We want to be able to put a virtual reality headset on a surgeon so that he can stand inside a patient’s colon and look around like this, said Professor Peter Cochrane, manager of British Telecommunications Plc’s BT Systems research division. He moved his head to indicate the 360o field of vision that the future […]
We want to be able to put a virtual reality headset on a surgeon so that he can stand inside a patient’s colon and look around like this, said Professor Peter Cochrane, manager of British Telecommunications Plc’s BT Systems research division. He moved his head to indicate the 360o field of vision that the future doctor would get of his or her patient’s guts and enthused about a new endoscope that can report its position within the invalid’s body. The result of the new tool could be a melding of medicine and virtual reality, but where does telecommunications come in? We could allow another doctor to stand next to him in the colon, except that in (real) reality he would be in Edinburgh.
Cochrane was talking on the day after British Telecom announced its sadly diminished profits – his task, to persuade the assembled audience of journalists that the research work going on at the company’s Martlesham Laboratories will lead to a brave new world where business travel is rendered unnecessary and doctors can walk unfettered through the bowels of distant patients. Cochrane is not a man to hedge his bets. Acknowledging the extreme danger of making predictions, he proceded to make some designed to titillate even the most jaded technological palates. By the year 2010, he asserted, putting aside the questions of what is intelligence we will have human equivalent mainframes, at least in terms of processing power. By the year 2030, that same power will be residing inside desktop machines. At the same time telecommunications will continue to stride forward – BT has already reduced the number of telephone exchanges from the original 700-odd to 600. In the 21st century, the whole of the UK will be served by just 50. Almost as an aside he adds, my prognosis for 2030 is that we will not need any switches at all None? None! Instead, the functionality will be built into the end of the fibre, a small box sitting screwed to the subscriber’s wall. Meanwhile in the room next door another researcher is using a simple Macintosh program to display an analogy between marauding ants and a future generation of switch equipment.
Characteristic British reticence – plus the pathological secrecy born of the company’s long sojourn under the dead hand of state control and its Civil Service mentality means that although British Telecommunications Plc has a world-class research and development laboratory that stands comparison with Bell Laboratories and Bell Communications Research, the outside world seldom gets a glimpse of what goes on there. But the other day, the company lifted the veil of secrecy a soupcon, and Chris Rose was there to marvel at the wonders on display.
The ants are running backwards and forwards from pieces of food dotted randomly around the screen to their nest. A screen alongside shows the same scene, except the the food is replaced with information sources, the nest with the user’s computer and the ants are replaced by, well, self-routing data packets. The theory behind this cute display is to demonstrate that by laying pheromone (scent) trails between food and the nest and using incredibly simple rules – you’ve found food?, lay a trail back to the nest. You’ve found a trail? Follow it – ant colonies can organise themselves very efficiently. It is a strategy that can equally well be applied to routing data on telecommunications networks, according to the man from Martlesham’s blasted heath. While a routing system based on ant behaviour is only around 80% as efficient as today’s carefully coded efforts, it is simple to implement – and that is what will count in the complex networks of the next millennium where bandwidth and processing power are two a penny but software engineers expensive. But how, one person tentatively asks do you actually implement a network where the packets are ‘intelligent’ and autonomous? The researcher’s face falls slightly and he explains that this is not the event to discuss nuts and bolts issues, although they hope to have prototype ready in 12 months. But practical implementations w
ill take nigh on five years.
Advances in networking and processing power will not be enough though – before virtual reality becomes realistic, displays are going to need some attention. The television screen – developed in the 1930s – is absolutely pathetic for displaying information says Cochrane, who embarks on an exposition of the possibilities of active component contact lenses, interactive white boards and real time holographic images. There are also the tricky psychological issues – your correspondent for example falls into the small group of people that finds stereoscopic three-dimesnional images induce acute nausea. A similar sensation might be felt by people who try to work out just how much bandwidth all this is going to require, but as Cochrane points out, telecommunications is the only industry where capacity is constantly rising while its requirements for raw materials and energy is falling. Compared with jumping on an aeroplane, pace the hordes heading for the grandiose Earth Summit junket in Rio, video conferencing is incredibly green. Perhaps sufficiently so that it is worth going a bit green about the gills for.