Some high school students in Silver Spring have been working to develop an affordable virtual reality system. Low-cost VR would mean that even a small kitchen supply store could hand you a pair of goggles and a data glove, then tell you to move an imaginary stove to where you wanted it.
A finished product won't reach Radio Shack next week. But the (( students' progress has been impressive enough for a top Army laboratory to have hired one of them for the summer. Ten years from now, all three students might be cherished employees at IBM, Intel or another high-tech company.
Gloria Seelman, a research coordinator at Montgomery Blair High School, sees the on-going project as an educational success. The students' brains and tenacity have helped. But so has something else. Through computerized databases thousands of miles away, students at Blair can dial up many facts missing from the school library.
Without databases, says Mrs. Seelman, the work done so far might have taken twice as long. As it happens, even the University of Maryland lacked many of the books that the students wanted, and interlibrary loans would have meant weeks of waiting. The databases, alas, offered lists of references but not the books' full texts.
Imagine how much the Montgomery Blair students could have accomplished by now in their three-semester course in independent research if they could have loaded whole books into their computer memory. What if they had not been limited to the offerings of libraries nearby? Suppose, in fact, that anyone could hook up with an electronic version of the whole Library of Congress.
Farfetched? No. For years, computer hackers and librarians have dreamed of being able to retreieve thousands of books online. And now technology has come far enough for this to happen over the next few years through my plan described here.
Under "TeleRead," millions of Americans could dial up books from home, via a national computer network. And the government also would encourage Silicon Valley to turn out small, affordable computers with sharp American-made screens that you could read more easily than you could a paper book. If you detached the keyboard, you could even curl up with one of these machines in bed.
No, Washington wouldn't pay laptop makers for research and development. Rather the government would use revenue from a 10-percent tax on new television sets and other video products to buy laptops for thousands of schools and libraries, assuring enough of a market to justify the R&D in the private sector.
Extrapolating from a Commerce Department statistic on annual sales to consumers, such a tax might raise $2 billion a year; the tube tax would break down to just $7 annually if an owner kept a $350 set for five years. The tax would hardly kill off television, but it would send a message about new priorities for the country. Civil War documentaries notwithstanding, most TV programs are the brain what tobacco is to the lungs.
Some general tax revenue might augment the money from the tube tax if need be, but not necessarily forever. The TeleRead program could collect subscription fees, determined by family income, from people downloading books and other material from the network. The poorest Americans, of course, could dial up books for free.
Just how would TeleRead spend its money at the start? One of the program's goals would be to develop an instant market for trailblazing American companies in areas such as screens and memory chips. With massive procurement contracts, the xTC government could hasten the coming of powerful, toaster-simple laptops selling for a tenth or twentieth of the cost of today's models. Right now such machines seem at least two decades off, if you want them to have sharp color screens.
TeleRead contracts would clearly favor computers with screens and other parts designed and manufactured in this country. Domestic companies couldn't avoid all foreign technology, of course. But the TeleRead program would nurture our R&D as much as possible, especially in crucial fields such as laptop screens and memory.
Promotion of U.S. high tech, of course, would be just one of
TeleRead's purposes. With money from the tube tax, the federal government could give away laptops to many schools and libraries and ultimately to bright students from low-income families.