Expectation for the Internet of Tomorrow
If the past is a guide, the Internet is likely to continue to grow at a fast and furious pace. And as it grows, geographic location will count less and less. The "Information Superhighway" is not only here, it is already crowded. As EDUCAUSE's Mark Luker says, it is being divided, as are the highways of many cities, allowing for the equivalent of HOV lanes and both local and express routes. The electronic highway now connects schools, businesses, homes, universities, and organizations.
And it provides both researchers and business leaders with opportunities that seemed like science fiction no more than a decade ago. Even now, some of these high-tech innovationsincluding virtual reality, computer conferencing, and telemanufacturinghave already become standard fare in some laboratories.
Tele-manufacturing allows remote researchers to move quickly from computer drawing boards to a physical mock-up. At the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), the Laminated Object Manufacturing (LOM) machine turns files into models using either plastic or layers of laminated paper. The benefits are especially pronounced for molecular biologists who learn how their molecules actually fit together, or dock. Even in a typical computer graphics depiction of the molecules, the docking process and other significant details can get lost among the mounds of insignificant data. SDSC's models can better depict this type of information. They are also relevant to the work of researchers studying plate tectonics, hurricanes, the San Diego Bay region, and mathematical surfaces.
To make the move from the virtual to the physical, researchers use the network to send their files to SDSC. Tele-manufacturing lead scientist Mike Bailey and his colleagues then create a list of three-dimensional triangles that bound the surface of the object in question. With that information, the LOM builds a model. Researchers can even watch their objects take shape. The LOMcam uses the Web to post new pictures every forty-five seconds while a model is being produced.
"We made it incredibly easy to use so that people who wouldn't think about manufacturing are now manufacturing," says Bailey. For some researchers, the whole process has become so easy that "they think of it no differently than you do when you make a hard copy on your laser printer," he adds. SDSC's remote lab has moved out of the realm of science fiction and into the area of everyday office equipment.
While other remote applications are not as far along, their results will be dramatic once the bugs are ironed out, according to Tom DeFanti of the University of Illinois at Chicago and his colleagues. DeFanti and many others are manipulating the computer tools that provide multimedia, interaction, virtual reality, and other applications. The results, he says, will move computers into another realm. DeFanti is one of the main investigators of I-WAY, or the Information Wide Area Year, a demonstration of computer power and networking expertise. For the 1995 Supercomputer Conference in San Diego, he and his colleagues, Rick Stevens of the Argonne National Laboratory and Larry Smarr of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, linked more than a dozen of the country's fastest computer centers and visualization environments.
The computer shows were more than exercises in pretty pictures; they demonstrated new ways of digging deeply into the available data. For example, participants in the Virtual Surgery demonstration were able to use the National Medical Library's Visible Man and pick up a "virtual scalpel" to cut "virtual flesh." At another exhibit, a researcher demonstrated tele-robotics and tele-presence. While projecting a cyber-image of himself into the conference, the researcher worked from a remote console and controlled a robot who interacted with conference attendees.
Applications such as these are just the beginning, says DeFanti. Eventually the Internet will make possible a broader and more in-depth experience than is currently available. "We're taking the computer from the two-dimensional 'desktop' metaphor and turning it into a three-dimensional 'shopping mall' model of interaction," he says. "We want people to go into a computer and be able to perform multiple tasks just as they do at a mall, a museum, or even a university."