In the digital age of the pandemic, when we’re more dependent on the Internet than ever, it’s hard to imagine a time when the world wasn’t so connected through our screens. However, the beginnings of the Internet were not as far away as we may think.
Scientists Stephen Casner and Eve Schooler are both pioneers in the field of computer science who have focused on the technical development of the Internet throughout their careers. In 2020, Casner and Schooler were recognized as co-recipients of the IEEE Internet Award for their distinguished leadership in standards and formative contributions to Internet multimedia protocols. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) is the largest global technical professional organization for the advancement of technology.
Before they achieved this level of recognition, both Casner and Schooler used to work here at ISI, where they launched their careers.
Stephen Casner’s Journey at ISI and Beyond
Relatively early in his time at ISI, Casner focused his research on packet voice work, which involves the transmission of audio communication across packet-switched networks like today’s Internet and its precursor, the ARPANET. This required solving the challenging problem of compressing and chopping continuous audio into packets to be sent across the network and then reconstructing the continuous audio at the other end.
“This work was challenging, creative and exciting. My project leader, Danny Cohen, joked that I failed to realize that my 20-hour RA position was supposed to be per week, not per day,” said Casner.
Later on, Casner adopted a full-time position at ISI and began to develop packet video alongside packet voice technology for the Internet. He led the development and standardization of the Real-time Transport Protocol (RTP) that carries most of the interactive audio and video on the Internet. Today we take Internet video streaming for granted but in the 1980s there was barely sufficient bandwidth.
After 20 years at ISI, Casner shifted his focus towards other sectors of the Internet, including developing appliances for network monitoring and routing protocol diagnostics. Even in his retirement, Casner continues to challenge himself with computing projects, especially those that allow him to revisit the nostalgia of the early Internet.
“Because our laptops and phones are so powerful these days, I enjoy the occasional challenge of working in a very constrained environment with limited memory and processing speed,” Casner said.
On top of his usual projects, the pandemic has forced Casner to develop a new retirement skill: making videos. You can view the video he created for the IEEE award ceremony here.
Eve Schooler Mixes Science with Music
Growing up, Eve Schooler was very fond of math, science, and — though seemingly unrelated — music. She followed her interests, which led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Yale University and later graduate degrees at UCLA and Caltech.
“Not having been a kid who had a chemistry set to accidentally blow up the family garage, nor who had taken apart clocks or car engines, programming was a wonderful pathway to being able to create things and explore what lived in my imagination that didn’t have to have a corollary in the physical world,” said Schooler of her childhood.
Her interests in both music and science finally came together when she joined ISI’s Multimedia Conferencing Project, a venture which sought to bring collaborative audio and video to the Internet in the 1980s. Specifically, Schooler focused on the under-researched aspect of “upper-layer signaling” — how an application initiates and manages the combination of various multimedia among groups of people. Eventually, this blossomed into the Multiparty Multimedia Session Control (MMUSIC) working group, which Schooler co-founded in the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) standards organization.
Though social media and streaming are what we tend to associate with the Internet today, these multimedia services were actually extremely limited in the beginning of the internet.
“We consider Internet-wide multimedia applications as commonplace now, but initially there were only specialized parts of the Internet that were capable of carrying real-time multimedia traffic,” Schooler explained.
The widespread usage of these services was only made possible with the advent of multimedia signaling standards such as the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which Schooler co-authored and which was foundational for early IP telephony and real-time multimedia conferencing applications.
Currently, Schooler is a Principal Engineer and Director of Emerging IoT Networks at Intel, where she works to move the Internet towards data-centric Edge computing and carbon-aware infrastructure.
An Award That Goes Beyond Science
Upon receiving the 2020 IEEE Internet Award, Casner and Schooler express their gratitude and appreciation for the recognition of their research.
“I am tremendously honored to have received this award, humbled to be listed alongside the previous award recipients, and grateful that our work was recognized by the community,” Schooler said. “It was doubly special to be recognized as a co-recipient with my long-time mentor, colleague, and friend Steve Casner.”
Casner shares the same sentiments. “I was greatly honored when Colin Perkins, my colleague and later co-chair in the IETF AVT group, nominated Eve and me for the IEEE Internet award,” he said. “I had little expectation that we would be selected, though, so it was a tremendous surprise when we received the award.”
Considering their first-hand experience with the enormous amount of time and energy that is continuously poured into the development of the Internet, Casner and Schooler recognize the award as something that goes beyond a simple recognition of their research.
“At some level, the award also acknowledges the importance of standards, the importance of perseverance, and the importance of collaboration,” said Schooler. “It takes a village to create standards, and RTP and SIP are no exception.”
Whether it be TikTok or old-fashioned emails, it’s obvious that our ways of communicating with one another and using the Internet wouldn’t be possible without the decades of effort from scientists such as Casner and Schooler. The IEEE’s recognition of their important work contributes to a greater recognition and appreciation for the work that goes on behind-the-“screens.”