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THE GEEK GUIDE TO SILICON VALLEY

By Tom McNichol
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 1, 1998; Page E01

   


At the new Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, you can watch a laser scanner draw a 3-D map of your head, have the image slowly rotate on a computer screen like a crash test dummy, and take home the cyber-portrait of yourself. But before doing any of that, you have to step up to a decidedly low-tech piece of machinery--one of those plastic ticket dispensers you see at deli counters--and take a number.

I have seen the future of Silicon Valley, and it is now serving No. 87.

The ticket dispenser is a gentle if inadvertent reminder that technology hasn't quite solved all of life's problems. But to view high-tech's glittering triumphs, there are few venues flashier than the Tech (as it's chummily known), the city's $96 million valentine to Silicon Valley's cutting-edge innovations. The three-level, 132,000-square-foot museum is packed with more than 250 interactive exhibits that exhibitors promise go beyond "hands on" to something called "minds on," stimulating thought and inspiring innovation.

The museum that opened yesterday actually represents Version 2.0 of the Tech. In 1990, a much smaller exhibit area called "The Garage" was opened as a prototype, named after the Palo Alto building where William Hewlett and David Packard began their company. That beta version of a museum devoted to high tech turned out to be a success, and cash contributions and equipment began pouring in from Silicon Valley's computer giants.

Nearly half of the money that went into constructing the striking mango-and-azure-colored museum building comes from the city of San Jose, as part of an effort to make good on its boast of being the capital of Silicon Valley. San Jose is actually more populous than its more celebrated northern neighbor San Francisco, but it has long wrestled with an identity crisis. Back in 1968, Dionne Warwick warbled "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" These days, finding your way to San Jose isn't hard--it's knowing when you've arrived that's the problem. The city is an amorphous patchwork of low-slung houses and look-alike corporate campuses wrapped around a blink-and-you-miss-it downtown, a virtual community with no "there" anywhere.

San Jose officials are banking on the Tech to put the city on the map with a tourist destination that also defines the culture that produced it. Supporters expect the museum to pull in 650,000 visitors a year, and in unrestrained moments say the Tech will become as significant to Northern California as the Getty Center is to Southern California.

In reality, the Tech is a few masterworks shy of being the Getty Center. And even as a science and technology center, it doesn't quite live up to its claim of being the "Next Generation" of museums. But the Tech does represent a reliably entertaining upgrade.

One notable surprise is that the Tech isn't a museum in the traditional sense of the word. Visitors who expect to find vintage artifacts from the early days of computing will be disappointed--the museum has its gaze fixed firmly on the present and future. In part, this approach is to satisfy the museum's computer industry sponsors, who weren't interested in a museum that celebrated the past but would support one that showed off their latest gadgets. (More than 500 companies donated about $25 million in computer equipment and services.)

In some respects, dispensing with history allows the Tech to skip to the flashy stuff right away and not bore kids with early computers the size of refrigerators. But the lack of any sense of the past also leaves the Tech strangely devoid of context, a computer with no memory. It's as if the Air and Space Museum began the story of aviation with the space shuttle.

The museum is divided into four themed galleries containing "permanent" exhibits that will change every five to seven years, and a smaller area with temporary exhibits that cycle through about every 18 months. Even with that schedule, staying current will be a challenge for the Tech. After all, a seven-year-old exhibit today would breathlessly describe something called "the Internet" that might one day connect millions of computer users on a global "Information Highway."

The first gallery, "Life Tech: The Human Machine," focuses on how technology is used to save lives and enhance athletic performance. In one exhibit, visitors can take a virtual bobsled ride using simulation technology employed to train Olympic athletes. Riders select the flag of the country they want to represent (a vestige of the jingoistic analog world), and a screen shows the view from the cockpit as the rider steers the sled through high-speed turns. The stated goal is to cross the finish line as quickly as possible without crashing, although many kids will undoubtedly take this as a challenge to make their bobsled wipe out as spectacularly as possible. And many will undoubtedly recognize this display as being little different from the very similar arcade games available at, say, Dave & Buster's. Even at the Tech, the future can look distressingly familiar.

In another area, visitors tour a modern operating room and view an array of scary-looking high-tech surgical implements. Guests can also "become" doctors themselves, doing a variety of surgical procedures on a dummy patient and then having their performance rated. Baby boomers will recognize this as a gussied-up version of the board game Operation, although in the museum's high-tech rendering, the patient's nose doesn't glow red when you mess up. Too bad.

Another section looks at biotechnology and genetic engineering. To its credit, the museum includes a printed panel that acknowledges the ethical debate about genetic testing, admitting that it "brings up tough questions for both doctors and patients." But the possible downside is handled with a boring old block of text; most kids will focus on the glitzy exhibits, which present genetic engineering as an exciting scientific breakthrough. A more balanced exhibit might include, say, an interactive 3-D hologram of a mouth-watering genetically engineered tomato being held in the flipper arms of a two-headed chef.

