Now I’m getting desperate. Surely, I think, I’ll get a knock-your-socks-off display of technical prowess from Daimler Benz, the company whose cars are emblems of engineering excellence. But the Daimler-Benz Research and Technology Center site (www.rtna.daimlerbenz.com) limps along like an underpowered VW. I click on the link for the company’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory and am treated to standard corporate R&D rhetoric: the lab’s mission is to develop software to “personalize itself to the needs and goals of individual users.” This would lend itself wonderfully to online demos, I’d think, or at least graphical demonstrations. But again, we’re in logorrhea-land-buried in words without a link to escape by.
After spending several online sessions bouncing from one research site to another, I land at a couple that at least attempt to exploit the Web’s dynamic nature to help present information. I find this relief in a most unlikely place: the federal bureaucracy. The national laboratories have, in fact, gotten in the spirit of things. The labs that invented nuclear weapons know that bomb-making is not a growth industry; they’ve been devoting themselves to moving their other technical know-how into the private sector, and they’ve become pretty slick at it. The Los Alamos National Laboratory, for instance, uses a Java applet to illustrate a new technique for sensing degradation in concrete: wave the pointer over a photo of concrete and the image turns colors to help explain the problem the new technology solves.
That’s a B+ for effort, but another Department of Energy facility-The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (www.nrel.gov)-does much better. Its site provides a well-written tutorial about photovoltaic cells, featuring a nifty animated graphic. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then moving pictures are worth-well, let’s not get metaphysical. Let’s just say it helps a lot, and it’s the kind of Web technology that is almost entirely lacking at other R&D sites.
A research-oriented Web site doesn’t need graphical sizzle to provide great value, though, as I discovered from visiting the Community of Science’s site. Here are searchable databases listing projects sponsored by funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. (It’s at http://fundedresearch.cos.com -no www). Just type in key words, names of investigators, or the identity of an institution, and you get a quick list of project titles, each linked to an abstract and a second form that lets you refine the search. There’s nothing flashy about it, just a huge amount of information in a handy, easy-to-reference site.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the R&D folks that built the Internet in the first place tend to lag behind the curve in innovative use of it. Pioneers don’t stick around to make the lawns look good-they move on to discover other territories.