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05/01/95

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Two-hour videobridge links Stanford and Tokyo

STANFORD -- For some two hours on the evening of April 26, the barriers of time and space seemed to dissolve for about 60 people in the Thornton Center for Engineering Management and a comparable number in Tokyo.

The occasion was a videobridge -- a two-way videoconference -- organized by the US-Japan Technology Management Center at Stanford and TEPIA, a government-funded foundation in Tokyo established to provide information about advanced technology to the Japanese public and to promote international exchange.

The two-way link was a demonstration of the latest advances in telecommunications. It employed data compression techniques to squeeze two-way video through two ordinary phone lines. As a result, the large, projected images were a bit blurry and indistinct at times. But the Japanese location and participants were easily distinguished. In fact, the images were strikingly better than those that were possible a year or two ago, and the cost involved was about one-tenth that of the two-way satellite video links that have become commonplace today.

The videobridge started with brief presentations from Stanford and TEPIA. In the Stanford presentations, Dr. Harry Saal, president and chief executive officer of SmartValley Inc., described some of the programs of the private, non-profit group that was organized to improve Silicon Valley's infrastructure. William Wong from Enterprise Integrated Technologies summarized CommerceNet, a project designed to facilitate the use of the Internet for commercial transactions, and Burton Lee provided an overview of the Japan Window project that he manages.

From the Tokyo end, Stanford faculty, students and representatives from a number of Bay Area companies, were given a guided tour through the center's exhibition hall, which showcased a number of innovative Japanese multimedia products. These ranged from Virtual Ski -- an interactive system from NEC Corp. that combines a European-style ski machine with a big-screen view of a ski slope that speeds up, slows down and changes direction in response to shifts in the skier's weight -- to an NTT video-on- demand system that allow the subscriber to view, pause, forward and reverse the picture, much as a videotape machine operates.

TEO-Another Earth, an artificial world with weather, seasons, a diurnal cycle and stars at night, also was demonstrated. Currently, it is populated by a single, birdlike creature called "Phink." Phink responds to voices and people's distance from the video screen. Eventually, creators at Fujitsu Ltd. intend to populate the "world" with a number of different creatures.

Yet another presentation was Ohbayashi Corp.'s vision of automated building construction that can build high-rises using robots instead of construction workers.

The highlight of the event was the open-ended discussion that followed the formal presentations and lasted for about an hour. While some of the questions were technical, such as a request for the latency in the Virtual Ski video display, others were more general. For example, a Japanese participant asked whether his impression that everyone in America had a home computer and that computer courses were taught at all the schools was correct.

The two-way translations sometimes created unexpected responses,. When the representative for a company that produces high-definition laser discs mentioned that its newest title addressed the "collision" between Mars and Mercury, he actually meant the "occultation" of Mars and Mercury.

Richard Dasher, associate director of the US-Japan Technology Management Center who emceed the Stanford end of the videoconference, said in his closing remarks: "In the past, we have relied on newspapers and TV and radio. Now we can talk to each other directly."

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