Gallery 2, "Innovation: Silicon Valley and Beyond," comes closest to being a true representation of the industries that surround the Tech. Perhaps for that reason, it's the most boring of the four galleries. Visitors enter a "clean room" with microchip fabrication equipment, where grains of sand are transformed into polished silicon wafers. This turns out to be slightly less interesting than watching the proceedings at a Twinkies factory. You can almost hear the plaintive cries of "Mom, can we go now?"

The pace picks up with exhibits on computer-aided design. Visitors can fashion their own high-tech bicycle, mixing and matching frames, handlebars, wheels and colors. They can also design a roller coaster, balancing such variables as weight, G-force and friction, and then take a simulated ride in their coaster car. The exhibits are well-thought-out edutainment, a nice reward for putting up with the tedium of wafer fabrication.

The other big exhibit in Gallery 2 is the aforementioned laser scanner that makes a 3-D map of your head, but only after you take a ticket and wait for your number to be called. (Several of the museum's most popular exhibits feature ticket dispensers as crowd-control devices. Delayed gratification is, of course, one of the most important lessons consumers of high-technology products can learn. But, sadly, the museum seems to be unaware of the teaching potential these simple devices offer.)

Gallery 3, "Communications: Global Connections," contains an ambitious "Digital Studio" exhibit, which lets visitors make their own short multimedia presentation. A swipe of a bar-code card accesses six work stations, allowing museum-goers to build their video step by step. The adjacent "Information Explosion" exhibit demonstrates, for those who weren't already convinced, how people these days are being overwhelmed by information. Video monitors, LED panels and speakers spit out discordant bursts of sight and sound, and a panel of text invites visitors to "ponder the deluge of information to which technology allows us access."

Nearby, the Electronic Cafe exhibit looks at "socializing in the future." Visitors "dine" at one of 12 stations in the Cafe, where they can access e-mail, chat groups and virtual environments. They can also interact with fellow cafe patrons through an extended 3-D environment in which they adopt a cartoon identity, known in the field as an "avatar." Of course they could interact with their fellow patrons simply by turning around and talking to them, but apparently socializing in the future will frown on this sort of "direct interfacing," perhaps because none of the sponsors of this museum will get a piece of that action. The exhibit is meant to show how technology brings people together. It seems to demonstrate the opposite.

The final gallery, "Exploration: New Frontiers," looks at how technology is used in space and underwater. While always a crowd-pleaser, this is territory that science museums have been mining for decades, and the Tech adds little that's new. But it was still nice to see a jet pack on display, a science museum standby that's been part of curators' visions of the not-too-distant future for nearly a half-century now.

Like most high-profile technology ventures, the Tech will need to draw a lot of customers to justify its cost. The biggest insurance policy of all is the museum's Imax theater, featuring a wrap-around domed screen that's an eye-popping 82 feet in diameter. It will no doubt be a hit, as in dozens of other museums across the country, but it has nothing in particular to do with Silicon Valley or high tech. In fact, some aspects of the Imax system are about as low tech as you can get--the analog projector weighs 2,000 pounds and the lamp reaches temperatures of 1,300 degrees, necessitating a cumbersome cooling system that pumps five gallons of water per minute around the bulb. Just as the proliferation of printed material about the Internet illustrates the newer medium's limits to communicate, the existence of a mega-moviehouse amid all the new pop-tech infotainment tells us a lot about the state of that developing art.

It's true that the Tech will entertain all but the most hard-to-please kids, and they'll probably learn a thing or two along the way. And it may well open many adult visitors' eyes to the world of high technology. It may even, as the mission statement solemnly intones, "inspire the next generation of innovation."

But before long, the museum is going to have to upgrade those "take a number" dispensers, maybe with new models featuring digital readouts.

The Tech Museum of Innovation is at 201 S. Market St. in downtown San Jose, Calif. San Jose International Airport is about three miles north, San Francisco International about 35 miles north.

General admission to both the exhibit galleries and the Imax theater is $13.50 for adults, $10 for children. Admission to the exhibit galleries only is $8 for adults, $6 for children. The museum's main information lines are 408-294-TECH (408-294-8324) and 408-795-6100. For reservations and tickets, call 408-795-6101. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is closed Mondays. The inevitable Web page can be found at http://www.thetech.org.

Tom McNichol last wrote for Travel about Thailand.

DOING THE SILICON VALLEY CIRCUIT

Despite the efforts of those who have created San Jose's new Tech Museum of Innova-tion, the nation's capital of digital technology isn't much of a place to visit. Still, if you're at all tweaky and find yourself with a day to kill in the Bay area, you can tour some of the sites that put Silicon Valley on the map. We asked The Post's Silicon Valley correspondent, Elizabeth Corcoran, to lead the way.

