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Internet poised for huge jump in speed, uses

Everything from video games to surgery soon will advance dramatically

In the next five years, surgeons hundreds of miles from the operating table will perform surgical procedures on patients by remote control.

Full-length feature films will be downloaded onto home computers in a matter of seconds. Videoconferencing will take on holographic forms.

And video games, for better or worse, might move into first place as the country's primary entertainment mode.

Thanks to speeds that will deliver data up to 100 times faster than today's fastest data flow, the future Internet will open the floodgates to a wealth of functions.

Still, other than Intel Corp., most Portland companies seem to be on the sideline as the Internet evolves.

Easy Street Online Services is developing systems to make it easier for gamers to download their wares. And Portland hosts an active wireless Web enclave, as well as several next-gen Internet experts at its local universities.

But local work with the XML computing platform, expected to drive the Internet's development, seems to be lacking. As a result, Portland could miss out on dramatic development opportunities.

'The equivalent of what will happen will be like when we switched from mainframe computing to personal computers in 1984,' said

Intel's Chris Thomas, chief strategist in its market solutions group. 'It will come from more mobility. The next generation explosion will be incredibly powerful.'

The Internet began as a research network for federal labs and universities, but much development of the form ceased in the early 1990s when commercial applications of the Web mushroomed.

Which is where Internet2 comes in. Internet2, which runs at speeds as high as 50 times normal broadband cable rates, is a 'parallel' network created for researchers to develop advanced networking applications.

Jere Retzer, executive director of the Northwest Access Exchange, said Internet2 is used strictly to develop new Web uses.

To name one, Internet2 allows for grid computing, or the combining of several computers that collaboratively solve advanced problems, such as those related to genetics and biotech equations.

Along with grid computing, businesses eventually will use the Internet to enable more effective videoconferencing modes. The faster speeds will result in more 'real-time' discussions with fewer technical problems.

One compelling application could come through the development of 'telecubicles,' in which participants see each other projected on holographiclike walls, as opposed to small computer screens.

'The barrier we need to get past on videoconferencing, though, is that people are still a bit shy,' said Joe St. Sauver, the University of Oregon's director of user services and network applications. 'It's a psychological barrier that might not match the technology advances.'

Faster networking speeds also will benefit health care providers. Retzer thinks that doctors can collect medical records more easily because of the Web's increased capacity.

Savvy physicians also can offer real-time advice during procedures performed by their colleagues in other locations. Soon, surgeons could even use so-called haptic, or touch-sensitive, remote controllers that provide a sense of virtual reality, to guide other physicians through tricky procedures.

'This will be used a lot in teaching, to show students what to look for or how hard to cut through skin,' Retzer said.

Finally, the killer application for businesses eventually will come via the wireless route, says Mark Gregory, chief information officer for Portland State University.

'On our campus, we now have 1,200 people registered on our wireless network,' Gregory said. 'A few months ago, we had 800.'

Home helpers

In terms of home Internet, observers long have predicted the advent of sensor networking that would position hundreds, if not thousands, of small sensors in each home.

One oft-cited example is refrigerators containing sensors that, among other things, can 'sense' when a product is going bad by scanning barcodes and issuing alerts when products reach their expiration dates.

Perhaps it's the entertainment options that will be the true killer applications in homes. For one thing, faster Internet speeds will make such 'rich media' content as film and other visuals more easily swapped. Three-hour films will be downloadable in seconds, not Ñ as they are today Ñ hours.

Retzer, noting that video-streaming speeds will become lightning quick, said television networks could even begin using Internet technologies to send their primary signals.

Then there's the advent of gaming. Already, Americans spend more yearly on video games than on movies, Bader said. When the Internet enables players to download huge files quickly, gaming will become an outright dominant entertainment form.

Nigel Ballard, principal with Portland's Joe Java Consultancy, offers one other unique future Internet usage: Web cameras, now considered novelties or adult peep-site conduits, will become far more functional.

Speedier networks

But companies such as Intel are necessary to advance the Web's capabilities. The Intel's Enterprise Solutions Group is creating servers that capitalize on the Internet's impending increase in capacity. Its Mobile Products Group also is devising products to improve wireless connectivity and battery performance.

Intel's Thomas projects big changes in the time-management arena: Faster speeds and more reliable connectivity, for instance, will allow a company's sales managers and field representatives to share data from the actual point of sale.

'Usually, they'd have to end up making a lot of phone calls and doing a lot of baby-sitting tasks to get everything through,' Thomas said. 'But we'll suck out that human labor by automating everything.'

Under the same principle, Thomas said Intel wants to fully form the 'mobility inflection point,' technospeak for a system that automatically and continuously feeds computer users with Web information they want Ñ performance of an investment portfolio, the latest bank balance Ñ rather than troubling them to retrieve that information from scores of different Internet addresses.

It all adds up to dramatic increases in productivity, delivered through speedy networking and cord-free computers.