I love archaic technology. It’s fun to look back on what was seen as new and innovative, particularly from the ‘90s and early ‘00s. It’s an opportunity to not only see how far we’ve come, but also ponder what if? Recently, I came across a video that highlights the BBC’s big plans in the Year 2000 for providing updated GPS-based traffic information straight to your own personal digital assistant, or PDA. Remember the Palm Pilot, Sony Clie, and Apple Newton? BBC’s name for its own little device was the Digital Travel Assistant.
As far as I can tell, this piece of technology never actually debuted. It was in development but didn’t seem to ever go beyond concept ideation. YouTube channel Rare Top Gear Content highlights it all brilliantly in this video:
The product looks so immensely late ‘90s/early ‘00s. I could totally see someone packing it away with an Apple PowerBook G3 before embarking on a daily commute behind the wheel of a new/fresh E46 BMW M3. It’s a PDA that, for all intents and purposes, receives traffic information and uses your location, as figured out by GPS, to guide you to your destination. It factors in important plots like roadways, public transit station location, and more, as well as what local traffic is up to, and helps you get there as quickly as possible.
Back in the day, the product was developed in partnership between the BBC and software company Aligned Assets. Thankfully, I was able to find the news article that the video mentions to help describe what exactly the BBC was up to back in the day. The article also mentions that 200,000 units have been released, however I’ve had a heck of a time tracking one down and finding out more info about whether they were in mass use.
It’s so wild to think that they were really onto something, yet GPS-based, traffic-figuring software would eventually take an immensely different turn with the introduction of the smartphone just a few years later. The PDA was sort of like the precursor to the smartphone, in that it was a pocket-sized method of communication and organizing your life.
This quote sums it up perfectly:
“Carl Nunn, creator of the Digital Travel Assistant and Aligned Assets partner, said: ‘We can foresee a huge demand for location-based information services on pocket PCs and we’re already developing prototype applications for this market.’”
The video discusses numerous forward-thinking variants and uses of this technology. Not only were there dreams of a PDA, the company also envisioned a head-mounted, cyberpunk-looking gizmo for motorcyclists and a weird belt-mounted pocket watch for those in need of more utility. All of them are so clunky by today’s standards, although a Google Glass-like thing that mounts up in front of your face would be kind of cool.
Imagine if any of these were widely used to traverse our planet? You have to wonder how altered our current technology landscape would be.
Hell, even this demonstration method was so in-period. It was etched into a (I assume) free CD named “The Jam-Packed Top Gear CD-ROM” and was highlighted by the staff of Old Old Top Gear, pre-Clarkson/Hammond/May.
That’s not the only content on the disc either. There’s also a generous helping of cheesy Jeremy Clarkson voicework and a pub quiz for car trivia geeks. Hilariously, there’s a demo section to the BBC Digital Travel Assistant, where you click on its various buttons, even though these buttons don’t actually do anything.
All of this is a testament to how far we’ve come. The whole experience, from the highlighted use of a PDA to crappy (by today’s standards) software is fascinating to look back on. I instantly become enveloped in a wistful gaze back to the early ‘00s. I’ve always dug outdated throwback tech and am a bit of Luddite. I’d love to blog about all of this from a tiny, 12” aluminum PowerBook G4 if I could make it work with some semblance of a modern workflow.
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