BY BASIL TALBOTT SUN-TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU
WASHINGTON--Imagine walking to a room that transports you into a three-dimensional space with a car dealer off in Europe and his newest model in front of both of you.
Peer around to check the side of the auto, peek into the trunk and point out a seat design you don't like. The dealer points back.
It's no ``Star Trek'' dream--such three-dimensional communications could be available in homes in a few years. The technology is part of the rapidly evolving high-tech wizardry that has placed Illinois at the forefront of Internet research.
The University of Illinois was instrumental in developing the original Internet, and experts in the field in the Chicago area want Illinois to preserve that leadership as the technology continues to expand into areas once left to the imagination of science fiction.
The amazing room of virtual reality, called an ``immersion cave,'' was developed at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In a modern version of Alexander Graham Bell's first phone hookup, the UIC campus last month hooked up with similar caves in Amsterdam and Tokyo and sites across the United States.
Industry took quick advantage of the invention. Three-dimensional caves are now used by Caterpillar to design earth-moving equipment in Europe and by General Motors to shape car interiors.
Virtual reality rooms popping up around the globe are among the first applications of high-tech research developed in the Chicago area and the Midwest. Other uses include long-distance teaching.
Once the crossroads of rail transport and now the nation's busiest air traffic hub, Chicago is becoming the center of communication research and high-performance networks. One priority is to develop a next-generation network that will be faster, more reliable and carry more data.
``Chicago and Illinois are quite advanced in the next-generation Internet,'' said Mortenza Rahimi, vice president for information and technology at Northwestern University. ``We have an advantage that can't last forever. A tremendous amount of research will be needed to develop the next-generation Internet, and it could be done in Illinois rather than somewhere else.''
Recognizing ``the Midwest is the heartland of computer research,'' Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) plans a January forum in Chicago for the Illinois congressional delegation. Researchers will demonstrate the technology for lawmakers and take them into the cave.
Illinois got its first Internet edge at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The supercomputer center there developed the first Web browser, Mosaic, opening up the Internet to wide public use.
Little more than a year ago, UIC, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, Argonne Laboratory and Fermilab joined with Ameritech to work on the next-generation network. A federal project plans to divvy up $100 million a year in grants.
To grasp what a high-powered network can do, consider how long it now takes to download the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica.
A personal computer with a typical modem will take 27 hours to complete the task. Last week Ameritech offered a higher-powered hookup that would let users download the information in 31 minutes. A special network connecting Chicago universities could finish the download in less than a minute.
Why is the power of a second-generation network needed? Now that the Internet has become popular, researchers on separate campuses no longer can set aside a time to work on a project simultaneously.
``Now whether the data gets through depends on whether my 16-year-old son decides to advertise his sailing club to thousands of people,'' said Gregory Jackson, head of information technology at the University of Chicago. ``We may have to wait for him.''
To ensure continued research, federal officials helped U.S. labs connect with a 5,000-mile fiber-optic cable network called vBNS, for the very high speed Backbone Network Service. Jumping in the game, Chicago universities and Ameritech created the most potent regional hookup in the nation, the Metropolitan Research and Education Network.
In addition to now having the largest regional high performance hookup with vBNS, Chicago also has: the largest Internet exchange point in the nation and the federally designated U.S. connection point to high-performance networks overseas.
Through the federally funded STAR*TAP (Science Technology and Research Transit Access Point), Chicago hooks up with Canada, Japan and Singapore and expects to be connected soon to research networks in Taiwan, Norway, South America, China, Africa and European nations.
Mark Luker, who directed the federal program for researching the next-generation network, said Chicago has ``a real richness of people with networking experience.''
``There's an edge in the Midwest, but they have to keep scrambling to keep it,'' said Luker, who just left the National Science Foundation. ``It's a rapidly moving competitive field, and people need to work hard to keep up. It's just as easy now in Asia as in Silicon Valley to hook up.''
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WASHINGTON--It was as if Alice had walked through a looking glass to play with children 150 miles away on an imaginary island.
A child in Chicago leaned over to pick a flower, offered it to another child in Urbana and together they walked around and under a volcano on the island.
Far apart on the map, the children played for an hour in a virtual reality garden filled with vivid cartoons and images.
The futuristic playground was created by researchers exploring uses for the Internet at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Children joined the imaginary world by going into ``immersion caves'' on the UIC campus in Chicago and a U. of I. lab in Urbana.
Playmates in Japan and Singapore, speaking different languages, could have joined the game. A November experiment hooked up Japan.
The caves are rooms, 10 feet by 10 feet by 9 feet. In the children's game, called NICE--for Narrative Immersive Constructionist/Collaborative Environment--four children go into each cave wearing 3-D glasses.
Each group has a leader. The leader carries a wand with a tracker. Computers pick up the trackers and produce a three-dimensional cartoon of the leader for the far-off playmates.
``Children in both places are in a garden with vegetables, flowers, plants and bins where they can collect seeds, plant them and then watch them grow,'' said Maria Roussos, a researcher who helped develop NICE.
In the experiment a teacher wearing 3-D glasses can monitor the children.
Each leader is represented to the other cave as a cartoon that could be a bird, a bee, a scarecrow or a Fisher-Price toy. Soon each cartoon will have the live face of the leader using video, said Dan Sandin, a co-director of the lab from the engineering and art department of UIC.
Wide use of the caves is far off because of cost.