IF YOU CAN'T WAIT to get your hands on the latest computer hardware, Tech 2000 at Washington's Techworld Plaza is the place to go. If, on the other hand, you're worried about how computers are changing your life, Tech 2000 still is the place to go, to find out what those people are up to.
The latest phase in the electronic revolution, as Tech 2000's techies are happy to explain to those of us who came in late, is interactive video. Known hereinafter as "invideo," it was born of the mating of the computer superchip to the laser disk, consummated on the video screen. Invideo promises -- or threatens -- to change profoundly the way we work, play and learn.
Tech 2000's 10,000 square feet of display space is packed with several million dollars worth of megacrunch computers, giant-screen monitors and video walls, and laser-disk "jukeboxes" that can walk you through the world's great art museums or play back the world's worst trash movies. You can search out clues in mystery games, flaws in your golf game or shorts in the electrical circuits of a DC-9. You can cruise through much -- and eventually all -- of the vast collection of photographs in the Library of Congress. You can learn how to weld a car frame or put together a news docudrama as riveting -- or as shallow and distorted -- as anything on network television.
You can, in short, be delighted and/or scared out of your wits. The good news is that ever more powerful computers are going to get easier and easier for the average person to use, or "interface with." The rest of the news is that computers are going to be constantly in your face, and your workplace, whether you like it or not.
The gallery describes itself as "technology's new frontier," but it might also be called the nerd center of Washington. It amounts to a permanent industry trade fair that's open to the public. The hardware and software all are loaned or donated by their makers, partly because they hope to sell them and partly to see how people react to them.
The results are fairly consistent, said David Rainey of the Interactive Video Industry Assocation, sponsor of the gallery. "People over 40 tend to be puzzled, those under 30 catch on fast, and those under 20 are right at home from go."
"We serve as a real-world test bed, a place where designers and programmers can see how their creations play in public," said IVIA's Nick Givotovsky. "Some pieces of hardware turn out to be inadequate for hard usage, and some of the programs crash when people respond to them in unexpected ways. What's surprising is how relatively little down time we're having."
Still, glitches showed up at about one in five work (or play) stations during a tour of the two-story gallery conducted by manager Rob McCord. Some were mechanical problems, such as disk players that couldn't find the right information track, and others involved sulky software. (McCord also had to deal with a visitor whose brain was molded in the pre-TV era, and constantly crashed because of input overload.)
More basic problems show themselves in the databases themselves. "Garbage in, garbage out" was among the earliest watchwords of computer technology, and the warning grows steadily more meaningful as computers capture an increasing share of information storage and retrieval.
Punch in the keyword "deer" in some of these programs, for instance and you get images and information about everything from western blacktails to moose, with little evidence that the compilers were aware of the differences. Summon up related topics and the associations the computer produces are more likely to be silly or simple-minded than serendipitous. If keypunchers are going to take over the functions of our scholars and librarians, future researchers will find themselves sailing very broad but shallow seas.