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Wednesday, September 22, 1999 Published at 12:17 GMT 13:17 UK


Shape of things to come

Scientists are using high-speed networks to interact virtually

By Kevin Anderson in Washington

When science fiction writer William Gibson coined the term cyberspace, he envisioned a totally immersive, three-dimensional virtual reality - a far cry from the World Wide Web of today.

But scientists around the world are already starting to build the Internet of tomorrow, and it is beginning to look more like Mr Gibson's vision.

[ image: Scientists predict workers will someday collaborate using virtual reality]
Scientists predict workers will someday collaborate using virtual reality
Research scientists and the National Science Foundation in the US have begun to work on an ultra-high bandwidth network.

The very-high performance Backbone Network Service operates at speeds of up to 2.5 gigabits per second.

Home computer users at present do well if they manage data transfer rates of 33 kilobits per second when accessing the Internet over conventional telephone lines.

One gigabit is roughly a million kilobits. Scientists hope that their research will begin the next round of the Internet revolution.

Groundbreaking browser

"The explosion of the dot com world is a result of the early adoption (of the Internet) by universities, and the federal government is starting the cycle all over again," says Larry Smarr, director of the National Computational Science Alliance and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

Mr Smarr describes the planned Access Grid as "one of the most compelling glimpses into the future I've seen since I first saw NCSA Mosaic."

NCSA developed the groundbreaking Mosaic web browser that paved the way for the widely used Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers, which helped fuel the explosion on the World Wide Web.

A recent demonstration showed seven simultaneous video-conference streams over the high-speed network, running at over 50 megabits per second. But the next generation Internet will be more than video-conferencing. Scientists are using these high-speed connections to:

  • combine the power of far-flung supercomputers
  • stimulate interest in science by linking their labs with students in the classroom
  • collaborate in virtual spaces.
Networked supercomputers

Nestor Zaluzec of the Argonne National Laboratory uses the Grid to allow scientists and students online access to a one-of-a-kind electron microscope.

The project allows scientists to collaborate using live video imaging and remote control of the microscope. Mr Zaluzec also allows students and other visitors to his Website to teleconference with him. A page on the site tells visitors whether he is available to conference.

[ image: A researcher appears in Washington via an Internet video link from Chicago]
A researcher appears in Washington via an Internet video link from Chicago
"We learn, we advance through our interaction with others," says Mr Zaluzec.

Scientists such as Dr Rick Stevens of Argonne National Laboratory are working to create virtual spaces where scientists can meet to discuss their research, using the Grid and other high-speed network projects.

Researchers are already using CAVEs, room-size multimedia virtual reality systems with three-dimensional graphics and surround sound. Once only stand-alone devices, researchers are now linking these devices across the network.

In addition to research and scientific collaborations, computer scientists are already envisioning commercial applications of this technology.

In the near future, General Motors will be able to hold a teleconference in which participants in the US and in Europe will be able to make changes to a 3-D representation of an engine casting instead of shipping the casting to Europe, according to Jason Leigh.

Mr Leigh spoke to a group attending the demonstration from his laboratory at the University of Chicago.

Digital ecosystem

Mr Stevens sees the network increasing in speed just as computers have done. As speeds increase, the amount of data travelling across the network will explode.

In 50 years time, data from non-human activities, networked devices communicating with each other, will make up a majority of the traffic on the network, creating what Mr Stevens calls a digital ecosystem.

Organisations will become virtual. Geographically diverse organisations will be held together with the wires of the network.

People will work where they want to and collaborate from distant locations, needing only a high-speed connection to the Internet and a relatively powerful computer.

The computers and the network are advanced, but researchers predict that similar technology will filter into people's everyday lives.

"Some day five to 10 years in the future, we'll start to see these devices broadly in society, just as we see the Internet today," says George Strawn with the National Science Foundation.

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Internet Links

US National Science Foundation

National Centre for Supercomputing Applications

The Tele-Presence Microscopy Project

CAVE: A Virtual Reality Theatre


Argonne National Laboratory

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