IMHO Welcome to IMHO, a weekly column written by the staff members of Internet Underground. Every Tuesday, we bring you fresh commentary and present our own personal takes on the Net.

Just a Bunch of Exhibitionists

By Gloria Mitchell   March 18, 1997

Last Wednesday morning, I was hanging around Midway airport with a couple of carry-on bags, waiting to be whisked away from dreary, overcast Chicago to bright, sunny Los Angeles. There, Spring Internet World was getting underway. I'm not sure if I expected to be dazzled by new feats of technical wizardry, exactly--but I was intimidated by the prospect of roaming a whole conference center full of smart, left-brained types. I figured there'd be Harvard computer science grads by the truckload.

I was psyched, though. I was looking forward to the chance to meet some of the movers and shakers on the Internet, the technological avant-garde. Rob and Alex showed up at the gate. They'd been to these trade shows before. They were looking forward to the chance to snag some free food.

After a few hours in the air and a $30 cab ride, we made it to the palatial, glass-encased Los Angeles Convention Center. From the press room, I got an overview of the exhibit floor, which was a maze of enormous booths and brightly colored banners. Down among the exhibits themselves, a confusion of flyers, media kits and press packets (not to mention t-shirts, rubber balls and snow globes) made the scene even more vividly chaotic.

The three of us wandered the floor for a while, pausing to listen to a few spiels spouted by enthusiastic exhibitors. At Epoch's booth, a group of presenters was just finishing up a talk on intra- and extranet communications. They were incongruously dressed in safari shorts and pith helmets, and all seemed to have some vague resemblance to Kathy Ireland. Wow, I thought for a moment. Network consultants in California must work out. But then it dawned on me: these weren't network consultants, or even Epoch employees. They were just a group of reasonably well-spoken, good-looking women hired for the occasion, to grab the attention of prospective clients. The programming geniuses I'd been expecting were--if they were around at all--hiding in the background somewhere. Probably most of them were back at the home offices, with work to do. This trade show, like any other, centered around sales pitches. And those are apparently better made by models than by a bunch of geeks.

So I refined my goals for the show: duck the overly slick and mannered PR squadrons, find a few interesting people to talk to, and figure out which corporate-hosted parties would have the best food. Meanwhile, the gimmicks kept coming: keychains shaped like microphones; costumed exhibit presenters (one guy was dressed like Sherlock Holmes, while the woman accompanying him had an oddly BD/SM look in boots and fishnets); free shirts for anyone who could yell "PointCast" the loudest; and Icelandic Vocal Diva Moa (part two of this column will have more on Moa).

I did get to meet one young Harvard computer science grad: Sanjay Madan, president and co-founder of the Internet Link Exchange. He was, to borrow some of David Letterman's phraseology, a very personable fellow. He seemed pleased and sort of startled to be involved in this whole orgy of promotion. I forgot to ask whether he has any plans to hire some Kathy Irelands when his company gets bigger.

I don't want to make the case that there's anything fundamentally wrong with gimmicky, attention-getting devices--just that it still seems strange to look at the Internet as a highly competitive industry, a few short years after it took root as a governmental and educational initiative. When we got back to the office on Monday, we had fun handing around ZD Net snow globes and playing with newly acquired sets of keychains and pens. Best of all was when we discovered some plastic-wrapped bars of chocolate, stamped with AT&T logos, that had been stuck in our bags and forgotten. Free chocolate! We were astounded.

Given the utter delight of the unexpected afternoon snack, I have to conclude that the point of Spring Internet World, its real raison d'etre and the driving purpose of those 600,000 square feet of product demonstration, has gotta be, simply: free food.

Escape From L.A.

By Rob Bernstein   March 19, 1997

When Gloria, Alex and I weren't being ambushed by unctuous PR flackies and dragged unwillingly into outrageously silly press booths (the AOL pyramid was a personal favorite), we frequented the Internet World press room rest stop. Amenities like bowls of chips and pretzels, a tankard of coffee, complimentary Net hook-ups, and the occasional turkey sandwich had us returning there, usually on the hour. It was an oasis from the frenzied throngs of convention center visitors; it was a place where the three of us could meet, check our e-mail, improvise afternoon gameplans, and show off assorted press toys and late-night dinner invites.

Sporadically, we would wander away from the press room homebase to attend various appointments with companies like VDONet, The Monster Board, Berkeley Systems (makers of You Don't Know Jack), Alta Vista, The Internet Link Exchange, Microsoft among many others. Few booth exhibitors, however, were able to titillate us with their newest technologies. Although they tried...boy, did they try!

Most annoying were the Push Technology Evangelists who preached the miracle of delivered content. Pointcast announced that it would allow companies to develop their own channels, ClariNet explained how their service was being delivered straight to users' servers for fastest delivery, and AOL went on and on about "Driveway," a service that dials into the online provider and downloads content to the user's hard disk.

The Network Computer was another item that PR pimps enjoyed whooping it up about. But we were careful to veer clear of the hype. Instead, we found ourselves drawn in by Epoch's online game SubSpace (which we already reported on in issue 15); by the new gaming service, Engage; by Atomic 3D, a nifty online animation tool; and particularly by OmniView, an extremely cool and overlooked newcomer to IWorld. The Knoxville, TN company was exhibiting what they called PhotoBubble technology, a new kind of photography that maps spherical 360-degree images which can be viewed from any angle. "It's the closest thing to teleportation," insisted OmniView CEO James Phillips. Also promoting "photospatial navigation" was Live Picture; their entry, Real Space 3D, showed great promise with regard to 360-degree panoramic imaging.

Despite some yet unresolved pixelation problems, both utilities allow users to enter a photorealistic virtual space and experience it as though you were truly there. Imagine the time you'd save by being able to shop for your dream house or car without the overeager clatter of a sales representative.

And in our estimation, last year's show stopper happened to be this year's biggest disappointment. Oz Interactive, the Icelandic company who wowed attendees in 1996 with their VRML browser and server technologies, presented one of the lamest booth shows of the week. Partnered with Intel, the Oz people demonstrated the capabilities of their multi-user avatar worlds by dressing Icelandic singer Moa (who?) in a movement sensor jumpsuit that was supposed to, in theory, operate a VRML representation of her on a large television screen. But when Moa began her song and dance in front of the hundreds of show attendees, her VRML double at times failed to appear in the VRML world, appeared in mutated forms or fused Cronenberg-like with the VRML floor. It's likely that Oz fixed whatever bug was ailing the program after the time we had viewed it, but we still give the overblown tech the IU stamp of disapproval.

We may be old-fashioned, but we still like The Palace avatar chat technology with its two dimensional smiley faces and large multi-user environments. At the House of Blues, the Palace crew presented an uncomfortably stilted, but nevertheless, cool demonstration of the technology's auditorium functions. After throwing back a few Coronas, and laying waste to a buffet of Jambalaya and Cajun potatoes, we excused ourselves from the celebration and returned to our hotel--but not before driving down Sunset Boulevard where we waved loving hellos to all of the Selena movie premiere fans.

A strange place that L.A. We're glad to be back in Lombard, Ill., strip mall capital of the States. It ain't paradise, but it's home.

Previous IMHO's
March 4, 11