The box was a prototype of a digital video recorder from Ascot, England, start-up Promise TV that can record and index an entire week's worth of British digital-television programming.
To Doctorow, an editor of the popular culture blog BoingBoing and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's European outreach coordinator, Promise TV has broken impressive new ground with its DVR, which it plans to unveil next month.
"There wasn't a jaw in the room that wasn't scraping the floor during (the) demo," he said. "It was genuinely futuristic."
Dominic Ludlam, Promise TV's lead developer, said the project was commissioned by the BBC and uses commodity PC hardware, including a bank of hard drives totaling 3.2 terabytes.
At week's end, new programming overwrites previous programs, although those recordings can be archived on separate storage devices.
"This method of recording transmitted television completely removes the need for viewers to preselect programs they wish to record or watch," said Ludlam. "This could well herald a change in the way we watch television. No longer need there be any peak viewing time or head-to-head competition between channels."
Not everyone is as impressed as Doctorow, however. Chris Rowen, a research analyst at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Capital Markets, said Promise TV sounds like little more than a souped-uppersonal recording device.
"They're compensating for the fact that they don't have advanced listings by recording everything and then indexing it after the fact," Rowen said. "That obviously is not going to work in an 80-channel environment. So they're not bringing anything new to the table on indexing."
But Doctorow remains floored by what he saw. He said that not long ago, the notion of TiVo recording 15 hours of television was revolutionary. And now, he said, technology has reached the point where it's possible to imagine recording 30, 60 or even 90 days of programming.
"It becomes like a Wayback Machine for television," he said.