Internet 102

by Rob Wentworth

Reprinted with permission from The Digital Viking
(official newsletter of the Twin Cities PC User Group)
April 1996

Last month's article covered a few of the traditional ways of accessing the Internet, including telnet, e-mail (electronic mail), FTP (file transfer protocol), USENET newsgroups, IRC (Internet Relay Chat), and surfing the World Wide Web. There are numerous other vintage Internet technologies, such as Gopher (for document table-of-contents searching), WAIS (Wide Area Index Search), and others, but I haven’t been using them. Some people like them because they tend to be less crowded and faster than using a web browser. If you want to check them out, do an online web search (http://www.altavista.digital.com, http://www.webcrawler.com, et al), or look them up in an Internet book from a library or book store.

This month we will start exploring new Internet services and programs, some of which were discussed in the round-table on Internet at the last TC/PC general meeting. A fifteen minute video tape was shown at the meeting which demonstrated some of the following programs, including Internet Phone, CU-SeeMe, Voxware, and PreVU. This tape was followed by a lively discussion between panel members and the audience about the present and future of the Internet and related topics. If you haven’t seen this tape, the club will have several copies available for loan at the next general meeting. We will also explore some new programs that I only just discovered. Most of these programs are available for both Mac and PC computers.

Internet Phone (Voice Communications)

If your computer has a sound card with a microphone, the Internet Phone program allows you to have a voice conversation with other people anywhere on the Internet who are also running Internet Phone. There are other Voice-On-the-Net (VON) programs, but Internet Phone is easy to use and works better on a PC than most. To connect to another Internet Phone user, you must connect to an Internet Phone server (you can just select one from the list). Then you can join topics and click on a user in the topic list. You can also create private (unlisted) topics and only people who know the topic name can join it. Joining only private topics keeps your "phone" from ringing from joy calls. Joining public topics is a lot like CB radio.

Internet Phone supports full-duplex communications (simultaneous send and receive) on full-duplex sound cards, but you need a headset to prevent the other person's voice from going out your speakers and back into your microphone. For regular use, half-duplex (one direction at a time, like a speaker phone) works better. Internet Phone half-duplex mode uses VOX (voice-operated) transmit switching, so you can just take turns talking. To prevent confusion, when you are done speaking, wait for the other person to take a turn talking. If you don't wait, transmission delays can cause you to both talk at the same time, only to both interrupt each other a short time later when the sound reaches the other end.

Internet Phone communications are intelligible even with up to 20% data loss, but can become unusable under extreme (but rare) Internet loading conditions. In this case, the only alternative is to drop down to a text-based chat program, or switch to Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

A new Voice-On-the-Net program from the makers of Voxware (see below) is TeleVox, which uses the new speech compression algorithm that generates a 2400 baud data stream. I have not used it yet, but this program may even work under extreme Internet loading conditions. VON programs are also available for the Mac.

These programs may be used in conjunction with Free World Dialup (see below), which provides a free long-distance phone gateway to call people using an ordinary telephone—they don't even need a computer!

CU-SeeMe (Video Teleconferencing)

If you want to check out video teleconferencing, check out CU-SeeMe (pronounced "see you see me"). This program was originally written for the Mac, but has now been ported to the PC. The Mac and PC versions can freely intercommunicate.

CU-SeeMe allows you to see other people who have a video camera connected to their computer while running CU-SeeMe. If you have a video camera connected to your computer, others can also see you. The latest versions of this program have a video frame rate that is much faster than the version demonstrated in the video tape—up to a few frames per second over a 28.8 KBps connection, depending on motion content. The frame rate can slow down if Internet Phone is also running. On a LAN (local area network), CU-SeeMe runs at full speed.

CU-SeeMe is available in a freeware version for both Mac and PC (with source code) from Cornell University (cu-seeme.cornell.edu), or in a commercial version from White Pine (goliath.wpine.com/cu-seeme.html). The commercial version of Enhanced CU-SeeMe now supports color and supports Voxware voice compression (see "Voxware" below). It costs $69.00 to register, and the demo version only works for 30 days.

