Auteurs of the superoute

France's Mediterranean science park wants to become Europe's 'media lab' but first it needs fast lines to the rest of the Continent. Stella Hughes reports

Carrying out a word search is one of those computer functions which, once there, becomes impossible to imagine doing without. But how about a face search, speaker tracking and scene analysis?

These more futuristic functions will be essential if people are not to find themselves stranded on the high speed network when it begins conveying huge volumes of sound and vision as well as text.

Audiovisual indexing is just one area of multimedia research at Sophia Antipolis, France's Mediterranean science park.

Ambitious development plans are afoot to strengthen the park's multimedia base, with the aim of making it the capital of a European multimedia industry within the next five years.

France is in the process of implementing a national information highways development policy and has recently issued a call for proposals of full-scale innovatory experiments.

In Sophia Antipolis' Telecom Valley, set up in 1991, experimental applications using experimental high-speed networks are already under way.

The next step is to build a permanent high-speed network as the basis for a growing multimedia industry.

All the buildings at Sophia Antipolis have fibre-optic lines. Next, the park needs telecommunications companies to build a highway of ultra-fast commercial cables out from the park.

"Why not British Telecom? We think it essential to create a European multimedia industry," says the park's founder Pierre Laffitte, "No single European country has a big enough market to be able to hope to compete with California".

This has just proved painfully true for France's biggest independent multimedia distributor, Euro-CD, which pioneered CD-Rom sales in France but has folded due to sluggish demand.

According to Laffitte, a prerequisite for a European project is that it should be multilingual from the outset, beginning with French and English, then adding German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian and Chinese.

"Europe's wealth of languages and cultures should be an advantage in a creative industry. It is an extremely interesting challenge, in spite of the problems inherent in launching an industry in several languages," he says .

It is still too early to predict just how much of Laffitte's dream will become reality, but on a practical level, things are beginning to move.

A multimedia club has been set up, practically at the same time as a similar Multimedia Development Group was launched in San Francisco.

The club enables technology firms, publishers, research and education departments as well as individual authors, artists and musicians to network, pool information and resources and team up on particular projects.

The club aims to attract as many firms as possible which are developing new technology or working on the content of multimedia software. It plans to set up a multimedia data bank and a training institute with direct links to specialist centres around the world to keep abreast of state-of-the-art techniques.

Laffitte has asked the French government to invest in a multimedia resources centre. It would also provide training for creative artists and software specialists, as well as offering professional training in such fields as international law and multimedia copyright.

The resource centre would monitor technical developments and offer writers and publishers time-share access to expensive equipment. The park aims to attract multinational publishers as well as the smallest publishing houses.

Digital Equipment, Wellcome and IBM are already involved in the scheme, which may be joined shortly by a British merchant bank. A key academic partner, alongside Nice University and the Ecole des Mines, is Eurecom, which trains engineers in high performance communications systems.

Eurecom was set up jointly by the French grande ecole of telecommunications and the Lausanne Ecole Polytechnique Federale (EPFL) in 1992 to provide postgraduate training for its own and selected outside engineering graduates. Because it focuses on future networks, the training blends academic and industry-driven research for students who have a strong background in both telecommunications and computer science.

"There is a big need today for engineers able to integrate different techniques, for example, computer, electrical and management sciences," says Christian Wellekens, head of EPFL's multimedia communications department.

Over-specialisation works against innovation in the field of multimedia, where entirely new ideas are at a premium. "I perceive a lack of creativity, "he adds, "The industry would like universities to give it ideas for products -- if you're able to make a prototype of some new application, they'll look at it".

To foster this integrated approach, EPFL teaches through case studies, a technique borrowed from business schools, where a guest engineer explains the history of a product. The students submit an "industrial thesis", researching and building a product during a six-month project in industry, writing it up and defending it at the end of the course.

Wellekens heads the research project into multimedia document indexing. As multimedia products grow, so does the need to locate maerials.

Video indexing embraces techniques which allow an event to be found on tape, word spotting, face recognition, scene analysis, object tracking and speech tracking.

The research began two years ago and has already produced some results for word spotting, speaker and scene analysis. "The greatest difficulty is putting it all together to make it 100 per cent reliable", says Wellekens. The material in these early stages is typically a video of a meeting; the type of query is : show me all sections where my boss talked about me. Later, the project should move on to retrieval from more complex material such as television news broadcasts and involve, for example, tracking all mentions and all appearances of a political leader.

Another research project at Eurecom is BETEL (broadband exchange over trans-European links), an early experiment in international ATM (asyncronous transfer mode) networking.

The network transmits at a rate of 34 megabits per second, more than 430 miles of lines provided by the French and Swiss telecom companies. It prefigures the future pan-European ATM pilot network.

Funded by the European Parliament, its eight partners include EPFL and Eurecom, Cern, the Geneva-based nuclear research organisation and IN2P3, the French institute of nuclear and particle physics, located in Lyon. The demonstration network was used to stage an audio/video teleteaching seminar earlier this year. The teacher in Lausanne could switch from addressing students at Eurecom to sharing the screen of an individual student.

The student could call for individual help with a click of the mouse. The audio delivery would then change from a classroom address system to an individual address system, while the teacher observed and interacted with the student and the on-screen material in real time.

In June, EPFL and Eurecom will conduct a more complex demonstration. A multi-point teleconference network will be set up to stage a teleworkshop. Audio/video communication will be accompanied by shared computer workspace for real-time interaction.

Another educational institution at Sophia Antipolis which plans to use multimedia distance learning is the business school, Ceram. It has developed a project with the University of Maryland in which joint assignments will be carried out by small groups of MBA students.

The aim is to provide a learning experience which can be used later in the workplace. Ceram students access the Internet and have a multimedia room equipped for video conferences.

Some Ceram graduates go on to become the management partner with one or two engineers in start-up companies on the site, so this early introduction to information technology fits into the multimedia ambitions of Sophia Antipolis.

Pierre Laffitte wants to develop innovative multimedia applications in parallel with technological advances, moving right away from the games industry. "There is potential for extremely interesting products which have not been looked at in the United States because their marketing approach is so different," he explains. "With telemedicine and teleducation, the user may be the long-term unemployed or immigrant workers, while the payer is a local authority or health department".

Multimedia as a tool for social integration is a type of industry which could meet a worldwide demand, but which has at present no suppliers, says Laffitte. If Europe tries to fill this niche, drawing in psychologists, sociologists and educators, it could make up for lost time.

The vision is a generous one: Laffitte has always said he wants Sophia Antipolis to have Renaissance values, combining modernism and humanism. Just as in the Quattrocento, that will depend on a combination of creative talent and liberal sponsorship.

One of the key players in this multimedia future, France's informatics grande ecole INRIA (Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique) is starting out with projects in two sectors. One will provide the regional education authority with a multimedia communications service and the other aims to expand the satellite images sector.

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