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By Art Glick

Plug into Mars

(or how to travel the solar system without leaving your easy chair)

(Originally Published in July, 1997)

You'd have to be living in a cave not to know about the NASA Pathfinder Mission to Mars and the event that it's become on the Internet. Faced with budgetary cutbacks, the space agency has had to resort to the game of politicians, endeavoring to "spin" its activities in the news media to gain more support for its funding. It was no coincidence that the Pathfinder set down on Mars and sent back its first pictures on Independence Day, when most Americans would be able to see it live.

Clients, friends and readers of mine already know what a "space junkie" I am, so they would not be surprised to find that I fully support NASA's self- promoting tactics. I know that only good can come from any of NASA's undertakings. In fact, you would not have the Internet, or for that matter your personal computer and its miniaturized circuits, were it not for the aerospace program.

Being probably the largest and most talented aggregation of "computer nerds" in the world, one would have fully expected the Internet to be one avenue that NASA would use for publicizing its glorious Pathfinder achievement, but even the folks at the space agency underestimated the popularity of the Internet and got caught with their landing gear down.

The July 4th event broke all records on the Internet with 100 Million "hits" the first day. Every time I sell a system or set up the Internet for someone, I bookmark the NASA site for them, so in a very small way, I guess I'm partly to blame. It would be sad if good Web Sites got to be guarded secrets like good fishing holes.

As I sat glued to either CNN or NASA Select TV on July 4th, you can be certain that I also tried to get into www.nasa.gov, alas to no avail. Had they been able to handle the load, NASA would have received hundreds of millions of hits that first day.

But what happened after the first day is an important lesson for the naysayers that complain about narrow bandwidth and bottlenecks and warn us that the Internet is soon to "crash and burn" from being overburdened.

If you haven't tried to visit www.nasa.gov since the first day, you should try it now. NASA originally replaced its normal home page with a page that listed numerous, high capacity "mirror sites", but now that the furor has subsided, their regular home page is back, with a link added for the mirror sites at the very top of the page. A mirror site is just what you'd think it is - a duplicate of the original site. NASA lists its mirror sites by capacity and the first one alone, courtesy of Silicon Graphics is capable of 20 Million hits per day.

I tried several of the mirror sites and found them all to be "wide open". It's a perfect example of how one goes about handling an unexpectedly large demand from Internet users, and NASA did it quite well. It was a real pleasure to get to try out one of the "plug-ins" for Netscape, in this case QuickTime VRML, with its interactive virtual reality. In fact, if you'll pardon the vernacular, it was totally mind blowing.

NASA has a VRML of the "Monster Pan" of the Martian Landscape in 3D! You'll need a pair of the red/blue 3D glasses, which you'll probably find in a junk drawer or the kid's closet. They've been supplied with books, computer CD's and video tapes. I used a pair that was part of ABC TV's program promotion last spring. If one eye of the set of glasses is red and the other blue, then you've got the right glasses - the red/blue ones are all the same.

You'll also need QuickTime version 1.1 to view the pan. QuickTime is a "plug-in" for your Netscape or Internet Explorer browser. A plug-in enables features, usually audio and video, that can be found at certain sites. Unfortunately, there is no definitive standard on the Internet for multimedia support, so a serious user usually has to install several plug-ins.

QuickTime is actually an Apple Computer development, but it is still quite popular with IBM PC Compatible users. It has an interactive "virtual reality" mode, referred to as VRML. Other popular plug-ins include Shockwave, Real Audio, VDO Video, and VIVO Video, but the full list is much larger and growing by the day.

The nice thing about plug-ins is that, once you download and install them, they are transparent. That is, you go to a site with support for the plug-in and the audio or video just pops up on your screen. Providing you know how to download and install software from the Internet, it's a "no brainer". And if you don't know how to get software from the Internet, you need to get to know how to use your computer better, and you probably missed my last two part column describing just how to do it.

The other nice thing about plug-ins is that you'll find a link to download one at just about any site that has content supported by it, including the NASA site. What will you get for your effort? The Three Dimensional VRML of the Mars pan is incredible! With your mouse you can move the view up and down, left and right, slower or faster. NASA also has a non-3D color pan, but if you have a set of the red/blue glasses and don't mind risking a headache, the effect of the 3D pan is truly remarkable.

Before, you go to gather your plug-ins and pop on the 3D glasses, here's some tips and warnings regarding both. First, don't even bother unless you've got at least a 586 or a Pentium (even a slow one will do, at least for now). The 486 systems just don't have the processing power to deal with the software. You also might not want to bother unless you have at least a 28,800 BPS modem. Many plug-ins, especially those that operate in "real time" will give you problems with even just a 14,400 modem. For "non-power users", NASA offers a complete collection of 3D still shots as JPG files that will also work with the red/blue glasses.

When trying to view the red/blue 3D, the true effect is experienced only when the eyes are "fooled" into altering their focus. If you see red and/or blue in the image while wearing the glasses, you haven't quite yet mastered the technique. The red and blue should dissolve and you should then see a gray 3D image with exceptional depth. It is quite an experience!

The visual process is not unlike that of the RPS's (Random Pictograph Stereograms). Some of you may have seen these as posters in the stores. They're the pictures that often appear first as a randon design, but with the proper staring technique a three dimensional image (not even apparent in the original design) pops out at you.

Viewing with the red/blue 3D glasses is a similar process, and take heed. It's easy to get lost panning around the Martian Landscape, and the red/blue glasses have a tendency to strain the eyes rather quickly. Don't wear the glasses for more than a few minutes at a time or you're likely to fry your visual cortex!

Finally, you may want to try to download the 3D Martian pan to your own machine so you can impress your friends and relatives without having to log onto the Internet. However, if you try "File" then "Save As" on the screen with the pan, you'll only get a small text file containing the html code for that page. Experienced Netscape users know that they can "right click" on a still picture, and that this usually permits downloading of the graphic.

The first time that I tried this with the VRML file, it did not work. But when I went back to the site the next day and tried it again, it worked fine. In the meantime, I figured out how to capture the VRML file from Netscape's cache, so that I could play with it off-line and give it to my friends, clients and customers (it fits on a single floppy).

The process of "rifling the cache" is beyond the scope or space of this article and the capabilities of most novice users. However, if you have trouble saving the movie, and you are a savvy user, you might like to try this process yourself. Send me an e-mail, and I'll reply with some tips to make it easier.

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