High-tech duet illustrates the power of a brand-new Internet
Once there was Internet 2.0. Now we have Internet2.
It's an entirely new Internet now being built in cyberspace, designed to be 1,000 times faster than the traditional Internet.
Internet2 is being developed on its own infrastructure -- separate from the regular Internet -- specifically for academic and scientific applications which require enormous amounts of data.
"We are drowning in a data tsunami," said Farnam Jahanian, assistant director of Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation. That tsunami is composed of information about tornadoes, financial markets, atomic reactions, social interactions, and nearly anything worth researching.
"We are in a paradigm shift from hypothesis-driven to data-driven discovery," said Jahanian.
Internet2 is being prepared as a tool for transporting and crunching huge amounts of numbers. Network engineers from around the world, representing organizations collaborating on the development of Internet2 (including WHYY), congregated in Philadelphia this week to discuss how to apply the network.
At a demonstration at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Philadelphia, the power of Internet2 was expressed through music.
Two musicians in two cities -- a violinist in Philadelphia (Marjorie Bagley, associate professor of violin from the University of North Carolina Greensboro) and a cellist in Dekalb, Illinois (Cheng-Hou Lee, assistant professor at Northern Illinois University Music School) -- played a duet together in real time, connected via a live audio/video stream on Internet2.
They played "Passacaglia" by Handel-Halvorsen, a piece filled with complex interplay of violin and cello. The timing has to be perfect or it falls apart.
"It is what we call a showpiece," said Bagley. "It's the sort of thing you show off with."
Small delay can make a huge difference in sound
For this venue, they were showing off Internet2's low latency capability, or LOLA. Normally, a live stream over the traditional Internet has a delay of about 300 milliseconds (about a third of a second), even before buffering.
One-third of a second may not seem like much, but it's more than enough to make playing music together impossible. With Internet2, the delay is a 10th of that (about 30 milliseconds), the equivalent of about 30 feet in acoustic space.
"We musicians get picky about this distance," said Bagley. "I swear, we put our chairs two inches closer together and feel better. That's on the ridiculous side. Yes, I feel the delay, and part of the challenge has been learning to accept and compensate for that. But it is so minute."
On the Internet, data is broken into packets and sent on its way, and then reassembled at its destination. But mistakes can happen, information can be lost, and circuitry on the receiving end must fix mistakes on the fly; fill in the gaps. That's why streaming audio can sound so bad.
Because Internet2 has huge bandwidth with a limited number of users, it does not jam up. If it works the way it is supposed to, there is no need to correct garbled data. That's why it is so fast, and it sounds so good.
"If the network is not perfect, it doesn't work," said Claudio Allocchio, the lead developer of LOLA. He started thinking about a super-fast information superhighway in 2005, for musical education purposes. It took until 2010 to get a working model, and now it's ready for application.
"A master class where the teacher and student need to play together, so student can follow the teacher," said Allocchio, an engineer based in Trieste, Italy. "You talk with the author of the piece, and the author will play with you."
The old Internet is great, but it's slow. At best, you're getting less than 10 megabytes per second. Internet2, at its best, can transfer information at 10 gigabytes per second, a thousandfold increase.
That can allow real-time streaming of high-definition video, 60 frames-per-second, with no hiccups.
The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia plans to use Internet2 to allow students to work with teachers around the world. With audio and video links, teacher and student can play pieces together, simultaneously, without dropouts or delays.
"There is a great amount of curiosity around the world for what goes on at Curtis," said president Roberto Diaz. "This gives us a real-time possibility to ship what we do at Curtis to many, many other music schools around the world. It's a great way to expose people outside Philadelphia to what goes on in the school."
The network has dozens of nodes around the country, locally at the University of Pennsylvania (called MAGPI). The system is still in its beta phase of application testing.