I have high standards for what I consider to be cutting-edge technology. I think it's important to separate the most hyped developments from the most innovative and forward-looking. Although computer technology appears to advance quickly, it seems to me that most of the progress lies in speeding up or adding features to existing hardware or software components. Year after year, processors gain more speed in computation; storage becomes more capacious with everdiminishing costs per gigabyte; wired and wireless networks continue to evolve to deliver data at faster speeds with better security; and software applications become more sophisticated, adding incremental sets of new features with every release. The typical word processor, for example, now sports so much functionality that even its most sophisticated users take advantage of only a small portion of its capabilities.
Library automation systems continue to improve incrementally, though they are still tied to the conceptual model of the automated card catalog that emerged decades ago. New angles on communication technologies have emerged. Blogs, wikis, RSS, podcasts, and even video blogs have gained a popular audience in the last few years. But to me, these still seem to be incremental advancements of Web and XML-based applications that have been around for a while now. Overall, I see most of the recent advancements in technology as steady progress on a course that was set long ago.
I consider this steady-but not necessarily exciting-evolutionary progress to be the routine development path for commodity technologies. It gives us a constant stream of everimproving hardware and software that we need to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing information landscape.
How I Found Croquet
I spend a lot of time ferreting out the trends in technology, especially those that might have an impact on libraries. In the course of this ongoing investigation, I see lots of new things, but most are of the evolutionary variety. Only occasionally do I see something that lies outside the routine trajectory. It's exciting to get an early glimpse of an emerging technology from another branch of the evolutionary tree. That's how I would characterize the Open Croquet Project (http://www.opencroquet.org), the most innovative-and most difficult to describe-technology I've seen all year.
I often learn about interesting tools at the meetings of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). It was at the CNI Fall Task Force Meeting in 2004 that I first heard about podcasting, which in the following months grew to become one of the year's hottest (or at least most hyped) technologies. And at CNI's Spring Task Force Meeting last April, I was introduced to Croquet.
In a plenary session titled Croquet: A Collaborative 3D Virtual Learning Environment, two of Croquet's architects gave an engaging demonstration of this operating system/user interface, which previews what the Web might look like a generation from now. With large-screen projection of each of their computer displays, Mark P. McCahill and Julian Lombardi demonstrated how Croquet connects to familiar resources such as the Web and how it can facilitate collaboration and research.
Croquet uses an avatar to place the user inside a three-dimensional virtual information space that looks like the playing field of a multiplayer video game (see figure). The current younger generation might consider this to be a compelling environment for solving real-world problems. After all, even when jazzed up with audio and video, the Web might seem too passive and isolating for those that have grown up playing massively multiuser games.
What Exactly Is Croquet?
Even though I've seen a live demonstration of Croquet, have read up on its architecture and its constituent technical components, and have downloaded the software and begun experimenting with it, I still find it difficult to describe. Croquet is a lot of different things. This excerpt from the project's Web site gives you the gist of what its creators have in mind:
Croquet was built to answer a simple question. "If we were to create a new operating system and user interface knowing what we know today, how far could we go?" Further, what kinds of decisions would we make that we might have been unable to even consider 20 or 30 years ago, when the current operating systems were first created? We decided that it was time for an existence proof that innovation could still continue and succeed on the PC. We felt that the very definition of the PC and its role needed to be shifted from a single-user closed system to a next generation broadband communication device.
The site also describes Croquet as a "combination of computer software and network architecture that supports deep collaboration and resource sharing among large numbers of users within the context of a large-scale distributed information system."
One of the key characteristics of Croquet is its ability to create personal information spaces as well as linkages to the spaces created by other Croquet users. Any networked information resource, including the Web, can be part of a Croquet space. A key part of the CNI demonstration was when the presenters showed how Web resources can be accessed and shared among Croquet users.
Designed as a three-dimensional environment for collaboration, Croquet was initially developed with educational applications in mind, though it may eventually have uses in many other areas. You can also think of the system as a 3-D authoring environment.
Croquet was built with an object-oriented programming language called Squeak. This language is a descendent of Smalltalk-80. It relies on an Open-GL graphics engine, which is available for most computing platforms, including Windows, Linux, and Mac. The software is available as open source, and an early version (called Jasmine) is currently available for download at the project's Web site. It will run on most computers of fairly recent vintage. As pointed out in the installation instructions, having a decent graphics card makes the biggest difference in performance.
Croquet uses an architecture called TeaTime, which provides the basis for the synchronization of objects in peer-to-peer collaboration activities. It also provides a massively scalable collaboration framework.
Meet the Croquet Development Team
Croquet traces its conceptual roots primarily to Alan Kay, one of the great innovators in computing history. Kay worked at the famous Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the '70s and was involved in the development of the components that shape much of computing today: the mouse, the bitmapped graphic computer display, and other concepts that are commonplace in today's laptops. Students of computing history will recall that he invented the concept of the Dynabook (which described what is now known as a portable computer) in the '70s.
This chess application's output is exposed within a Croquet space. As a result, it is possible for two or more people to collaboratively use an application over the network-even though it was not written to support online interactivity. The site explains: 'Its network awareness is a feature imparted to the application because of its exposure within a collaborative Croquet space. ... With this type of set-up, it is possible for two or more players to play cooperatively against the application.'
While at PARC, Kay also promoted object-oriented computing and developed the Smalltalk programming language that embodies that approach. In the '90s, Kay continued his work in object-oriented computing and participated in the development of Squeak. He has continued his research and development through posts at Atari, Apple, Disney, and Hewlett-Packard (HP). Today, Kay is founder and president of Viewpoints Research Institute, a senior fellow for HP, and an adjunct professor at UCLA.
While Kay may be the best-known person behind Croquet, its development has been the collaboration of a group of mostly like-minded software architects including Julian Lombardi, Mark McCahill, Andreas Raab, David P. Reed, and David A. Smith. The University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota have also taken an active role in Croquet, promoting interoperable implementations in educational settings.
Go and Play with Croquet
As I mentioned above, describing Croquet isn't easy. To get a real sense of it, visit the project's Web site, read through the FAQ, and view the screen shots. And, if you're feeling adventurous, download the software and play with it. Be warned that the current version (0.3) is a little rough around the edges, but it does provide you with an opportunity to experiment with the 3-D interface and to exercise the various capabilities of the environment.
While Croquet might not displace the current generation of operating systems and interfaces anytime soon, I do hope that some of its concepts and technologies will find their way into the mainstream. Some of the most pressing problems in education and business involve finding better ways to use technology to improve collaboration, to get beyond static information, and to represent concepts in 3-D. Croquet inherently embodies all these capabilities. So as this issue focuses on "hip" technologies, Croquet gets my vote.