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Washington Journal: 1996 Winners In Computer Innovation

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, June 7 (RFE/RL) - It was the technology event of the year. Even the waiters were wired like presidential body guards at an award dinner in Washington this week for outstanding contributions to computer innovation and application.

The waiters moved about a cavernous hall with wristband microphones concealed under their shirt cuffs and tiny hearing receivers in their ears. They were getting instructions and transmitting orders to the kitchen, as they served more than 800 guests at the 1996 Annual Computerworld Smithsonian Awards.

Hollywood has the Oscars. But for the computer industry worldwide, this was the night of nights, when leaders in their field assembled to be recognized and to recognize extraordinary achievement.

Companies and organizations from 18 countries submitted entries for this year's 8th Annual Awards -- including a Czech bank, a South African gold coin minting factory, and Australia's Immigration Department. None won.

The Czech Savings Bank from Prague lost out to a South African Bank in Johannesburg which won an award in its category for a pension distribution system serving rural areas where local government is often corrupt, most people don't have bank accounts and many can't sign their name.

Mobile bank vans, equipped with a handprint recognition device tour the countryside to deliver pensions and benefits directly to illiterate villagers who identify themselves by placing their hand on a computer screen.

Although the Czech entry of a rapid information system did not make it, Gary Beach, head of Computerworld, the principal sponsor of the awards, says it is only a matter of time before Central Europeans make their mark in computer innovation.

Computerworld, a specialized weekly for industry professionals, is published locally in 50 countries, including the Czech Republic and other Central European nations, as well as Russia and Ukraine.

Beach told RFE/RL he visited Prague last month to attend Computerworld's semi-annual conference of top executives. Prague was chosen as the venue for the meeting because of growing computer development in the region.

Many participants at the Washington awards dinner were pioneering computer scientists whose work is influencing millions of lives. But outside the hall, few people would know their names, let alone recognize their faces.

Who knows that Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, among five winners of the Leadership Award for Innovation, are the two principal architects of the Internet, the vast international network that links anyone anywhere with a personal computer and modem to universities, government agencies and businesses worldwide.

Who outside the computer profession knows that David Evans and Ivan Sutherland, rewarded for lifetime achievement at the dinner, are the two scientists who created the graphics that let people model situations and products on a computer.

Their invention has led to so-called "virtual reality" -- life-like, sensory simulations in three dimensions used by neurosurgeons, automotive designers, architects and moviemakers and a host of other professions.

Thanks to this development, builders can design houses and "walk" through its rooms, adjusting its dimensions, before pouring a single block of concrete, and medical students can learn how to give injections, feeling the different types of resistance of muscle, skin and other tissue, without ever touching living flesh.

One of the award-winning entries was a virtual reality medical simulation system, replacing test animals and cadavers. Students can train and doctors can probe on these lifelike replacements which bleed when cut, twitch with involuntary muscle spasms and even deform when touched by forceps.

Before the awards dinner, almost no one, not even computer insiders and lifelong professionals, had heard of Susan Abdulezer, a school-teacher from New York who told RFE/RL that a couple of years ago, she knew practically nothing about computers.

Yet, Abdulezer beat out entries from Harvard University and other academic institutions to walk away with the 1996 Information Technology Award in the category of Education and Academia.

Her contribution is a CD-ROM, teaching sign language for the deaf. A CD-ROM is a disk, like a computer video tape, running sound and pictures on the computer screen.

Abdulezer, who taught at a New York school for deaf children, says she needed more visual teaching aids and thought she could somehow utilize the technology that translates pictures onto the computer screen.

She taught herself everything she needed to know about computers and film production, used the children in her class as actors, put 3,000 dollars of her own money into the project and eventually got backing from the Apple Macintosh manufacturers.

The result is a colorful, interactive display that can be used by deaf and hearing alike to learn sign language.

Bob Metcalfe, one of the judges, says this is exactly the kind of effort the Computerworld Smithsonian Awards try to encourage -- what he described as "the marriage of computer technology with human needs, generating new applications that can be used routinely in everyday life by people who are not computer experts."

Metcalfe himself is one of the best known names in the computer industry, a writer and innovator and recipient of several prestigious awards.

Some 20 years ago, he developed Ethernet, a building-block communication tool directing the talk traffic between computers and enabling them to connect to each other and to printers and other office machines. Chances are that two or more computers in one location talking together use Ethernet.

Several of the latest achievements recognized at the awards dinner are based on the speed and volume of messages computers can now pass on to each other.

A company affiliated with the maker of Levi Strauss jeans won an award for a device that can make every store-bought pair of jeans tailored to the exact measurements of the buyer. The personal measurements are transmitted by computer almost instantly to the factory and each pair of Levis is made to fit the new owner.

In another category, an American company called Farmland Industries won for a computer program that lets farmers track the productivity in different parts of their fields and improve crop management. A small computer fixed to a tractor's dashboard automatically measures doses of seed, water and fertilizer appropriate for the farmer to use in that field.

But computer innovation is not only oriented to work and science. Fun and games are a lucrative and stimulating part of the business, especially in film-making.

Past winners in the category of Arts and Entertainment, include designers of the program that created the giant, predatory dinosaurs in the film Jurassic Park.

Similarly, this year, the award in the category was won by the animators of the Walt Disney film Toy Story, which was created from start to finish by computer animation.

What comes next? Anything is possible. At the awards dinner table, the conversation was of office printers for multiple users coming out next year that will print 20 pages a minute; and of the spreading use of computers to photograph and fingerprint criminals in police stations; and of the trouble the Vatican is having finding scanners big enough to cover pages of illuminated, medieval manuscripts it wants to make globally available on the Internet.

The chairman of the Awards Committee and of the International Data Group company, Pat McGovern, says the awards serve several functions -- looking forward to new ways of using computers and also providing a historical record of past innovations. All the winning entries are added to a permanent collection of Washington's Smithsonian National Museum on computers, information and society.

And how will the outside world get to know about the largely anonymous men and women whose innovation becomes instant history?

Unlike Oscar night in Hollywood, the press room at the Computerworld Awards dinner was mostly empty, few journalists were to be seen and hardly any television cameras.

Nevertheless, anyone interested can hear all high points of the proceedings -- listen to the winners and the words of the sponsors and top officials at the ceremony -- not on television news or radio but -- on the Internet!

The event was covered by the Cybercasters company, one of a handful of broadcasters on the Internet -- a rare breed of media specialists, who digitize conventional sound, converting it for computer use, and providing audio-on-demand on the Internet.

If you want to know more about the winners, the projects and the awards, hear the comments and learn how to be part of the Computerworld Smithsonian Awards, get on the Internet. The address is