Puzzle me this, puzzle me that

Java brings Computer Museum exhibit to the Internet

At The Computer Museum in Boston, independent consultant Daniel Griscom is using Java to bring the museum's Networked Puzzle exhibit to the Internet. Currently, the exhibit uses four Macintosh clients and one Mac server to let museum visitors cooperatively assemble a twelve-piece puzzle. Out of sight of one another, each player occupies a Mac, upon which sits a microphone and a camera pointed at the player. The players start with three pieces each, which they must exchange with other players to get new pieces. Buttons on the side of the screen dial up the other players one at a time, activating the mike and camera to provide audio and visual communication between two players.

At first there is much verbal and visual back-and-forth, with phrases like "I need the piece with a star and a bit of the moon" flying across the wires. As players learn to work cooperatively, they press the buttons less and less, having learned to streamline their communication, Griscom said.

With Java, the Networked Puzzle game can be played over the Internet, with players in different countries working together to complete the puzzle. Instead of using audio and video, players will use the keyboard to communicate, but the need to cooperate to complete the task remains the same. Since Java is multithreaded, it also will let the server run many games simultaneously, Griscom said. Currently, there can be "only one game playing at a time, and you have to be there [at the museum]," he said. Java's platform-independence offers another advantage: players can play together regardless of the type of machine they are using.

Griscom believes Macromedia Inc.'s Shockwave multimedia authoring technology is stronger than Java in animation, but Java is stronger in setting up the data links back to the server. Strong data links are crucial, Griscom said, because while the puzzle-piece animation is done locally, the server must be able to keep track of who has which pieces.

Griscom does have some concerns about Java that stem largely from the language's tender age. "It's preliminary, the tools are immature, and not many people have Java-compatible browsers," Griscom said. But for Griscom, these flaws aren't fatal. "Four months down the line I expect the Java tools will be much more stable," he said.

As for the Networked Puzzle project, Griscom said that "for the moment, Java's the only game in town."