1996 Discover Awards: Software

Monday, July 01, 1996
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS
The World Wide Web introduced millions to the wonders of the Internet. But for all their charm, most Web pages themselves are nearly as static as their book and magazine counterparts. Although the Web is technically equipped to supply video and sound, the user needs to have the right software to make use of them.

James Gosling didn’t like this state of affairs one bit. A computer, he reasoned, should be like a telephone: you plug it in and it works. If a sophisticated service such as call waiting doesn’t require you to go out and buy special software for your telephone, why should you have to do so to get video on the Web? Gosling, a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in Mountain View, California, devised a special computer language that allows engineers to package software along with data--so that, in other words, when you download a video clip you also automatically get the software needed to play it.

A key to this new language, called Java, after the beverage of choice for bleary-eyed programmers, is its great compactness, which means it doesn’t take long to download from the Web to your personal computer. Gosling made it so compact partly because he had originally conceived it as a way of writing software that home appliances such as televisions and toaster ovens could use to communicate with each other. He insists, however, that he always intended the software to have a wider application. It was never really designed just for small things. That was sort of a catalyst, Gosling says. We decided to build a software environment where we could drive a bunch of things.

Since releasing it last year, Sun has made Java available free of charge over the Internet in the hopes that it will become a standard component of Web pages. The software firm Netscape has made it a part of its popular Web browsing software. By making it possible for pcs to do sophisticated things without having tons of software, a future generation of Java might help drive down the cost of pcs.

Finalists

Added Dimension

Apple’s QuickDraw 3D

Innovator: Fábio Pettinati

Eye-popping computer visuals of all kinds--be they for children’s games or virtual operating rooms--depend on creating an illusion of three- dimensional objects moving in realistic ways on a flat screen. Until recently, graphics of this quality required $40,000 workstations that only some scientists and engineers could afford.

But since last August, Apple Computer’s Power Macintosh computers, which start at less than $2,000, have come equipped with software that gives them just this capability, thanks to engineer Fábio Pettinati, manager of 3-D graphics, and his colleagues. Their software, called QuickDraw 3D, is the first to bring high-powered 3-D graphics that move in real time--as though they were video animations--to low-cost PCs.

The key to QuickDraw 3D is that Pettinati incorporated it right into the computer’s operating system. Although it remains hidden from view- -most users don’t even realize it is there--it nevertheless gives users the means to cut, paste, and manipulate 3-D graphic objects just as they would blocks of text. It has also made it easier for programmers who write computer games to include special effects without having to make their programs cumbersomely large.

This spring Apple introduced a version of QuickDraw 3D for Windows. If Pettinati has his way, soon three-dimensional images will be everywhere--from games to spreadsheets to Internet shopping malls. As he puts it, It’ll become a normal part of the day-to-day operation of using computers.

Playing Doctor

High Techsplanations’s Virtual Surgery

Innovator: Rakesh Raju

Laparoscopic surgery is proving to be one of the most useful new medical techniques in years, but finding a subject on which surgeons in training can practice is difficult. Animal tissue bends and bleeds just like that of humans, but the anatomy is different, and sacrificing animals carries ethical baggage. Plastic models that squirt blood or bile are anatomically accurate but lack the springiness and feel of real tissue.

Rakesh Raju believes that virtual reality is the answer, and a few years ago, while a scientist at the medical software firm High Techsplanations in Rockville, Maryland, he set out to develop software that doctors could use to re-create the experience of performing laparoscopic surgery in all its gory detail. There was no commercial software to simulate the flexible, squishy stuff, he says, so I had to start from scratch.

Last summer Raju unveiled the fruit of this effort, a software product called Teleos. For a surgeon, using Teleos is not radically different from real-life laparoscopy: the surgeon manipulates surgical instruments while watching a video screen. In this case, however, Teleos generates the images of the tissues on the screen and makes them bend when pushed, twitch when prodded, and separate when cut in a true-to-life way. In fact, a major challenge in developing Teleos, Raju says, was getting the feel just right for each type of tissue--from the stiffness of cartilage to the flexibility of arterial walls and the mushiness of the pancreas. To convey the illusion and produce the images on the screen without any delays, his software also had to be made to refresh the screen very quickly.

As a next step, Techsplanations is working on a new version that can accept imaging data from live patients. That way a surgeon could use this data to rehearse a particularly difficult real-life operation.

Virus Killer

IBM’s Computer Immune System

Innovator: Jeffrey Kephart

The human body is so good at killing viruses that it can even stop strains it has never seen before. Computers, by contrast, usually need to know about a specific virus if their software is to eradicate it. With the potential of the Internet to carry viruses from computer to computer like flies spreading disease, the need for antivirus programs that can act more like our own immune system has grown increasingly urgent. Any time humans have developed technology that permits them to trade or that increases their mobility, diseases make opportunistic use of those pathways, explains Jeffrey Kephart, manager of the antivirus group at ibm.

For Kephart, developing an immune system for computers was partly a matter of personal survival. As an expert in viruses, he was getting about four referrals a day from people who thought they had discovered a new strain. To cope with it all, he developed software that could recognize viruses automatically by watching for telltale signs, such as the sudden adding of new computer code to a word-processing program. After several years, last August he compiled his work into a prototype immune system.

Kephart’s program continually monitors activity in the computer like a thermometer checking for fever. When it sees oddball behavior that doesn’t correspond to any known viruses, it tries to lure the virus to infect a decoy program. Once the virus is captured and analyzed, his program then knows precisely what it looks like and how it attaches to its host, and adds the virus to its list of known suspects. If the infected computer is connected to a network, Kephart’s software relays a signature example of the virus, so the other computers on the network can recognize it, too.

Particularly troublesome computer viruses, of course, will still require home visits by Kephart and other computer doctors, but he hopes his program will at least reduce the caseload. Says Kephart: We want all computers to handle the ‘common cold’ stuff automatically.

Instant Recognition

Motorola’s Chinese Handwriting Recognition Technology

Innovator: Kannan Parthasarathy

The graceful brush strokes of Chinese calligraphy may delight the eye, but when it comes time to use a word processing program, the language loses its charm. That’s because the traditional Chinese character set has 13,000 characters, and even the simplified version common to the mainland has about 7,000--far too many to include on a conventional keyboard. For this reason, most Chinese word processing programs require the user to hit several keys to represent each character, a tedious task that has inhibited the use of computers in China.

Since the Chinese language lends itself to writing by hand, senior software engineer Kannan Parthasarathy and his colleagues at Motorola’s Lexicus Division in Palo Alto, California, decided to develop software that recognizes ordinary Chinese handwriting of either character set. The key was to develop the software so that it could recognize each writer’s style, no matter how idiosyncratic. With this end in mind, he first collected writing samples from thousands of Chinese writers living all over the world. He then wrote a computer program that broke each character into component pen strokes and measured precisely how the character varied from the norm and from other characters. Then the program correlated all characters of the same type to determine how many ways they might possibly be written. By going through thousands of samples, the software created a template for each character that is robust enough to recognize the vast majority of styles. We get more than 95 percent accuracy in casual writing, Parthasarathy says. If you’re willing to be a little bit more careful, you can get close to 100 percent. The writer uses an electronic pen to write on a pad and then watches the results appear on the screen.

Last fall Motorola unveiled the product, called WisdomPen (or Hui Bi in Chinese), and plans to start selling it this month in Taiwan for less than $200.
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