A supercharged new network with true tele-presence puts the needs of science first

By Brad Lemley and Katharina BosseMay 1, 2002 5:00 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

In the course of 10 hours, I've crawled inside a strand of DNA, dodged an orbiting chunk of space junk, inspected a newly synthesized crystal, and walked through the Mayan city Chichén Itzá. I've flown into digital art, perused a galactic supercluster a billion light-years from Earth, and seen the unthinkably small Calabi-Yau spaces suspected to lurk at the heart of superstrings. I'm impressed. I'm amazed. I'm a little motion sick.

Indiana University researcher John N. Huffman, seated inside a 3-D virtual environment dubbed the CAVE, communes with "Blue Window Pane." When a viewer approaches the giant face, it opens its eyes and chants. Margaret Dolinsky, the artist, has shown her work via Internet2 in as many as six CAVEs simultaneously.

And I never left Indiana.

Each of these virtual destinations demonstrates the kind of massive data application that can zoom through Internet2, a souped-up parallel universe of connectivity that shows where, with luck, the original Internet will go. While the rest of us watch hourglass icons, jerky video, and stuttering audio, Internet2 users enjoy true tele-presence: the ability to be simultaneously both here and there via crystal-clear video and digital stereo sound. Augmented by new kinds of displays, such as whole rooms that immerse the viewer in three-dimensional virtual environments, Internet2 is the hyped-up Internet we all hoped for in the 1990s but that never arrived.

Internet2 is an effort by more than 190 U.S. universities—as well as industry partners and federal agencies—to develop a faster, smarter, more capable Internet, one that puts the needs of science and education first. It began on October 1, 1996, in the basement of a hotel near Chicago, when 34 university scientists met to solve a problem. The researchers were concerned that the willy-nilly, laissez-faire growth of the Internet had veered from the vision of founders such as Tim Berners-Lee, the British programmer who invented the World Wide Web to help physics researchers collaborate. Rather than a focused network of fat data pipes that would allow scientists to work together in real time, the Internet evolved into a web of slow connections better suited to selling books and swapping e-mail.

"Commercial providers were optimizing for millions of dial-up users, not for the applications we wanted to build," says Ted Hanss, applications director for Internet2. "We wanted to return to the original vision." An agreement to launch a new high-speed, academia-oriented network was reached by the group of researchers that night, and six years later it is tied into similar networks in Europe, Asia, and South America.

Internet2 is deployed largely over a pair of high-performance backbone networks called Abilene and vBNS+. Signals zoom down fiber-optic lines to universities and other places that are tied to one of 30 high-capacity networking centers, each known as a gigaPoP, short for gigabit point of presence. In a windowless room at the Abilene Network Operations Center at Indiana University in Indianapolis, arrows representing data transmission pulse and glow in brilliant colors across a digital map of the United States, indicating Abilene's traffic flow (see "We're talking about 2.4 gigabits per second through these circuits," says Steve Peck, the network operations center manager. An individual application on Internet2 can use up the entire 2.4 gigabits. That's roughly 43,000 times more electronic data than can flow through a 56K dial-up Internet connection.

At a cost to each member university of at least $500,000 a year to connect to the closed network and develop applications, a supercharged Internet largely devoted to scientific research may seem extravagant, but participants emphasize that collaboration lies at the heart of modern science. "The days of a guy working alone in the lab are long gone, and that's all to the good," says John C. Huffman, director of Indiana University's Molecular Structure Center and an avid Internet2 collaborator. "This will allow you to have access to just about any equipment and collaborators . . . it doesn't matter if they are here or in China."

While scientific applications lead the way, others are crowding in. Internet2 heralds breakthroughs in art and entertainment, medicine, education, computation, and remote control of machinery and instruments of all kinds.

Still, how quickly such breakthroughs will trickle down to the slow Internet remains an open question. Internet2 has the advantage of academic and public funding, which makes it a fundamentally different animal from the Internet most of us know. "The dotcom bust did a lot of damage; it made a lot of network operators skittish" about offering new, pricey services on the Internet, says Donald Riley, chief information officer of the University of Maryland and one of Internet2's founders. Revamping the Internet, which is built on a hodgepodge of new fiber optics, old copper telephone lines, and telephone-switching equipment, is, he concedes, "more trouble than we envisioned." Internet2 backers say some applications, such as high-definition videostreams, could become available on the Internet in as little as five years. Others, such as remote control of scientific instruments, will most likely always remain confined to those who need and can afford specialized hardware.

The important thing, says Riley, is that Internet2 serves as a "test bed for what works and what doesn't." Commercial network providers are watching Internet2 developments closely, he says, and will begin to roll out services when they make sense. "You have to remember that the Internet itself is now 30 years old," he says. "When it began [as the Defense Department's ARPAnet], no one had a vision of what it would become." Internet2, he says, "provides the vision."

