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Kids at Hall of Science tug at future across Internet

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As pile drivers began pounding the first of several new supports into the ground outside the New York Hall of Science for a new addition on Tuesday morning, Queens and Manhattan public school students prepared to do battle in a virtual tug of war in celebration of the ground-breaking event.

The new, 55,000-square-foot building, on the north side of the complex near the rocket museum, will be called Science City. The $6 million project is the first stage of a $68 million expansion scheduled to take three years.

The ceremony was attended by members of the City Council, Borough President Claire Shulman, City Council member and Democratic borough president candidate Helen Marshall, and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, as well as Kevin Burke, president of Con Edison, and other corporate sponsor representatives.

“What we will have when its done is twice as much Hall of Science,” said Alan Friedman, director of the Hall of Science. As an example, an observatory with several telescopes will be housed inside the new facility.

Separated by the East River and some 10 miles, 15 fourth-graders from Maspeth’s PS 153 mingled about the Great Hall waiting for the go-ahead to start pulling, as 10 sixth-graders from IS 131 waited inside the Digital Sandbox Network Event Center, a long-distance business conference and meeting facility at 55 Broad St. in lower Manhattan.

There were more younger children because “we tried to level the playing field,” said Hall of Science spokeswoman Danielle Boone.

The virtual tug of war will be part of an exhibition called “Connections,” which will deal with networks in everyday life, and be housed in the future Science City annex, scheduled to open in 2004.

At both locations, each team had a length of rope connected to a computer-controlled mechanical winch, which resembled devices used for pulling elevators. The force the students created on their end of the rope was first converted into analog electrical signals and then into digital data transmitted over the Internet. The harder the students pulled, the higher was the voltage sent to the winch machines.

On the other end a receiver reconverted the signal from its digital form back into analog information. An identical machine there recreated the force of the other students pulling on another length of rope.

The tug was won by the Queens students who could see their older opponents struggling in vain via Internet cameras linked through telephone lines.

The virtual tug of war between the students utilized a new technology called “haptics” in which the sensations of touch and pressure can be carried over computer networks. The innovative system has already been used in remote surgical operations, where doctors can perform procedures from far away.

“Haptics will allow people anywhere in the real world to feel things in other places,” Friedman said, “like picking up a gemstone on Mars and [virtually] rolling it between your fingers

The technology can be compared to today’s state-of-the art computer game joy sticks which boast of “force feedback,” whereby the sensations of collisions, blows, explosions, and effects of gravity are digitally translated into physical resistance rendered by mechanical devices in the joysticks, making the games feel that much more real. haptics takes this one step further — real, rather than programmed, physical sensations are recreated.

Following the brief series of speeches, 27 model rockets were launched inside the Great Hall, flying some 30 to 50 feet into the air, arcing harmlessly over a tarpaulin partition set up for the event near a far wall.

Friedman said Science City will have a rocket park where visitors can launch their own rockets. They will also be able to climb into a Mercury series capsule replica.

Reach Qguide writer Daniel Arimborgo by e-mail at Timesledger.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.

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