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World Wide Words

When research lab sites strut their stuff online, they leave their imagination behind.
September 1, 1998

A typical research lab can be a letdown for a nonscientist. There’s very little Mr. Wizard stuff: bubbling test tubes, flashing laser beams. Much of what’s there goes on inside pieces of nondescript equipment with readouts that look about as high-tech as a microwave oven. Nonscientists often emerge from lab tours baffled and bored.

The Web, on the other hand, would seem to give research organizations a chance to counteract this drab PR by letting them strut their stuff to the public in a friendly, engaging way. Bells, whistles, interaction!

To find out whether labs are really making use of all this potential-and to keep in step with this issue’s special focus on research-oriented organizations-we took a gander at an assortment of sites. Unfortunately, the Web sites aren’t really much more stimulating to look at than the labs themselves. It’s as if these labs expend all their creative energy giving the world new tools and knowledge; nothing is left at the end of the day to provide casual Web visitors with more than the most superficial of insights into the fascinating stuff we know the labs are really doing.

Take General Electric’s corporate R&D center in Schenectady, N.Y. Its Web site ( has all the pizzazz of a burned-out light bulb. A page recounting the century-old lab’s inventions blows a huge opportunity by supplying no links to information about current work that follows from these pioneering efforts. Thus you read that in the 1960s, GE scientists invented the process of superconductive tunneling, but you have no quick way of learning about any practical applications that the intervening decades have brought.

But GE might not be a fair test-the company makes no particular claim to be on the information cutting edge. So we checked out the site of another huge company that does make such boasts for itself: IBM. The giant computer maker is justly proud of its research operation, which has brought the world advances in integrated circuits, superconductors and magnetic disk storage, among other things (see “The Big, Bad Bit Stuffers of IBM,” TR, July/August). And a visit to reveals a well-organized showcase of the company’s R&D. Information is presented in small chunks, under headings like “Smart Business,” “Innovative Interfaces” and “Serious Science.” Captured under these headings are a tasty assortment of quick vignettes describing activities at the company’s labs around the world.

The IBM site’s appeal, unfortunately, is only skin deep. I tried to explore what IBM had going on in display technology (that’s under “innovative interfaces”), and found only a series of all-text descriptions. A tantalizing link called “how it works” merely delivers a few more sentences, again without a visual aid that a Web page could so readily supply. Clicking on the name of a technology area brings up a paragraph or two of text, unadorned by any helpful visuals. This is a site produced by a company built on skillful marketing of technology to business? What do the folks at IBM think WWW stands for? World Wide Words?

At least GE and IBM have some content, even if it’s dry. I hop over the virtual Atlantic to visit the Canon Research Centre Europe in Surrey, England (, and click on “Press Releases,” hoping to find out the latest doings in the company that gave the world cheap laser printers, among other technologies. The response: “We have a lot of exciting projects in the pipeline. Please return to hear the latest news.” Yes, I know that the Web is perpetually “under construction,” but surely Canon can think of something to tell us while all that excitement trickles down the pipeline.

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 ( 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 ( 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 -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.

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