VIRTUAL LAB PARTNERS "It was just like someone took a chain saw and chopped a hole in the wall of the office," says Tom Cox, recalling his first experience with the Office of the Future project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ( "I felt I could just reach through and into the next room." The next room, in this case, was on the other side of the building. In later experiments, using Internet2, it was hundreds of miles away. Cox, who manages video services for UNC's Center for Instructional Technology, realized that this experimental 3-D tele-immersion system was a "vast improvement" over traditional television-based videoconferencing.

Michele Clark Weigle, a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, uses the touch-sensitive probe of the nanoManipulator, an Internet2-connected device, to explore the microscopic contours of a carbon nanotube. The sensation is "not subtle, you really feel it," says developer Richard Superfine.

"It is true tele-presence," says system developer Henry Fuchs, a computer science professor at UNC. "It's like the difference between a car and an airplane." The experimental work alcove that Fuchs and other researchers constructed features walls that are actually high-resolution projection screens. The user wears a headband that detects position and orientation, so if he leans to one side, he can see whatever is behind the head of the person on the screen in front of him. The illusion is made possible thanks to an elaborate setup that includes multiple cameras pointing at each user, a real-time 3-D extraction model of the scene, and stereo goggles.

In a variation, the screens can be subdivided: video of the researcher himself in one corner, data in another corner, full-motion video of real-time experimental apparatus in another corner. Such an arrangement requires a display of at least 3 by 5 feet. But John C. Huffman describes his custom-made, Internet2-connected, rear-projected monitor as the ultimate multitasking tool. "You can get a huge amount of work done this way," he says. "It's extremely productive."

"Experiments are getting harder and harder," says Richard Superfine, associate professor of physics and astronomy at UNC. "Increasingly, you need to bring together people from different disciplines: biologists who understand the disease, engineers who understand the equipment, and so on." Internet2, he says, "is a wonderful way to bring those people together."

TRANSPORTER ROOM Immersive is the Internet2 buzzword, and no peripheral more thoroughly dunks the user into new environments than the CAVE, short for CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment. The technology features a cube-shaped room that combines high-resolution stereoscopic projection and 3-D computer graphics to surround one or more users with a virtual environment. Created at the Electronic Visualization Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago (, CAVEs allow collaborators wearing goggles to stroll virtually through human organs, machines, buildings, anything that can be photographed or represented visually. With multiple CAVEs linked via Internet2, virtual communities of people across the globe can tour virtual places and inspect virtual things together.

CAVEs can even simulate whole environments. The Electronic Visualization Laboratory's "Virtual Harlem" gives students in African American literature courses a portal to Harlem of the 1920s and '30s; students can stroll the streets, inspect the architecture, and hear music from the era.

Perhaps the most revolutionary CAVE project is the creation of an entirely new art form. Margaret Dolinsky, an Indiana University assistant research professor and artist, creates phantasmagoric CAVE environments that explore truths about irony, humor, music, and levels of consciousness.

"Go up the staircase. Now jump off and look down!" Dolinsky suggests as we stand together experiencing a creation called "Blue Window Pane." I ascend shakily up the virtual stairs, using a hand-held navigation wand; one simply points it in the direction one wants to go. About 30 virtual feet above the virtual floor, I virtually leap off the stairs by pointing the wand at a far wall. "Look down!" Dolinsky says.

Ulp. It is amazing. I do seem to be flying; my legs dangle above a floor that seems realistically, disconcertingly distant. Such CAVE creations provide "an opportunity to create for others, who must in turn complete the piece through their participation," says Dolinsky, who has shown her work simultaneously in CAVEs in Indiana, Chicago, Hungary, Sweden, Austria, and the Netherlands.

Although the CAVE is exhilarating, prolonged exposure can lead to mal de mer, at least in this reporter. Along with goggles and the navigation wand, the well-appointed CAVE should probably include a box of Scopolamine patches.

MICROSCOPIC ODYSSEY Scanning-probe microscopes allow the user to see and push around objects as small as individual atoms. The nanoManipulator (, developed by a group of researchers at the University of North Carolina, adds the sensation of feeling the forces that act on the tip of a probe as it pokes and pushes atoms, molecules, DNA strands, and various other tiny structures. The user grasps a haptic interface, which roughly resembles a desk lamp minus its shade, and watches a cursor on a high-resolution screen while force-feedback software makes carbon molecules feel like brick walls and bacteria like jellyfish. The nanoManipulator can link to other sites via Internet2, allowing distant researchers easy access to these $100,000 microscopes.

Among the findings revealed by the nanoManipulator is the rupture strength of DNA: roughly 500 piconewtons, or about half a billionth the weight of an apple. The device has also aided engineers in making the world's smallest gear. When rolled by the probe, the atoms on the surface of carbon nanotubes mesh with the spaces in a graphite surface. "It's like a rack and pinion assembly," says developer Richard Superfine.

Perhaps as exciting as the practical results is the thrill visiting high school students feel when they prod nanoworld denizens. "It's just incredible," says Superfine. "We'll have the kids guess: Will this virus feel 'squishy'? Will it shatter like glass? Can we mold it like clay? Then they get to find out." He says the experience has persuaded students who had never before met a scientist to become one. And Superfine himself admits that smashing an adenovirus "is a lot of fun."

