by the latest technology trends, but there’s a real focus at the AIE on solving client problems, using their “Discover, Devise, Deploy, Sustain” framework.

I’m not generally an early adopter by nature, preferring to wait until the bugs have been ironed out. I don’t always want to jump on the hot new JavaScript framework, preferring to follow the manifesto of the boring developer. I tend to be suspicious of a lot of claims made by salespeople on behalf of the latest new technologies - all too often it’s little more than buzzwords and vapourware, or a solution looking for a problem.

I’ve been somewhat sceptical about blockchain, and I haven’t really bought into the internet of things. As my colleague Niall Merrigan makes clear in this excellent talk, there are a lot of things that are connected to the internet that really shouldn’t be. I don’t want or need my kettle to be smart, and I’d often agree with the people who say that “the S in IOT stands for security”.

Having said that, visiting the AIE was fascinating, and I feel like I’m starting to be won over. The important thing for me is that the technology needs to have practical applications in the real world, and that’s exactly what the AIE teams aim to do. Graham showcased some of the projects that the team have been working on, and when you see the demos and proof of concepts that they’ve built you really start to see the potential applications.

For instance, in one project, they’re working on image recognition to improve retail efficiency. Another prototype uses sensors on cars to detect crashes and communicate with insurance companies and mechanics using blockchain. In one corner of the AIE, there’s an Amazon Echo being used as the input device for some machine learning experiments. In another area, some plumbing has been set up, with sensors on pipes measuring water flow, ready to shut off the main valve if a leak is detected. The team are already working with clients from a range of sectors and prototyping real solutions to real problems - the next step is taking them to a bigger scale.

We also tried a virtual reality demo. As I strapped on the HTC Vive, I discovered that you can’t wear it on top of your glasses, so I was exploring a slightly blurry virtual environment. The accessibility considerations of VR are something I hadn’t given much thought to, least of all the idea that they might apply to me now.

The other aspect of VR that became clear to me from this experience was that it isn’t just about the person wearing the headset, as discussed on a recent episode of the Shop Talk Show podcast. It’s easy to imagine VR as a way for people to isolate themselves from the real world, but we shouldn’t forget the social side of things. While the person inside the virtual world has one experience, the people in the same room can enjoy watching what they do - even if in my case it was mainly about my colleagues laughing at my clumsiness with the controllers.

Sometimes, a negative perception of big companies like Capgemini is that they can be lumbering behemoths, never working on bleeding edge technology because it takes so long to change direction. It’s true that if you’re not careful, delivery teams can end up being too busy to innovate, but there is innovation going on at a whole range of projects. The AIE feels like the ideal opportunity to address that perception.

I think that very often the difficult part of being innovative isn’t the technology side - it’s having the ideas. As Graham mentioned to us, one of the aims of the AIE is to help make the mental connections between the business needs of our clients and possible technology solutions. Workshops with one client might spark ideas about how to help another client, and there can be a virtuous circle of creativity, with one demo acting as a catalyst to help find a solution to a different problem.

From a brief tour, my mind is already buzzing with ideas of how our projects might be able to leverage some of the lessons that we’re learning in the AIE. As well as the core team, colleagues from around the business are spending time working in the lab, so hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to spend more time at the AIE in the future.