To establish CU-SeeMe communications with somebody else running CU-SeeMe, one user must type in the host name or IP address of the other, and the two programs will then connect and start displaying video. To find out the other person’s IP address, you can look at an IRC channel devoted to CU-SeeMe, or you can first establish an Internet Phone connection with someone in a CU-SeeMe related topic. Another way to find somebody to communicate with is to go to a CU-SeeMe public reflector, which is a party line connection allowing multiple people to view each other simultaneously. Public reflector connections run slower due to the extra bandwidth required for multiple video streams. Go to http://underground.net/epic/cuseeme.html for the Epic Records CU-SeeMe public reflector, or to http://storm.cis.fordham.edu/reflector.list.html for a list of lots of reflector sites.

CU-SeeMe has built-in support for many video capture devices, including the Connectix QuickCam, a golf ball sized black and white video camera that does not need additional video capture hardware. The QuickCam is available for both Mac and PC computers. The PC version just plugs into a parallel printer port (you can have up to three printer ports installed in a PC). When you install CU-SeeMe, it automatically finds the QuickCam and asks if you want to use it. QuickCam takes power from the keyboard port, and can be used with a laptop computer. A color version of the QuickCam will be available soon, but most CU-SeeMe reflectors only support black and white video. QuickCam lists for $99.00, but can be found on sale for as little as $79.00—cool!

Check out http://www.indstate.edu/msattler/sci-tech/comp/hardware/quickcam.html for more Mac or PC QuickCam info. There are also other programs available for video teleconferencing, but CU-SeeMe is the most popular.

Voxware (Streaming Voice Compression)

Voxware has a free authoring tool and player which compresses voice 53:1, called ToolVox for the Web. The new voice compression algorithm compresses data at 2400 baud (1 MegaByte per hour). This means that a five minute speech can fit in a 92 KB file, making Internet transmission faster and easier. Voxware VOX files may be placed in any web page, and unlike RealAudio, do not require a special server program to run on the web server.

Existing web servers can stream long voice clips in real time, controlled by the Voxware plug-in player for Netscape 2.0, which has a speed control to speed up or slow down playback by up to a factor of two without changing the pitch or character of the original voice. This enables users to slow down playback for enhanced comprehension, or to speed it up for scanning purposes. Short voice clips download in less time than it takes most other Internet voice technologies to establish the buffers required for real time playback.

You may download free Voxware products from http://www.voxware.com which include the plug-in player, an authoring tool to record WAV audio files and convert existing WAV files to compressed VOX format, and TeleVox, their Voice-On-the-Net Internet phone program.

PreVU (Streaming Video Playback)

InterVU has an interesting product called PreVU, a new MPEG streaming video playback plug-in for Netscape 2.0. PreVU allows any ordinary MPEG video file to be played from any web server including videos embedded within web pages. Unlike some other streaming video playback products, like VDOLive, PreVU does not require a special server program to run on the web server. PreVU provides first-frame preview of a video before download, slow motion viewing of the video while downloading, and full speed replay from the Netscape disk cache.

At the time of the TC/PC general meeting, the InterVU web page was at http://www.intervu.com but has since moved to http://www.cerf.net/intervu.

Free World Dialup (Internet-To-Phone Gateway)

Free World Dialup (FWD) is an Internet Phone to telephone gateway. It allows Internet Phone users to freely connect to an FWD server anywhere in the world, to connect to an outside line at the server, and to call any phone number local to the server for an ordinary voice phone call. Anybody who can run Internet Phone, and who has a second phone line and a cheap voice-modem (under $50.00), can download and run an FWD server.

You can download these programs from the Free World Dialup web page (http://www.pulver.com/fwd/). You can see a list of all FWD servers in the world at http://www.bekkoame.or.jp/~brandon/fwd/commits.html.

The web page http://gsn.pulver.com/gsn/gsn.htm contains the current status of all currently operating FWD servers, updated every five minutes. As many people as possible are being recruited to operate a server, so free phone calls may be placed all over the World. To minimize overuse of your second phone line, calls may be limited to whatever time limit you choose. Some servers have only a two minute time limit, while others allow twenty minutes or more.

Free World Dialup is constantly evolving, and will soon support all Voice-On-the-Net products that have a published API (application programming interface), which should soon include TeleVox (see above). In the future, the FWD server is planned to support incoming as well as outgoing voice phone calls. This will allow anyone anywhere to freely call a local Free World Dialup server with an ordinary telephone, dial a phone number anywhere in the world, be connected via the Internet to another FWD server local to the called phone number, and dial out to the called party using an ordinary telephone.

