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UT Scientists Vie to be Weavers of the Next Internet

Source: Austin American-Statesman, February 24, 1997
By Dick Stanley

University of Texas scientists will help build the next-generation Internet if the school wins a bid to become a fourth Texas player in a new national computer network.

Three Houston schools -- Rice University, the University of Houston and Baylor College of Medicine -- joined the super- quick research network of the National Science Foundation last summer.

Called the very high-speed Backbone Network Service, or vBNS, it is an Internet in the making. So far, it links 13American universities with five national supercomputing centers around the country.

The network is expected to eventually supplant the existing Internet -- making it much speedier and friendlier to multimedia such as television and video teleconferencing.

Mary Wheeler, a UT professor of engineering, said scientists are ``very optimistic'' the university's application for $349,000 from the science foundation to join the research network will be approved. A decision is expected by September.

Wheeler is the director of the UT Center for Subsurface Modeling, which independently joined the Houston schools in research on the high-speed network last year.

Among the UT projects that would benefit from the network is a cooperative effort between Wheeler's center and the Army Corps of Engineers to build a computer model of the Chesapeake Bay. The model would help engineers analyze the potential effects of such things as pesticide runoff and dredging.

So far, the research network moves data around at 622 million bits a second, compared with the 28,800 bits a second that is the highest speed available to most Internet users. Within a few years, the new network is expected to reach data transfer speeds of 2.2 trillion bits a second.

Such speed is a dream of software designers aiming for the next ``killer ap,'' or application for computer users.

Once those speeds become part of the Internet, ``you'd have a lot more emphasis on new kinds of applications, certainly virtual reality and other video applications,'' said Ken Kennedy, a Rice computer scientist. Kennedy recently was appointed by President Clinton to co-chair an advisory committee of scientists collaborating on the research network. The committee holds its first meeting this week in Arlington, Va.

``I think the government is looking for private advice on how to invest in the Internet,'' Kennedy said. ``The next-generation Net will be the hottest thing we'll be talking about.''

Kennedy foresees a day when widely separated aerospace engineers, for instance, will meet on the Internet using virtual-reality, 3-D simulators to collaborate on designing new airliners.

``A big issue will be security,'' Kennedy said. ``People designing airplanes will want their work to be secure from competitors.''

Kennedy is a leader of the Texas collaborations on the research network. Rice is developing the software to let researchers at Baylor College of Medicine create a virtual-reality simulator to train surgeons.

The Baylor researchers also want to model the molecular structure of the AIDS virus to help figure out ways to defeat it.

The simulators would be used in a University of Houston project called CAVE, which stands for computer-aided virtual environment.

The CAVE is a 10-by-10-by-9-foot room in which projector screens on the walls and floor combine to create a virtual-reality illusion surrounding a viewer. The CAVE has been used to train astronauts to repair satellites in space. Wheeler, whose UT center has created computer models of environmental problems in Galveston Bay, hopes to put them in the CAVE to gain a better understanding of the details.

UT's joining the high-speed network, alone, would enhance the modeling. ``You model the flow of water and the effects on the species,'' Wheeler said. ``Some of the calculations can take days or weeks. If we could speed it up, you could make engineering decisions quicker.''

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