Wednesday, 24 September 2008

New network dedicated to virtual reality

Stephen Shankland

A non-profit group plans to build a network called Neuronet purely to support virtual-reality games and business applications.

Neuronet, which is separate from the Internet, "will evolve into the world's first public network capable of meeting the data transmission requirements of emerging cinematic and immersive virtual-reality technologies," according to a Wednesday announcement from the Vancouver-based International Association of Virtual Reality Technologies.

The first-generation Neuronet is scheduled to go live in 2007, the group said. Consumer applications are expected as early as 2009.

"The first-generation network is strictly an R&D network and will function as a sort of sandbox for virtual reality and gaming innovators around the world to develop new applications for a second-generation network," IAVRT co-founder Chistopher Scully said in an email. No services yet are signed up to use the network, he added.

Virtual reality generally refers to environments with visual and audio information that makes a person feel immersed in a computer-generated realm. The growth of environments such as Second Life has spotlighted such efforts, and IBM believes that virtual worlds will open new doors to e-commerce as well.

The group promises that Neuronet will have high-speed communication, a key constraint for virtual reality, which requires transmission of large quantities of graphics and other data, as well as fast responses to give users a better illusion of realism.

"The Neuronet's communication bandwidth and real-time virtual-reality and gaming data transfer protocols will enable... virtual-reality trailblazers to reach their full potential," the group said. "The Internet was not designed to support the data-transmission requirements of real-time virtual-reality data, so the Neuronet is being created as a separate and distinct network."

The Internet may not be up to snuff, but heading away from the mainstream poses other challenges. Companies or individuals must pay for network bandwidth used rather than ride the Internet's coat-tails, computers must be updated with software support, new standards must be created and network hardware must support those standards. In addition, the Internet already has a strong track record of vanquishing or absorbing smaller networks.

IAVRT is overseeing the registration of Neuronet domain names, the group said. Trademark holders can get an early start from 5 February to 1 June; the general public is set to get access after 4 June.

IAVRT membership is open to companies, educational groups and individuals, but the group doesn't identify its current backers by name.

"IAVRT represents the interests of individuals and organisations spanning a wide range of industries working with VR technologies, including the medical, education, entertainment/new media, software, hardware and telecommunications industries, to name a few," the group said on its Web site.

Scully didn't name any of the organisation's backers or members in his email, but said Mychilo Cline, author of a virtual reality book, is on the group's advisory board.

Some bloggers aren't convinced the Neuronet is real, however. One is 3D designer Sven Johnson, who opined on his blog on Thursday, "I'm almost certain this is a scam." He was alarmed by the lack of identified IAVRT backers and the possibility that Neuronet is a "get-rich-quick scheme" funded by domain name sales.

Scully denied that position: "I can assure you the network is not a scam. Funds raised from the sale of network domain names will offset the considerable costs associated with the creation of the network."

IAVRT is trying to help address several issues, including intellectual property, research and development, domain names, programming interfaces, government relations regarding regulation, economic development and communication standards.

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