On line for tomorrow

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The Independent Online
IF YOU were thinking of refurnishing your home, a professor of communications electronics might not be the obvious person to turn to. But Peter Cochrane of British Telecom has designs on the nation's front rooms.

Inside the spectacularly ugly research laboratories near Ipswich where he works is a mock-up of the 'home of the future' which will point the way to the technologies of living- rooms in the next century.

His vision depends on the creation of a nationwide web of hair-thin glass fibres which could carry messages to the doorstep as pulses of light.

Professor Cochrane believes that a fibre optics network would open up the potential for a vast smorgasbord of video, text, data, graphics, cinema-quality sound, and even virtual reality to be fed straight to the home via the telephone network.

The dummy living-room at BT's Martlesham laboratories provides a taste of this multimedia world. A flat-screen display covers almost half of one wall, replacing not only the television, but also the computer screen.

The idea is for it to present crystal-clear television pictures from the hundreds of channels which are expected eventually to become available.

Using an infra-red 'air mouse' as a remote control, people will simply point and click in the direction of the screen to scroll through news, sport or drama.

If you catch yourself watching a cookery programme, for example, and the presenter picks up a wok, you may choose to click on the screen for prices and details or just double-click to order one.

Flicking from television to video selections, you could roll a few snatches of the latest blockbusters before choosing the movie you want downloaded from a local video databank.

Professor Cochrane envisages all the electronic gadgetry in the room being linked to and controlled from a central monitor called a 'butler'.

So if you are late home you might ring the butler and use voice commands to instruct it to switch on a few lights, record a television programme and draw the curtains.

The professor's experimental room is littered with gadgets such as pocket-size digital 'assistants' that combine fax, modem, telephone, electronic diary and computer.

Versions of such devices are already available and others, such as the liquid crystal wall panel, are just a few years away.

The room is less about showing off real commercial products than about exploring people's reactions, BT says.

Professor Cochrane, who says that his personal goal is 'to change the world a little', joined BT when it was still the Post Office, as a trainee employed at 16 to 'dig holes'.

Now, at 47, he is a general manager on a personally negotiated salary with numerous demands on his time from outside organisations thirsty for both his expertise and vision.

His best thinking, he says, is in the bath, where he reflects on his irritation at some of the ways the world works and suggests improvements.

Car insurance, for example, could be linked to the way people use their cars. If, for example, the family run-around is sitting on the drive the cost of its insurance would be minimal.

If, however, it had been left parked in a high street by a 20- year-old driver, the rate would go up steeply. Charges for mother's trip to the gym would be cheaper, and so on, with the monthly rate clocked up on a smart card memory.

'Telepresence' - seeing the world through someone else's eyes - is one of the more intricate of the projects the professor's researchers are working on.

They have built a 'surrogate head', worn like a helmet, with two tiny displays over the eyes. These carry images from miniature cameras mounted just above the eyes of someone else who is at the end of an optical fibre.

Wearing the 'head' lets you see everything the other person looks at, and by using this system, almost any expert could be instantly on hand for difficult manoeuvres - such as assisting oil platform divers, or conducting remote operations by sitting at the shoulder of a junior surgeon.

In the home, the same telepresence technology could offer the chance to go to the Olympics without leaving your living-room. You might choose to be a participant, or a spectator in any seat in the stadium.

Access to the home is the key to this media revolution, yet it is currently the focus of a licence row between BT and the Government. The licence terms do not allow BT to deliver video signals, classified as 'entertainment', to the home, and the DTI says these rules allow other service providers a fair chance to bring in the new services.

The risk is that consumers will end up with a plethora of different companies delivering separate cable, satellite and broadcast services.

For a technologist, Professor Cochrane is unusually aware of the political forces that bear on the way new technologies are exploited.

'We are talking about a whole new world of communications. People are not aware that the technology is upon us, and we have to change the rules of the game. If we don't have the data highways in place soon we will not be able to cope.'

Somehow the professor still finds energy at the end of the week for mind-stretching projects with his four children.

He recently taught one of his young sons about lift and drag on aircraft by building a 'wind tunnel' with his wife's decidedly old-tech hair-drier.

'We built a 20-mile-per- hour wind tunnel, and it all worked. The satisfaction from that was immense - and not just for me.'

Business section, page 3

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