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Hal Berghel's Cybernautica

"Maiden Voyage"

Welcome to the first installment of The Cybernaut.  This column 
is dedicated to life in cyberspace, and to the computer 
practitioners who reside therein: the cybernauts.  In the months 
to come we'll navigate cyberspace together in search of useful 
tools and information in the mist which surrounds the digital 

Our first trip together is documented in the artwork. In this virtual visit we use a client-server browser called Mosaic to navigate through cyberspace to locate (from top-left, clockwise) information on the Lectureship Series of the Association for Computing Machinery, a paid political announcement on Dianne Feinstein's Senate race, a real-time view of the coffee pot in the lounge of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratories, an Italian scientists gallery of algorithmic images and a digitized image of a daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre. If you want to cybersurf like this on your workstation, this column is for you.

Occasionally, as in this installment, I'll wax philosophic. Sometimes I'll review a particularly noteworthy product (see review of WinGopher, this issue). At regular intervals I'll survey the cyber-landscape. Through it all I'll try to provide a perspective of cyberspace which will help the practitioner harness the information super highway.

Cyberspace will soon become the repository of the worlds collective knowledge. The ability to create, store, translate, distribute, exchange, and communicate information through the 'ether' makes it eminently more useful than processes which distribute information on physical media. CDROM popularity will grow exponentially until we are all interconnected in cyberspace, and then vanish from all but a few very special applications. By 2025 an encyclopedia on CDROM will be as welcome as the Partridge Family's greatest hits on 8-track tape.

That's why we need to become cyber-literate. Those in command of the latest technology will always maintain a competitive advantage. As Blaise Pascal noted several centuries back, "Chance favors the prepared mind."

We are about to enter the next computer revolution, and that revolution will be built around the cyberspace - the digital common carriers on which all media are unified. Our greatest challenge in these most exciting of times will be to see if we can harness the technology before we drown in the information which it provides.

Incidentally, this excitement is what motivated the Clinton Administration to push forward the "information superhighway" legislation. It will be instructive to see whether the  around this important technological advance. If history is any indicator, the prospects don't look good. There is every appearance that policy issues are being resolved at the political rather than social and technological level. The same thing happened with telephony, radio and television technology. As a result there were 30 year delays between the time that television and FM radio were invented and the time that they were put to good use. As Yogi Berra once said, "this is deja vu all over again".

We are about to enter the information technology fast lane. The bread-and-butter T3 network trunks carry 50 million bits of information per second. The big-ticket trunks carry several billion bits per second. But the speed of data transmission is not the most important aspect. Far more important is the fact that the greater bandwidth of the digital carriers support "digital participation". Not only can the information consumer receive information, he can actually participate in its creation. The participatory nature of the modern digital information infrastructure will be the foundation of the next computer revolution. This revolution will make it possible to digitally leave our living rooms and offices and join the information producers on stage.

The key is interactivity, and that concept makes the digital common carrier an ideal unifying technology. In the 1960's we digitized the transmission of text. In the 1970's we digitized the transmission of still-frame photos. In the 1980's we digitized the transmission of sound. In recent years we digitized the transmission of animation with sound from a variety of digital and analog sources (multimedia transmission). Within the decade, we will digitize the transmission of force (e.g. through the popular forced-feedback data glove). Simulated 3-d vision is a staple of nearly every university research lab. Soon to follow will be digitized smell. But, and this is the most important thing to remember, at the moment this information is being transmitted in one direction only just as in the case of radio and television. When it becomes two-way, we will be in the next, and most important, computer revolution. In this revolution, we will all interact with the digital information source and be a part of the information creation. We will all be united in the information cloud.

If this sounds too futuristic, consider for a moment that 3-d virtual reality has already made it to the shopping malls. The underlying concepts were cutting edge in the computer science and engineering labs only a decade ago. These traveling road shows are complete with 1980's data helmets, motion sensors, and holography. They are entertaining and educating hundreds of thousands of young cybernauts. In the late 1980's the leading labs added the forced-feedback data gloves, data suits and holographic projection. Look for this in your mall in 2-3 years.

This information cloud of bi-directional, multisensory, virtually living rooms near you. My job in this column is to try to provide an small window into the future to help the interested readers stay abreast of these advances.

Enough cyber-philosophy. In the next column we'll talk about getting connected to cyberspace. Stay tuned.