You might think that free long-distance phone calls would scare long distance carriers half to death. You are right. A coalition of 130 long distance phone companies have petitioned the FCC to ban Voice-On-the-Net products. It may seem unlikely that the government would get involved in regulating Internet protocols, until you realize that the various government agencies receive huge tax revenues from long distance phone calls and access charges (just look at your phone bill).

For more about Voice-On-the-Net and the threat to free speech from long distance telephone carriers and the FCC, check out http://www.von.org.

Then read http://www.von.org/how2file.htm to learn how to file a petition to the FCC to help prevent losing our rights before we even know we have them.

As I mentioned in last month's article, the Internet was designed to withstand nuclear war, and tends to route around censorship as a form of damage control. If any agency attempts to prevent Voice-On-the-Net, private Internet phone programs could still communicate over the Internet by "accidently" overwriting file data with real time voice data during file uploads and downloads, making voice communication data packets look like valid "allowed" protocols. Veteran Internet users are firm believers in our First Amendment right to freedom of speech, regardless of the communications medium. If Voice-On-the-Net is banned, hackers will find new ways to give us Voice-On-the-Net. If they can’t control WHAT people say in USENET newsgroups, why does the government think they can or should control HOW we communicate?

AlphaWorld (Virtual Reality Land Grab)

AlphaWorld is a virtual environment that you share with other users. You can communicate with other users—and you can see their virtual self-image "avatars." What makes AlphaWorld so cool is that you can claim a piece of virtual land and build stuff on your land. The location and details of the things that you build are sent to the central server so that your buildings and creations can be seen almost immediately by anyone else in AlphaWorld. When you explore AlphaWorld, you can see a lot of really interesting constructions that others have built, and you can copy almost anything you find to include in your own little piece of the world.

You can attach actions to objects in AlphaWorld, such as links to URLs (addresses of web sites, ftp sites, and e-mail recipients), WAV sounds, MIDI music, and animations. If you have a stereo sound card, sounds are directional and you can hear things move around you as you move (if there are attached sounds nearby). To move around quickly in AlphaWorld, there are teleporters at some locations, and a transportation system is being developed. You can also add links to your World Wide Web page to take you directly to your favorite locations in Alpha World.

On my virtual land in AlphaWorld, I have a mail box located at (5000N, 0W). If you have Netscape 2.0 running while you double-click on my AlphaWorld mailbox, Netscape will automatically load my World Wide Web page at http://www.skypoint.com/~robwen.

You can move around in AlphaWorld with the arrow-keys, and if you press CTRL, ALT, or CTRL and ALT, you can increase your movement speed by varying amounts, allowing you to travel large distances in a reasonable amount of time. You may discover that even at maximum speed, my virtual property is at a very rural location. One of these days (Real Soon Now), I will get around to attaching a link from my web page to my AlphaWorld home location.

Before you start building your 3D world for others to explore, I recommend that you read the web page at http://www.worlds.net/alphaworld/etiquet.html so you don’t leave junk laying around on other people’s property that they can’t move. You should have a mail box on your virtual property with a "mailto:" action, or a mail box pointing to a web page that contains a "mailto:" link, so others can contact you to let you know that you accidently started building on property that they wanted to use. You can prevent others from changing or trashing your property by planting grass on it. You can change the grass into other things later.

The only limit on what you can build in AlphaWorld is your own imagination. So go to the web page at http://www.worlds.net/alphaworld download and install your AlphaWorlds software, and go out there and build!

Other Cool Internet Programs

There are many other really cool Internet programs on the net, some of which I have not yet tested. If you install all of these programs, you will be able to view many web pages in all their glory. To check them out, search for one of the following program names using your favorite web search engine (see above). VDOLive player/plug-in for Netscape 2.0 allows real-time streaming audio and video over Internet. CoolFusion plays streaming AVI videos over the Web. RealAudio is the de facto audio-on-demand solution for the Internet. TrueSpeech offers real time streaming audio playback. StreamWorks can provide stereo quality sound online if you have the bandwidth. Net Toob is a Netscape helper application for video playing on the PC, which supports AVI, Quicktime, and MPEG.

In future articles we will continue to delve into new and developing Internet services and programs. We still haven’t checked out the truly exciting telecommuting tools or the really nifty multi-player games. New things are happening everywhere on the Internet so quickly that it is hard to decide what not to include in this series of articles. Along the way, we will discover some truly amazing things that many of you will want to try for yourselves.

My internet address is robwen@skypoint.com, and you can e-mail me if you are interested in more details on Internet or related topics.