Brains and Bikes: How We’re Encouraging the Development of Gigabit Apps

Earlier this year, I saw into another man’s brain.

The brain was several miles away in the neurosurgical wing of the Cleveland Clinic. The presiding surgeon had just inserted a periscope camera through a catheter installed in the patient’s skull.

The camera found its way through canals and tissues in the brain, taking a detour to avoid penetrating a pulsing artery (“we can’t get through that way,” the surgeon explained).

Live and direct!

Across town, the audience in Severance Hall was, at turns, chuckling at the surgeon’s good humor, and absorbing the future shock of what it’s like to remotely witness live brain surgery in high definition.

When Tim Berners-Lee fired up his NeXT machine and awakened the World Wide Web in 1990, it’s unlikely he imagined this as a potential use case.

But 22 years later, we live in a world that’s thoroughly and deeply connected. The internet is everywhere and embedded in everything—even periscopes inserted into patients’ skulls. And thanks to open source, open standards and the open web platform, it’s much easier for internet applications to emerge—even live brain surgery broadcast in HD.

Mozilla Ignite Challenge: the basics

To me, livestreaming a brain surgery no longer seems out of the ordinary. This is just one novel use of next-generation networks, and working on Mozilla Ignite, I’ve been lucky to see quite a few cool ideas in motion.

Through the Mozilla Ignite challenge, we’re working to create a culture of experimentation around the future possibilities of the web. We’ve joined in a partnership with the National Science Foundation and a range of public and private institutions to bootstrap and build applications that show off what’s possible on next generation networks.

Specifically: we’re talking about networks with speeds 100-250 times faster than today’s, and opening up network programming with new technologies like OpenFlow.

These technologies have clear applications for cloud computing and IT industries, but we’re particularly interested in user-facing innovation. What are the experiences that are not possible on today’s networks? How can future networks can make people happier, healthier, or more well-informed?

Last month, we announced the winners of a big public brainstorm to answer this exact question, awarding $15,000 in prizes. The ideas ranged from real-time emergency response apps for firefighters, to Star Trek-syle 3D videoconferencing, to multi-perspective video playback of live events, distance education, personal fitness apps, and more.

We’re now moving into the development phase of the challenge, where we connect teams with money (almost $500k in all), mentorship (including a panel of judges that includes folks like Tim O’Reilly, John Lily and Susan Crawford), and other resources to start building.

Our gigabit workshop

Building gigabit apps is hard. Gigabit networks aren’t evenly to distributed, available only to university campuses and in a select few communities (like Chattanooga, Lafayette, Salt Lake City, Kansas City). And application developers generally have no idea how to approach network programmability—all their lives they’ve been skating on layer 3, taking TCP/IP and network topology for granted.

That’s why we’ve partnered with GENI, the nationwide testbed for next-generation apps. Where appropriate, we’ll help get teams up and running on GENI so they can test and refine their gigabit apps. And we’ve recently completed a complete guide for beginners to get up and running on GENI.

In addition to this, we’re busy preparing learning labs and hackable demos to demonstrate the value of today’s technologies—like WebGL—running on tomorrow’s networks.

Our plan is to build a community of practice around these technologies and concepts—a bottom-up, hacker-tinkerer approach. Come through Ignite, do an experiment, and release the code for others to see and use—so we can all be more effective, together. Classic open source principles. Small steps, big journeys—US Ignite is a multi-year effort.

Early experiments

Here are some sample code snippets, concepts and building blocks that have been generated at events like the SF Gig Hackdays and Hackanooga.

Jeff Terrace hacked a way to import a model into ThreeFab, the open source scene 3D scene editor, paving the way for immersive 3D learning spaces and simulations.

Kate Hudson, Michael Dale, and Jan Gerber hacked an app that queues the most popular stories on Google News and generates a video wall—a great way to visualize the benefits of faster internet connections.

Andor Salga, author of an excellent JS library called XB PointStream, is working on using Kinect sensors and fast networks to enable 3D videoconferencing.

None of these early hacks are what you would call “killer apps.” In fact, when it comes to gigabit apps, we’re unlikely to get a true “killer app” in the immediate future.

Why do I think this? Because we can’t predict how changes in computational scale will affect human experience. And so we can’t design that app that really significantly shows the breakaway potential of gigabit networks. We can prototype things that are amazing and impossible on today’s networks, but they’ll be presented in a vacuum.

Bicycles for the mind

It’s often said that computers are like “bicycles for the mind.” I’d argue that as we become more sophisticated users of computers, it’s no longer the computer, but the network—the experience we assemble for ourselves with the available hardware, software, services and even people—that is the bicycle for the mind.

At the Gigabit Breakfast Club, the origin of “bicycle for the mind” and how it applies today.

As web users, we effortlessly marshal hardware, software, services and people all the time. Think about what it means to complete a transaction on Craigslist, eBay, Facebook, Skype or Wikipedia.

In each case: bare metal and silicon, copper and fiber, blood and sinew combine to get things done. Sell a couch. Buy trading cards. See photos of a newborn niece. Make a business deal. Learn new facts. So much complexity, but applications are so good at mediating this complexity that we hardly stop to think.

But when you want to get something meaningful done on the internet, you don’t just rely on a single application like this. Often, you rely on a whole suite of applications. The high school student doing her multimedia book report relies on YouTube, Wikipedia, iMovie, popcorn.js and GitHub. She shares it with peers and teachers using email, IM and message boards. Drawing together these disparate applications, she builds her own “bicycle for the mind.”

We know how to build applications for today’s internet. But how can we hope to imagine—let alone build—applications for the even more complex world of tomorrow? How can we show what it’s like in the future?

Get Involved

A low-cost hack against a tapestry of gigabit experimentation.

The answer: we can foster libraries, building blocks, and tools. We can invest now in experiments and reference implementations that will someday find their way into the mind-bicycles people will build for themselves.

By running challenges and building communities of practice—or any kind of applied open source methodologies—we can gather ideas and concepts from all corners, hastening the future and laying the foundations for a gigabit world one brick at a time. And it should go without saying that I’m super excited to see what develops.

If you want to get involved in Mozilla Ignite, check out Our goal is to connect you with money, mentorship, and other resources to chase your gigabit idea. To be eligible for the first round of funding ($85k), get a code concept in by October 25th. If you have any questions, drop us a line.

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