Expo '86 Offers Visitors a Preview of the Future

Lawrence J. Magid is chairman of Know How, a San Francisco-based microcomputer education company

Afew weeks ago, I visited Expo '86, the world's fair in Vancouver, British Columbia. Although most exhibitors stuck to the theme of the fair, "transportation and communications," I found a number of exhibits of special interest to PC users. Mostly, however, I saw a lot of trains, buses, airplanes and space capsules.

Even though most of the pavilions don't exhibit computers, their use is evident throughout the Expo. Many of the films rely on computer graphics, lasers or computer-coordinated multi-image productions. Computer-controlled interactive videodisc systems are everywhere. The Washington State pavilion, for example, uses computer-controlled video screens so that fair-goers can select recorded messages, retrieved from a videodisc, about that state's various resources.

IBM gets the award for the most sophisticated and useful application of computer/videodisc technology. Although the computer maker doesn't have a pavilion at the fair, IBM Canada set up 90 IBM Expo Info screens throughout the site. Each features a color touch screen which allows people to query the computer about a variety topics. Selections are made by touching a menu item on the screen, eliminating the need for a keyboard.

In some cases, information such as coming events is presented through computer graphics, not unlike the information terminals that are found in many hotels and airports. At other times, however, the computer triggers a videodisc player that presents a recorded audio/video message in response to the user's query. I assumed that the screens were connected to some central computer, but I peeked while one was being serviced and discovered that each screen had its own IBM PC/AT and a videodisc player.

While I was at Expo, some of my colleagues were at the National Computer Conference in Las Vegas. That's where IBM announced its InfoSystem Display. Without knowing it, Expo attendees have been getting a sneak preview of a coming product. The display, which works with any IBM PC, is expected to be available late this year for $4,195.

The California pavilion hosts an impressive computer exhibit sponsored by Palo Alto-based Hewlett-Packard. HP shows off its computer technology while keeping with the fair's transportation theme. Visitors are invited to run a computer-simulated bicycle factory, which features three terminals where fair-goers get hands-on experience in computer-assisted management, design and production. The exhibit is controlled by an HP 9000 computer. At the computer-assisted design (CAD) station, visitors use a light pen to design the bike by selecting its color, size and type of frame, seat, handlebar and wheel. Each time you select a component, the system draws a picture of your bike, and allows you to make additional changes, if needed.

Once you've designed your bike, you move to the computer-assisted production station where you control a simulated robot in building, assembling and painting of your bike. Now that you have your product, you move to the computer-assisted management station where a touch-screen HP computer informs you of market conditions and helps you determine price, production quantity and color selection. A chart tells you whether you'll be profitable or how soon you'll go broke. Behind you, an HP Plotter is busy printing out bicycle blueprints.

Computer Graphics Exhibit

If you don't make it to Expo, HP has a similar exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles.

While you're at the California pavilion, check out the Shape of Things to Come exhibit, provided by Los Angeles-based Abel Image Research. The exhibit shows how computer graphics are used in the motion picture industry and includes a film showing how computers were used to create the opening title sequence for Steven Spielberg's "Amazing Stories." The type of software used to create these images will soon be available to personal computer users, according to company Chairman Robert Abel.

The Telcom Canada pavilion features a breathtaking Circle Vision film called "Images of Canada." After the film, visitors are escorted to an exhibit area that includes an Information Movers presentation that uses a computer graphic display to demonstrate how data and voice travel through Canada's telecommunications network.

In the same hall, the Canadian phone consortium shows off Envoy Post, its currently available electronic mail and database service, and demonstrates how, someday, subscribers will be able to access the Yellow Pages from their home terminals.

Clone From China

On the whole, China's exhibit is decidedly low-tech. On display, however, is that country's home-grown IBM PC clone. The model, from Great Wall Computer Co., is "an advanced IBM PC/XT compatible" that has the capability of displaying English or Chinese characters in color or on its very high-resolution monochrome graphics screen. The keyboard contains both English and Chinese characters. The machine comes with 512K of RAM, expandable to 1,024K. It has a unique light-emitting diode panel that shows the status of the system, even if no software or operating system is running.

The host country's pavilion, Canada Place, had several computer-related displays. I was fascinated by the Amateur Radio booth's use of IBM PCs. One was running a program to help radio operators point their antennas in the direction of selected communications satellites. Another PC, connected to a ham radio via a modem, was using radio signals rather than long-distance phone lines to communicate with a bulletin board running on a remote PC. A third PC was being used to control a ham radio via a menu-driven program.

In another part of the hall, an exhibit sponsored by Alpha Scientific Laboratories of North Vancouver allowed visitors to design a keel for "the next Canadian yacht to compete in the America's Cup race." Using a light pen connected to a graphics screen, users can draw free-hand or, by pointing, instruct the computer to draw lines. When you're finished, the computer analyzes your work.

The system, according to an Alpha brochure, is "the world's first flat panel direct contact CAD system." The flat screen and light-pen combination allows a designer to use conventional design techniques, according to the company. Though not as flashy as Hewlett-Packard's system at the California exhibit, it was a much more realistic example of a computer-aided design system.

The U.S. pavilion was all about the space program. But there was one PC application. Visitors walk through a mock-up of what the crew quarters on a future space station might look like. In the exhibit, astronauts use an IBM PC/AT with a color monitor to check their electronic mail and work schedules. The AT's display date is set for Feb. 25, 1997. By then, the AT will be a 13-year-old machine. Maybe NASA figures that it can get them cheap.

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