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technology tent crowd
Crowds outside the tent.
(Post photo by Craig Herndon)

Inside the Inaugural Technology Tent

By Leslie Walker
WashingtonPost.com
Saturday, January 18, 1997

ON THE MALL -- Shirley Kreigerís future reached out to her inside the Technology Playground today, dragging her onto the Internet along with thousands like her nationwide.

The school principal from Woodbridge, Conn., had received a mysterious letter at work last week telling her that someone had created a home page for her school on the World Wide Web.

Today, when she arrived in Washington for President Clintonís second inauguration, she found out who was behind the letter.

"Oh my goodness, this is exciting!" Kreiger said as she stared at an IBM-powered computer system displaying her name on Ezra Academyís new Web page inside an exhibition tent. Her daughter had spotted the display of the new American School Directory and dragged her over.

"I didnít understand your letter, and it was on my to-do pile for next week," Kreiger told Tom D. Crook, president of Computers for Education Inc., the Tennessee-based firm that is striving to create a home page for each of the nationís 106,000 schools. "Who are you, and why are you doing it?"

Kreigerís question resonated throughout Techno Playground, a multimedia exhibition where more than two dozen vendors are displaying a mixture of prototypes and real products designed to give Americans a peek at their virtual futures.

visitors in tent
Visitors browse exhibits
(Craig Herndon, The Washington Post)
For the vendors, the future is something to dream and scheme about. In addition to the school network, the futuristic visions include a space-based global paging system, a new Internet animation program, a video-camera-in-a-pipe that would allow emergency medical technicians to see inside the blocked airways of choking patients and a host of virtual reality systems.

Hundreds of curious people waited for hours in sub-freezing cold to get inside the tent, where access was tightly controlled to allow hands-on interaction of the kind that Kreiger experienced.

"Donít worry; itís free," Crook told the puzzled principal about her home page. He told her she would receive a password and special software that would allow her staff to add their own material to their home page. "Each teacher will have his or her own page, where they can post homework assignments. Weíre going to give every teacher and student in America their own home page."

"Who pays for it?" Kreiger asked. Crook explained that his company will use the Web pages to sell magazine subscriptions through the schools and eventually add other forms of commerce.

Kreiger was thrilled to see space for digital snapshots and an alumni center. "Weíre a small private school. We donít have a home page," she said. "Itís very valuable for us if alumni can see what weíre doing, and teachers can publish their homework assignments."

The massive school network, which already has 2 million Web pages and is being built jointly by IBM, Apple Computer and Vanderbilt University, is one of many next-generation dreams on display in the techno-tent at Inaugural-land.

The most popular exhibits were virtual-reality games aimed at kids. CCGís MetaMediaís CyberSoccer was a runaway hit. Children waited patiently for their chance to don a pink cotton glove that allowed them to interact with a virtual soccer ball. Both the child and nonexistent ball are projected onto big-screen TVs, where the crowd can watch the action.

A few booths away, a performance animation display projected participating children onto a huge screen to interact with Reginald, a virtual character resembling a giant red insect. Reginaldís animation was controlled by a man in a wet suit 15 feet away. In fact, what looked like a wet suit was a "data suit," which picks up magnetic field data projected from a big gray ball and feeds it into a Silicon Graphics computer. A video camera films the participating audience members and projects them on the screen with Reginald.

Way weird stuff.

There was simpler stuff, too. In the first two hours, 300 people stood in front of computers and typed e-mails to President Clinton that instantly flashed up on a movie screen overhead.

"I told him congratulations," said 14-year-old Marie Mills, of Lenexa, Kansas.

Vice-president Gore
Gore shakes hands
(Craig Herndon, The Washington Post)
AT 1:30 p.m, Vice President Gore and a retinue of Secret Service agents entered the tent. People fought for aisle positions (impolitely pushing aside PBSís Lamb Chop) for a chance to shake the hand of the man who wants to wire every American school to the Internet and build a next-generation super-computer network.

So what will life be like in the next millennium, according to the Inaugural-land vendors? You can see for yourself, because this show is so virtual and over-the-edge that you donít really have to be here to experience it. All the exhibitors have Web sites, offering slower-motion versions of their Mall displays. So you can take your own American Journey from home to learn about the vendors who are creating our techno-tomorrow.

  • Iridium LLC is an international consortium backed by Motorola that is building a space-based wireless telephone network to allow you to fax, page or talk to anyone anywhere in the world. Years in the planning, the $2.6 billion vision is off to a rocky start. Iridiumís Web site explains repeated launch delays for the low-earth orbiting satellites that will provide the global coverage.

  • Digital Evolution, the multimedia consultant and developer that produced the playground show, was busy hawking its own new Internet technology: an interactive video system designed to make Web sites more animated.

    "It appears as streaming video, but itís really streaming audio with synchronized animation," product manager Greg Puliero explained. "Youíre going to see all the major Hollywood studios use it very soon to develop animated Web shows."

    You can read about Digital Evolutionís other multimedia product on the companyís home page, but the plug-in for Netscapeís Web browser wonít be available for downloading until the end of January, Puliero said. No plug-in will be needed for Microsoftís Internet Explorer.

  • Immersion Corp. is one of several virtual reality vendors. It develops computer software that gives humans sensory feedback, creating simulated worlds that feel as real as they look. Its virtual sensations simulate the feel of liquids, human skin and other textures. Examples of the methods used to convert physical objects into virtual ones are on display at Immersionís Web site. Company officials contend that sensory feedback products will be used to train doctors and soldiers, as well as to entertain the masses through video arcades.

  • HT Medical Inc. of Rockville, Md., wants to do for medicine what flight simulators did for airline safety--allow new doctors and nurses to learn invasive producures, risk-free. HTís simulators use the kind of tactile feedback that Immersion Corp. specializes in, so surgeons performing operations might actually "feel" blocked arteries. The tele-medicine firm simulates the inside of a human head with its "T-Vox Teleos Voxel Visualizer".

  • CCG MetaMedia is a multimedia production company specializing in virtual environments. Maybe itís a game that puts you within a puzzle, or a projection system that makes you feel like youíre flying through virtual space. In one CCG entertainment system, players wear a magical glove that is supposed to transport them into another world.

  • National Information Infrastructure Awards — Winners of the NIIís annual awards for excellence in digital communication display their visions. Because most of the 10 winners are Web sites, thereís no need to visit the Mall for this one. Two interesting projects are the photo-listing of orphans in search of parents at the Faces of Adoption and the virtual undersea laboratory at the Jason VII Project.

  • Best of the Web: The producers of the Technology Playground tent show, Digital Evolution, selected a sampling of Web pioneers. They include firms developing Internet broadcasting that "pushes" information to users rather than asking users to retrieve static pages from the Web. Pointcast and Marimba are two examples. IVillage is trying to build micro-communities of interest on the Web through specialized sites such as Parent Soup and About Work.

    WashingtonPost.com intern Gabriel Margasak contributed to this story

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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