Catching the Wave (Oh I know it’s not original!)

I’ve been exploring using Google wave as a tool to help scaffold our work around Digital Scholarship Hackfests. My idea is simple –  i.e. to use wave a tool to capture the ideas forming that takes place before, during and after the hackfest – To help define the context of the work, to help support the discussions and provide a back channel during the development. The next hackfest is planned for the 24th so I’ll keep you posted of how we get on – key things are to get the group on wave, to get the discussion flowing freely and to keep the wave a reasonable size and shape.

I have only been trying wave for a short time but I’m enjoying it. It very simple conceptually but it does seem to have it’s own position. I was suggesting that it will form part of peoples online experience as time evolves.

At the moment it feels a little sterile as most of the conversations are about wave itself, or are people testing the water. It also feels a little chaotic and experimental. All of these things are fine in an emerging technology and I remembering feeling the same way when first experiencing email and conferencing many years ago when they were unrefined and raw. I think that ideas forming may be a crucial part of wave, as will it’s ability to mange complex relationships that used for be part of multiple email threads/discussions. It will also come of age when more people are on board and when etiquette is sorted out around privacy versus openness, and around whether you’re invited or can self join waves (I’d like a model like mail lists where some are open and some require you to be joined by the list moderators). I think the embedding is also fascinating and the ability to embed content from a range of sources will also help this mature into an extremely useful tool, it seems like it may have design applications, also CRM applications, it may replace wiki’s as a media for group and community led creations and it may also extend and complement email and twitter as a tool to manage complex organisational interactions. Finally it may be a tool that will help scaffold discourse and discussion, a bit like cloudworks.

I hope however it finds a home and does something new and that I haven’t thought of yet, something I didn’t know I needed until I used it in anger. Like twitter it enhances my life in small but very pleasant ways.

Bio Feedback Technology

We’ve just purchased a set of Bio feedback technology that has been used by other research to look specifically at emotional responses to gaming. The product is ProComp Biograph Infniti and we’ve bought it with a number of different sensors to pick up things such as  Surface Electromyography, Skin Conductivity and EKG heart rate monitoring.

This rich data can be provided alongside other types of data and we’re therefore going to use it with our purpose built Research Labs along with eye tracking technology and other video data that we capture during our testing work. This should allow us to get a much more detailed picture of the level of engagement and immersion within game play and indeed other forms of online interaction such as within virtual worlds and other online web environments. I’m really looking forward to trying it out. We’ve got plans to also extend this work beyond the labs themselves so we can look at monitoring people in their own social contexts and seeing if this makes a difference.

We are also considering developing a joint research bid with the Speckled Computing people again extending the work we do in the labs out into the real world and looking at how to use the ‘intant feedback’ that this technology provides to assist people in both how they work and in their personal and social lives. I’m very excited about the possibilities that these technologies provide.  

Some quick example or two to explain what I mean.

1. We can use Bio feedback to assist people in dealing with stressful situations and conflict. We can use VR or video simulations to mock up events and work through issues with individuals in a ‘controlled’ way, for example training social workers.

2. We can use Bio feedback and speckled computing at assist with rehabilitation, and with improving balance in people who have mobility issues, for example those who have had hip replacement surgery to learn to walk correctly again and improve freedom of movement.

3. We can assist with pandemic outbreaks by sending ‘specks’ to affected people to gauge whether or not they have the illness and to monitor their recovery. This avoids having to involve expensive health care practitioners and it also allows us to accurately measure the spread of a pandemic.

There are many more, Sports Science, Gaming etc.. the possibilities are many and varied and the opportunity for using this technology to benefit our society is very much within our grasp.

Just Playing or Profound Research?

I’ve been checking out what those clever bods at MIT’s media lab have been working on. Their latest augmented reality stuff is interesting, there a video of some of their work here .

I’m as interested in the comments made on U.S. Newswire messageboards about this technology as I am in the research itself (to get some idea of how ordinary folk see it being applied). The universal view seems to be that it’s only going to come into it’s own for porn and first person gaming and is otherwise just a gimmick. To contridict this public view I noticed that similar technology is now being used by interior designers in the U.S. to give clients a 3D view of their ‘proposed’ layout which allows them to walkthrough and inspect the fixture and fittings from any angle (like 3D CAD syle but with a real world backdrop). Also I’ve seen that one of the spin-offs of the media lab work is the 3D T.V. stuff coming on stream this year.

What may seem to some like just a bit of fun can have some very useful real world applications. I’m still not convinced that researching the correct sogginess of Rich Tea biscuits dunked in tea is going to have any profound spin-offs but maybe I’ll be proved wrong and perhaps correct sogginess is important to avoid global conflicts or some such. Chaos theory triumphs again! Oh Mandelbrot.

