In nerd paradise

Dave Sag and Jesse Reynolds at JavaOne, San Francisco

In May this year we packed our bags and shunted off to JavaOne in San Francisco. More than 6,000 nerdy men and a few women were there to learn everything they could about Sun’s new programming language, Java. The conference sold out, even at registration prices of AUD$1,250. It wasn’t hard to see what they’d spent their $7.5 million on—lights, cameras, carpet, coffee and special gifts such as the very useful JavaOne Maglight torch.

“We’ve spent more money promoting Java than Sun has spent on marketing since we began!” James Gosling, the ‘Father of Java,’ proudly announced. Although we were in the same room, it was easier to see Him in one of the numerous overhead video screens. In real life Gosling was a speck on a stage a hundred metres away, with its purple and red JavaOne logo carpets and ribbons strung all over the place. At first glance the event was reminiscent of an Amway convention.

At the opening keynote address Gosling took to the podium and basked, reminiscing about the team of six people who worked, tucked away at Sun, for five years on a device control language called Java. He demonstrated a gadget called the Star Seven (*7), a hand-held colour palm-top computer with a very high-speed (256 kbps) wireless Internet connection. It was the first proper Java machine, built almost six years ago using what Gosling referred to as Hammer technology. “You know, you take a hammer and smash apart the things other people have built to get at the bits you need.” He cited the forced removal of range sensors from Polaroid cameras as an example.

The *7 is amazing. The only interface to it is your finger on its pressure sensitive colour screen. You navigate by sliding your finger around, pointing, dragging and pushing components of the scene to navigate from one ‘space’ to another. Cartoon as interface!

Elsewhere people could be found in the Hackers’ Lab, 60 or so high-powered Sun Ultra Sparcs, SGI Indis, PowerMacs and Pentium machines connected to the net at a screaming rate for attendees to play with. We principally used them to check our email and show off our work back home to any audience we could attract. In the corner, a laidback band played world music. At lunch time airline food was churned out for the very hungry.

“When you come to the next JavaOne (JavaOne II) we won’t be giving away backpacks and torches, we’ll be giving you PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants).” Lines like this throughout the keynote addresses made spines tingle. Java was only announced to the public around 12 months ago and in that short space of time it has spawned an entire industry. Everyone from major multinationals to hobbyists are embracing Java

Java is an ‘object oriented’ language which essentially means that information comes bundled with the necessary ‘code’ to act upon that information. For example, a photograph would also come bundled with the appropriate software to display or scale that photograph. The photo can then be used anywhere and collections of photos can be all sent messages like ‘draw yourself’ and they would know how to respond.

Java is platform independent. It will run on any computer capable of running the Java Virtual Machine (a computer running in software within another computer). There are JVMs for Macintosh, PC and Unix machines freely available now from java.sun.com and many companies are releasing chips that support the JVM inherently.

Java is a network language. As most people who have used the web would be aware, the information you get is quite static. With Java, however, the user’s computer actually runs small applications (applets) written in Java that come off the network. These applets can be as simple as a fancier button, or as complex as a video conferencing solution.

During the Adelaide Fringe Festival we used Java to control the motion of a robot surveillance camera sited 40 metres above the main Fringe Precinct. This meant people could pan, tilt and zoom the camera from a web page. Our next project calls for much more sophisticated behavioural modelling of both real and virtual robots, and the promise of Java chips running a universal programming language was too intriguing to ignore.

There were several significant announcements made at JavaOne. Adobe (inventors of Postscript, Photoshop and Premiers, among others) announced the licensing of their font and path technology to form part of the standard free Java distribution. This lets developers use specific fonts and curves in on-line environments. If an on-line gallery relies on the presence of the font ‘Grunge Update,’ the Java aplet displaying it will look first on your local hard disk and if it’s not there, will fetch it from an on-line font bank.

Other Java libraries announced include database access tools: a general set of media tools providing 2D, 3D, video and audio; commerce tools like the Java wallet (digital cash); encryption and security tools; and remote object tools which allow one Java program to call another and interact. There are tools for building servers, browsers and hardware controllers.

Java chips, which execute Java ‘byte-code’ directly, run Java software much faster. Mitsubishi displayed a chip the size of a thumbnail and the Government of Taiwan announced that they have licensed Java for development by all of their regional microchip factories. These chips will be in everything. Mobile phone companies announced support for Java chips and Nortel even had diagrams of their new phones

Network Computers (general purpose computers which have no hard disk, but instead get all their software off the network) are set to do to the personal computer industry what PCs did to the mini and mainframe market. Early critics see this as a return to an age when great big mainframes served information out to dumb terminals, but Network Computers are much more than that. Based on Java chips, these devices are super fast, super smart and able to get exactly what they need off a global network to the user. Most importantly they will begin retailing this year for under $US500.

There are many new artforms arising out of this new networked world. Ed Stastny whose Sito and Hy-Grid projects won him an honourable mention last year and a distinction at this year’s Ars Electronica is taking network art into its next stage of evolution. Sito challenges the notion that artwork can exist on their own and encourages people the world over to create works designed specifically to be manipulated by other artists. Annette Loudon from Construct, a company based in San Francisco developing Internet sites using VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language), has gathered a loyal band of contributors with her Stratus project—an interactive 3D environment where artists can host and display their work.

There are challenges for artists working with a global, all pervasive network where the computers themselves are peripherals hanging off the network. We must assume that processors themselves will become smaller, faster and more numerous. Advances in network speeds and wireless communication will provide a soup of micro devices each with access to this global network.

RealTime issue #14 Aug-Sept 1996 pg. 19

© Dave Sag & Jesse Reynolds; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1996