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News, Culture, Controversy on the Internet

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Tomorrow's TV Today

Besides the prospect of a job for Barry Diller, one of the great benefits of the information superhighway is supposed to be interactive television. Now programmers at Cornell University have taken a step toward making two-way TV a reality. Thanks to software dubbed "CU-SeeMe," Internet users can tap into live sound-and-image transmissions with their computers. Better yet, users with video cameras can actually exchange TV images with fellow networkers. (Hi, Mom!)

As befits what is still an infant medium, CU-SeeMe's performance is a little sluggish on most Net links -- the black-and-white images are akin to something you might see in a nickelodeon -- but capabilities are improving quickly. Viewing choices are limited by the fact that right now there are only a few dozen Net sites, most of them academic, with CU-SeeMe capability. Browsers might end up staring at an empty physics lab in Norway or a blank chalkboard in Israel. But already CU-SeeMe promises low-cost video conferencing for students, journalists and the dateless. Using the new system, Chicago scientists recently made history's first video link to the South Pole, where a local trudged through a mile and a half of -60C tundra to talk face to face on the region's only Macintosh.

Use may snowball by year's end, when prices on some videocams drop to $100. Predicts David Farber, one of the Net's founding fathers: "Every kid with a Mac and an Internet connection is going to buy [a camera] and plug it into his serial port." With results as yet undreamed of.