1. Stanford University, Palo Alto

As close to ground zero as you can get. Founded in 1891, the school had a modest reputation when two undergraduates named Bill Hewlett and David Packard met here. More recent alum include Jerry Yang and David Filo, who started a project on their dorm room PC that morphed into Yahoo! Microsoft president Steve Ballmer and archrival Scott McNealy, chief executive of Sun Microsystems, cut their teeth in the Stanford Business School cafeteria. To tour, ascend the mid-campus Hoover Tower for the Silicon Valley macro view of this gracious, palm tree-lined campus.

2. Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), 333 Coyote Hill Rd., Palo Alto

Scores of techdom's brightest minds have come here for inspiration. Steve Jobs dropped by for a tour and walked out with ideas that led to the first Macintosh computer. The laser printer was born here. Sadly, there's no gift shop. Drive past the grounds, gaze at the roaming mustangs, breathe deep. Ideas in the air? Or just horse manure?

3. Hewlett-Packard garage

367 Addison Ave., Palo Alto

Designated "the birthplace of Silicon Valley" by California in 1989, this was the original start-up-in-the-garage garage. Hewlett and Packard established HP in 1939, flipping a coin to decide whose name would go first. The first product was an electronic measuring device called an audio oscillator, named "Model 200A" to affect a product history. No museum here, just a plaque.

4.Steve Jobs's garage, 2066 Crist Dr., Los Altos

Probably more famous than the H-P garage but currently plaqueless, this is where Jobs and buddy Stephen Wozniak wired up the early boards that became the Macintosh. Hyperlink to . . .

5. Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino

For years, Apple boasted humongous sculptures on the lawn. Jobs, the once and current CEO, packed them off last year. But a huge banner currently features John Lennon and Yoko Ono, part of Apple's "Think Different" ad campaign. There is an on-campus store, but it sells only software and collectables, like logo-ed umbrellas, flashlights and golf balls.

6. Fry's Electronics, 340 Portage Ave., Palo Alto

(five other Valley locations)

If it beeps, glows or can rot your teeth, you can probably get it here, the quintessential Silicon Valley geek-o-mart. Fry's has a bit of everything: finished electronics, the wires and thingummies you need to make electronic equipment, hacker's meal plan staples such as candy bars and sodas, "Star Trek" paraphernalia, even cheap ties. Fry's customers know more than the clerks do.

7. Intel Corp., 2200 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara

What would a computer be without a chip? What would the Valley be without Intel, maker of almost 85 percent of microprocessors in PCs? There's a tiny but ebullient museum of chip technology but, sadly, no public gift shop. For the record, few chips are still made in the Valley.

8. Il Fornaio, Garden Court Hotel, 520 Cowper St., Palo Alto

You can smell the wood-burning ovens -- and you can smell the money, too. This stylish Tuscan place is among venture capitalists' favorite feeding grounds. Head here for breakfast (no later than 8 a.m., pleeze) and you're almost certain to rub elbows with folks shoveling rocket fuel (read: cash) into the Valley's fledgling companies. How to spot them? Look for tables with at least two cell phones sitting out, like sacrificed weapons. The entrepreneur is the guy leaning forward, eyes ablaze, making sweeping gestures as his latte goes flat. The VC is leaning back, rubbing his pager.

9. Classic Silicon Valley drive. From the airport, head to Highway 280 south. As you drive south, you'll whiz past towns of fame and almost unimaginable fortune: Atherton, Hillsboro and Woodside, home to some of the Valley's weathiest operators. For a glimpse at how California money lived when digits still referred to fingers and toes, tour the beautiful, 1916 Filoli Estate (86 Canada Rd., Woodside, 650-364-2880). Continuing down 280, take the Sand Hill Road exit east. The Madison Avenue of the venture capitalist community, it snakes through the outskirts of Stanford University.

10. Kepler's bookstore, 1010 Camino Real, Menlo Park

Almost everybody in the Valley claims to buy their books from Amazon.com. But lots still sneak into this old-fashioned bookstore, a hub for Valley geeks. Of course, there's a coffee shop next door.

11. University Avenue, Palo Alto

Palo Alto's Champs Elysee. Another Il Fornaio is here, as well as coffee shops, pizza joints and sushi bars. Some of the hippest Palo Alto restaurants are on side streets. Try Zibibbo (430 Kipling St.) if you have stock options, or Gordon Biersch (640 Emerson St.) if you're looking for a brew. The Peninsula Creamery (566 Emerson St.), a favorite milkshake stop for the likes of Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen, is nearby.

12. Netscape Communications Corp., 510 E. Middlefield Rd., Mountain View

History may not repeat itself, but addresses in the Valley do. In the '60s and '70s this was the site of Fairchild Electronics, which put the "Silicon" into Silicon Valley. Fairchild was bought out, and in '95 the site became home to then start-up Netscape. Netscape's headquarters remain here -- a Superfund cleanup site, by the way.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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