Media: Will a high-tech backpack replace the hack's mac?

IT'S REPORTING, Jim, but perhaps not quite as we know it and could dispel forever the traditional image of a tired hack in a worn-out raincoat, carrying a scribbled-on notebook and asking for a phone.

The hack - sorry, mobile journalist - of the future would wear a backpack linking them to the Global Positioning System, allowing an editor to ascertain their location to within a few feet; a radio modem, for direct filing of stories over a wireless link to the Internet; see-through goggles with liquid-crystal displays which would superimpose text and other details on the scene as the wearer moves around; and to link and control it all, a portable computer, mostly worn as a backpack, but including a handheld computer tablet for writing and making queries of the system back home.

This vaguely frightening idea comes from Professor John Pavlik, and his team at the Center for New Media at Columbia University in New York, who are developing a prototype. "It would give better access through wireless technologies to a wide spectrum of information, including the Internet, but also to remotely located experts and editors," says Professor Pavlik.

At this point I have to inject a note of caution. Journalists are already tightly linked to remotely located experts and editors. They use that wonderful invention the mobile telephone; the days of asking at pubs or houses if you can use their phone are long gone. Electronic filing is the norm. Journalists can be sent messages from their newsdesks by pagers. Satellite phones mean that when Richard Branson's balloon makes a solo trip from a Moroccan military airbase (as happened a year or so ago), writers can use their GSM phones to contact their offices.

Furthermore, news photographers don't even have to develop their films: most of them have digital cameras, with which they can squirt a stream of 0s and 1s over the mobile link, to be reassembled as a picture at the office.

So what extra does Professor Pavlik's vision offer? He says the extra information available to reporters would lead to greater accuracy. Via the Internet? Maybe. Originally, I planned to start this piece by recalling a scene from an Eighties film starring Holly Hunter as a TV producer, Jeff Bridges, I recalled, played a dim but handsome newsreader vying for her affections with a sharp but un-telegenic rival. In one scene, as Bridges struggled to interview a foreign correspondent about an air attack, the rival phones up Hunter with hints of questions to ask; she feeds those to the newsreader's earpiece, making him suddenly look knowledgeable.

I searched for the film's name on the Internet; Broadcast News, I eventually discovered after five frustrating minutes.

Then I wondered: would it have been faster to use old-fashioned journalistic techniques? So I asked my office neighbour. "I'm not a film buff," he said. "Ask David Lister [our Arts News Editor]."

David Lister knew at once when I mentioned Ms Hunter's name. "Broadcast News," he said. "Except it wasn't Jeff Bridges, it was William Hurt." In 30 seconds I had not only got the right answer - I had got all the right information. (I had overlooked Hurt's name on the Web page.) Which goes to show that sometimes you can rely on technology too much at the expense of consulting real people.

Charles Arthur

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