Some high school students in Silver Spring have been working to develop an affordable virtual reality system. Low-cost VR would mean that even a small kitchen supply store could hand you a pair of goggles and a data glove, then tell you to move an imaginary stove to where you wanted it.
A finished product won't reach Radio Shack next week. But the (( students' progress has been impressive enough for a top Army laboratory to have hired one of them for the summer. Ten years from now, all three students might be cherished employees at IBM, Intel or another high-tech company.
Gloria Seelman, a research coordinator at Montgomery Blair High School, sees the on-going project as an educational success. The students' brains and tenacity have helped. But so has something else. Through computerized databases thousands of miles away, students at Blair can dial up many facts missing from the school library.
Without databases, says Mrs. Seelman, the work done so far might have taken twice as long. As it happens, even the University of Maryland lacked many of the books that the students wanted, and interlibrary loans would have meant weeks of waiting. The databases, alas, offered lists of references but not the books' full texts.
Imagine how much the Montgomery Blair students could have accomplished by now in their three-semester course in independent research if they could have loaded whole books into their computer memory. What if they had not been limited to the offerings of libraries nearby? Suppose, in fact, that anyone could hook up with an electronic version of the whole Library of Congress.
Farfetched? No. For years, computer hackers and librarians have dreamed of being able to retreieve thousands of books online. And now technology has come far enough for this to happen over the next few years through my plan described here.
Under "TeleRead," millions of Americans could dial up books from home, via a national computer network. And the government also would encourage Silicon Valley to turn out small, affordable computers with sharp American-made screens that you could read more easily than you could a paper book. If you detached the keyboard, you could even curl up with one of these machines in bed.
No, Washington wouldn't pay laptop makers for research and development. Rather the government would use revenue from a 10-percent tax on new television sets and other video products to buy laptops for thousands of schools and libraries, assuring enough of a market to justify the R&D; in the private sector.
Extrapolating from a Commerce Department statistic on annual sales to consumers, such a tax might raise $2 billion a year; the tube tax would break down to just $7 annually if an owner kept a $350 set for five years. The tax would hardly kill off television, but it would send a message about new priorities for the country. Civil War documentaries notwithstanding, most TV programs are the brain what tobacco is to the lungs.
Some general tax revenue might augment the money from the tube tax if need be, but not necessarily forever. The TeleRead program could collect subscription fees, determined by family income, from people downloading books and other material from the network. The poorest Americans, of course, could dial up books for free.
Just how would TeleRead spend its money at the start? One of the program's goals would be to develop an instant market for trailblazing American companies in areas such as screens and memory chips. With massive procurement contracts, the xTC government could hasten the coming of powerful, toaster-simple laptops selling for a tenth or twentieth of the cost of today's models. Right now such machines seem at least two decades off, if you want them to have sharp color screens.
TeleRead contracts would clearly favor computers with screens and other parts designed and manufactured in this country. Domestic companies couldn't avoid all foreign technology, of course. But the TeleRead program would nurture our R&D; as much as possible, especially in crucial fields such as laptop screens and memory.
Promotion of U.S. high tech, of course, would be just one of
TeleRead's purposes. With money from the tube tax, the federal government could give away laptops to many schools and libraries and ultimately to bright students from low-income families.
Our schools need more computers. If you go by statistics published in the 1992 "Computer Industry Almanac," U.S. public schools last year had just one computer for every 20 students. What's more, programs for the gifted and talented enjoy a disproportionate share of the machines. Corporations donate equipment in some districts, but the flow of gifts is too small, too haphazard, to do much good nationally. Even in affluent areas, many schools are hanging on to Apple IIs and other antiques and mightily wishing they could offer their students something better, according to Dr. Vicki Hancock, an educational technology expert with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in Alexandria, Virginia.
TeleRead, of course, shouldn't just buy computers. It could also help pay for computer literacy instructors for students, teachers and librarians, so the machines wouldn't sit around in closets, unused.
"This program would benefit average students as well as gifted ones, and it would better prepare Americans for work in an information-dependent society," Dr. Hancock, editor of the ASCD Curriculum/Technology Quarterly, says of TeleRead. "Schools should teach everyone to find and analyze facts from many sources, not just regurgitate from textbooks. TeleRead would encourage such reforms. It would bring the richness of the Information Age to virtually all students."
Jeremy Gordon, one of the two just-graduated seniors who started the Montgomery Blair project, agrees. "When I go to the public library," he says, "I see long lines of students in front of the CD-ROM magazine index. Everyone can use high technology at one level or another. You don't have to be a genius to research a biology report or find out about an author for English. It makes sense to learn to research the way we will in the real world. An online national database would be incredibly useful."
TRnet, part of the TeleRead program, would offer Jeremy Gordon and his peers an electronic cornucopia. This national network would carry the full texts of all new books and other publications.
How? The government would require all material longer than 10,000 words to be in digital form to be copyrighted. Washington would phase in this change gradually, perhaps with a voluntary program. As for undigitized material shorter than 10,000 words, scanners could pick up the images.
TeleRead would pay writers (and others) fairly. If you wrote a book, for example, your earnings would depend on how often people dialed it up. TeleRead would rely on flat subscription fees and reach a huge potential market, so that most authors would actually earn more.
Of course TRnet would not need to compensate anyone for items already in the public domain -- for example, government publications, statistics and old literary classics. So the basic TRnet service might be free or cost little, even for nonstudents.
Mind you, a government network would be just one option for readers. People could still buy books, either the old-fashioned kind or the electronic variety, from publishers or authors themselves.
Nor would TeleRead have to compromise privacy. Either private companies or the government could set up vending machines that would accept old-fashioned, untraceable paper money and let you download books onto memory cards that you yourself owned.
As a rule, however, TRnet would be the best, most economical way to distribute books. Otherwise you and your children may never be able to read as much, so cheaply.
Skeptics might dismiss the TeleRead plan as socialistic; but it isn't, no more than a public library. If Andrew Carnegie -- yes, this 19th-century capitalist extraordinaire -- were alive today, he would be probably be funding demonstration projects, just as he helped small-town libraries across the United States, hoping that ambitious Americans could use the technology of the day to better themselves and their earning potential.
David Rothman is author of "The Complete Laptop Computer Guide" and other books on high tech. This article is adapted from one in the July 6th issue of Computerworld.