REMOTE-CONTROL TELESCOPES The term observatory used to mean one telescope stationed in one place, but Internet2 renders that definition passé. The Gemini Observatory ( consists of twin 8.1-meter telescopes, one located in Hawaii and another in Chile, linked to each other and various research centers around the world via Internet2 so that both Northern and Southern Hemisphere skies are available to astronomers at any networked site.

Mannequins Nicole and Sledge help researchers aim and focus multiple cameras at the University of North Carolina's Office of the Future project. Someday, says developer Henry Fuchs, a "sea of cameras" will shoot cubicle dwellers from all angles. Connected by Internet2, offices in Honolulu, Houston, and New York will seem to share the same space.

"In the old days, astronomers would have to go to the telescope and physically nurse and adjust the instruments," says Peter Michaud, Gemini's public information manager. But with Internet2, he says, "they can see the data come to them in real time where they are and make adjustments remotely."

The result is that a very expensive resource is used far more efficiently. "One night on either telescope is worth about $32,000, so you want to maximize the efficiency of every minute," Michaud says. Too often in the past, an astronomer would trek to the telescope only to find that bad weather made the trip useless. Now astronomers can be alerted at their home bases when conditions are good, resulting in "a far better use of their time and ours," Michaud says.

Astronomy has traditionally been among the more hazardous sciences, as sites that afford the best celestial views tend to be inhospitable to humans. The Hawaii-based Gemini telescope is typical: Perched atop Mauna Kea, it is nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. "Up there, there is 40 percent less oxygen. We like to say it makes you 40 percent stupider," says Michaud, adding that altitude sickness is an occupational hazard. But Internet2 allows stargazing from anywhere, freeing telescope makers to dream of even loftier peaks. "I think you'll see a trend toward placing telescopes in even more extreme environments," says Michaud.

DATA GRABBER Data, like people, enjoy being intimate. Internet2 promises to mix and mingle the information stored in computers all over the planet to solve some of science's thorniest mysteries. Project DataSpace ( ties far-flung databases together via Internet2. In essence, the network itself becomes the computer, cogitating as smoothly, efficiently, and quickly as if the processors, data storage, and connectivity hardware were all in the same room.

"Now we can create virtual databases, which means you can work with other people's data just as easily as if it were your own. This is a fundamentally new capability," says Robert Grossman, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago's Laboratory for Advanced Computing.

What does it portend? Grossman says it is now possible to compare geographically separated databases of petabyte size (equivalent to 20 million four-drawer file cabinets full of text) and find patterns that may vastly improve human life. His lab, for instance, has done early experiments in comparing protein data stored in Halifax to drug data stored in Amsterdam. Comparing the geometry of millions of drug molecules to the receptors on millions of protein molecules "has tremendous potential for new drug treatments," he says.

As Internet2 breakthroughs filter to the Internet, Grossman foresees data becoming a commodity, freely or inexpensively available to everyone everywhere. As such, he thinks the very nature of scientific research may ultimately change. "For a long time, science advanced through experiments. Then came simulation with computers. Now we are starting the data paradigm, looking for patterns in data." Whereas experimentation and simulation will likely always remain a part of science, he says that sophisticated pattern-recognizing software applied to disparate databases promises to be nothing less than "a new way for science to make discoveries."

DISTANCE EDUCATION "Musicians teach with their ears more than their eyes," says Brian Shepard, coordinator of Music Technology Programs at the University of Oklahoma's School of Music ( Even the most advanced teleconferencing capabilities of the Internet "were awful for teaching music," he says. "The delay and poor audio quality made it impossible." Yet he longed to have great musicians teach master classes to his students. "We get a few of them coming through Oklahoma every year but not nearly enough," he says.Internet2 solved his dilemma. Using an MPEG-2 encoder/ decoder, he was able to create a two-way stream of DVD-quality video and, more important, CD-quality audio. "The first thing I did was get our violin professor in here and have her teach a lesson to a student via the system. Ten minutes into it, she turns to me with a huge grin and just says, 'Wow.' She was stunned at how good it was," Shepard says. He has since virtually brought composer-conductor Michael Tilson Thomas to Oklahoma to teach via Internet2.

"He loved it," Shepard says.

Shepard concedes that the technology is not perfect. Although he has experimented with Internet2-mediated performances, such as having musicians in Oklahoma and Miami play together, he says the delay was noticeable. "Travel time was in the 20-to 30-millisecond range. With large groups and other coordinated performances, it does not really work." The delay is due to the inefficiency of data compression, so as processors get faster, he says, "that delay should come down."

What is the last remaining hurdle? "Well, sometimes a music teacher actually needs to touch the student, to find out if there's too much stress in the shoulders or something like that," Shepard says. "So far, we can't do that."

Visit Internet2's official Web site for news about the project:

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month
Already a subscriber? Log In or Register
1 free articleSubscribe
Want unlimited access?

Subscribe today and save 70%


Already a subscriber? Log In or Register
More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2021 Kalmbach Media Co.