At theatres soon - SuperJanet

The enhanced Joint Academic Network will revolutionise lectures, says L iz Heron
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Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No. It's SuperJanet, a £20m project to enhance and exploit the Joint Academic Network, the web of telephone cables that links computers at British universities to each other and the Internet.

SuperJanet, the project leaders say, is about to revolutionise university teaching and research. Academics already use Janet to send electronic mail, tap information services and deliver documents. But where Janet's slow, 2-megabit-per-second lines can usually carry only text and simple graphics, SuperJanet's 140-megabit-per-second fibre-optic cables will also transmit high-quality still and moving colour images and sound.

John Dyer, SuperJanet's technology manager, says: "It allows the transmission of live, interactive video sequences, which will have a major impact on teaching." And the wide-bandwidth lines will enable libraries and institutes to supply researchers with satellite pictures, three-dimensional supercomputer models and images of rare manuscripts, vastly increasing access to research material.

SuperJanet has been developed by the UK Education and Research Networking Association (UKerna) - a quango based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire - in collaboration with the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh and Manchester, ImperialCollege and University College London.

More than 50 universities are now on the network, many of them connected via a BT service. UKerna is negotiating three more years of government funding. "We will be going to 100 universities and we may be able to get to 150," Mr Dyer says. "It depends onwhat offers are made."

UCL began piloting surgery lectures over SuperJanet in October for first-year undergraduates in six universities. A surgeon delivers a lecture before a video camera, which relays it live to lecture theatres at the six sites. The surgeon controls what is the computing equivalent of the overhead projector - a central image bank of slides, graphics, X-ray photographs, video sequences of operations and the like. At appropriate points in the talk, he or she presses a button, causing the relevant slide or video clip to appear on the six screens. At the end of the lecture, students from all six sites can question the lecturer as if they were in the same room.

Sandra Buckton, research assistant, says: "This is about improving surgery teaching. Lectures are given by experts in the topic. One university may be specialised in a particular area and students in all the sites can benefit from that."

UCL is collaborating with Manchester on another pilot that uses similar technology to speed up diagnosis by expert pathologists. Hospital doctors and researchers now send slides of cell tissue to pathologists by post, which takes days or weeks. In the project, a video camera is attached to the microscope and a high-quality image of the slide is transmitted live over SuperJanet to the pathologist. Researcher and pathologist are linked by a video conference and can discuss the image, and the prognosis, on the spot.

Using other SuperJanet applications, researchers at different UK universities will be able to share and discuss 3D models or molecules, rare museum objects and features scanned by ultrasound. UCL is also a partner in the Multimedia Integrated Conferencing for Europe (Mice) project, which aims to enable researchers throughout Europe to take part in video conferences that can be run on low bandwidths.

Many library applications are being developed for SuperJanet. A pilot project in five university libraries has found that electronic delivery of documents over the network is technically feasible, although there are legal and organisational hitches. Users apply direct to a distant library for a journal or book, which is then rapidly printed out at their own library. Frederick Friend, librarian at UCL, says: "Electronic document delivery within a few years is certainly possible. We hope to s et up trial services within the next year."

As a result of a Joint Funding Council review of university libraries in December 1993, led by Brian Follett, of Keele University, another £20m of government money will go into developing computer applications, including electronic knowledge banks of learning materials for students, structured access routes to networked information and electronic journals.

Meanwhile, 22 academic publishers are funding SuperJournals, a study on how to build multimedia features such as manipulable 3D models and video clips into electronic journals. Dr David Pullinger, of Nature, who is leading the project, says: "The prospect is for an interactive journal. You could take a mathematical equation out of a paper, add your own figures to it and see what happens."