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Natural Net
By John Patrick
Issue column appeared: Vol. 34, No. 4. (Winter 1996)

The full potential of the Internet remains to be tapped. In the process, our very conception of what the Internet is will change. On one level, the Internet is a network, or a network of networks. But to think of it solely in that way is as if one were to regard the automobile merely as an ingenious device and overlook the way in which it has changed the way we live and even where we live. To see what the Internet will make possible, I propose that we begin to focus on its emergence as a new medium.
The benefits of this new medium will continue to grow in the wake of key enabling technologies and applications, just as has happened with the development of other media. Radio, which existed for years before commercial broadcasting was possible or even envisaged has progressed from AM to FM to FM stereo and, in the form of call-in talk shows, has even attained a modest degree of interactivity. Likewise, television has gone from black and white sets, often marred by static, to home theater systems with crisp color images, stereo surround sound and signals beamed down from satellites or fed in by cable. The Internet, however, promises to far surpass these familiar features.
Already, we have seen the Internet grow from a mechanism for file exchange to a means of directory browsing and remote connection to other computers, providing capabilities such as e-mail. More recently, the World Wide Web, as an application on the Internet, has permitted the sharing of documents created with a common formatting language called HTML (Hypertext Markup Language). That, in turn, has given rise to HTML documents with embedded multimedia content audio or video clips that a user can download and play. And today we are beginning to enjoy audio and video streaming. For example, a new technology from IBM Research, called Bamba, allows users to download video and audio files five times faster than currently possible and to simultaneously play audio and video clips as fast as they download.
I call this emerging Internet scenario the NaturalNet, because one of its defining features will be naturalness. Personalized Web pages generated on the basis of a users interests are possible with new tools from IBM Research , but even the type of media returned to a user will be tailored. Visually impaired users may require special kinds of images or none at all, whereas hearing impaired users might receive information with supplemental images and video.
The power of interactive computing will also increase. A prototype application from IBM Research known as PanoramIX allows the creation of interactive environments that visitors to a Web site can explore. Currently, a complete panoramic tour of a world-famous Parisian department store is available on-line at www.alphaWorks.ibm.com. Later, we can expect to see people, such as designers, collaborating over the Internet through virtual reality applications that enable them to “reach into” each others browsers and manually manipulate shared 3D images as they discuss them.
The NaturalNet could even extend beyond the Internet to become intertwined with the public switched telephone network, so that, while conversing with a help desk or a fashion consultant for that matter, a video session and the exchange of images and text could supplement two-way telephony.
These are just some of the capabilities that are rapidly transforming the Internet today into a new medium that ultimately will provide a whole new computing model. Such a model based on the natural, interactive front end and a wide range of applications would be supplemented by transaction processing and access to enterprise data to create a unified computing space. The new medium called the Internet will enable natural human interaction that, in turn, will enhance our lives.