Planning blight and JFDI

I was watching the gadget show the other night with Nikki and they showed a remote controlled Hummer (£37,000 car) that they were able to race around a real dirt course. The research is done by Cranfield and Nikki turned to me and said Cranfield are always doing good stuff like that why don’t you guys do good research. I of course said that we did. She said that what we should be doing for example is making a VR suit for disabled people to interact directly with their brain a nd allow them to explore VR worlds as if they had no disabilities. (read the Otherworld books by Tad Williams for the concept). I said hmm. Yes we could do that. She also said that we should rig up a system to suspend people from so that they could act out the actions conducted in a virtual world and get the total immersion experience (again Otherworld). I said Hmm. Yes we could do that.

I spoke to Patrick about this yesterday. I’m not sure about the whole VR thing but it would be good to do some work exploring hacks we could do with the Wii mote for example, by doing some ‘mashing’ of various technologies. I’ve always been a fan of this type of string and glue approach to developing stuff. He was talking about colleagues that have built the equivalent of Microsoft Surface for under £100 by using a table, projector, tracing paper and a good bit of software. I was saying how of late there is a level of project amanagement to everything we do that makes delivery take long and be less satisfying that the agile approach that we used to adopt (i.e. a clever academci and a clever devloper working together doing seat of the pants iterative prototyping). We are doing that with Social:learn so I’m doing some direct comparison and I can see how much better that approach can be with the right people and a good set of support tools. (we use Skype, Pidgin/Jabber for IM, Twitter and a Wiki to help share development stuff). Patrick said it was time we created the JDFI. “Just F*ing Do it” group. I really think we must escape to bonds of planning blight that can occur during a restructuring process and instead JFDI. That’s my main objective this year.

Morph (nanotechnology)

I’m not sure if this will interest anyone apart from myself but I do feel that some of the nanotech research taking place is leading us in a very interesting direction. Take the Nokia funded Morph project for example, I’ve read several articles about it including the one I’ve linked to which comes from the BBC website. In other articles there’s talk about the sensory and morphing stuff being only a matter of about seven years away and the nanolectronics (the ability to get power directly from the environment in new and interesting ways) being possible within 11 years. These could even be conservative estimates with the rate of change. I’ve said before that if they could crack the ‘ambient power’ issue with mobile devices and also get ‘always on’ mobile networking totally cracked then things like electronic paper become much more desirable objects. (there’s a lot of if’s there) – but I think it’s only a matter of time.

I also saw a nice quote today from  SF writer William Gibson  “the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed”

ALT Lab Open Day (UK)

I was invited to present at the ALT (JISC) Lab Open Day event that took place yesterday in Oracle’s headquarters in London. Patrick McAndrew and I presented two sessions in the afternoon showcasing our new Ambient Technology Research Labs which are part of the new £19m building that will be the focus of our research work from May this year when we start moving in and using it. There’s a summary of the event here – we’re not part of that summary however a video interview of Patrick from the event will be available shortly and is being posted up on YouTube so I’ll send that when I get it. For those interested in our talk there’s a copy of the presentation which may be meaningless without Patrick’s or my waffle!

The event was great because we’re all doing such similar stuff, Sara de Freitas from the Serious Games Institute at Coventry seems to be covering much of the gaming stuff that we do and Nottingham and CARET are both looking at mobile learning and SOA applications which parallel our work in those areas. I was pleased to see that CARET seem to share the same views about not trying to ‘roll everything’ into a VLE but rather are now starting to explore pushing vle content out through other means (Facebook, iGoogle, RSS, etc). I was interested in their work on Sakai, I think sakai is much more developed than when I last explored it and I must make time to revisit it and indeed the CamTools product suite.

Nottingham covered their work with us on the Technology Enabled Learning (Personal Identifier) project which explores how school kids might learn through conducting their own field research work using a range of technologies and then bring this back into the more formal classroom environment to collate and make sense of the results. It’s really exploring the informal/formal learning boundaries, but on a lower level trying to make it fun for the kids. The Director of the institute at Nottingham watched their first field trial last week with (12-16 year old) school kids and was absolutely amazed at how engaged they were with what was essentially number crunching, but it was number crunching to find out what their physical characteristics were (blood pressure, heart rate, BMI, etc.) after they’d used various devices to record information about themselves whilst they were in a leisure centre, they were all keen to find out what their results meant and compare them with each other.

Patrick used the event to try to gather interest from others in forming a research network with us at the hub, I’m not sure how much interest this got but we’ve made a number of great contacts and I’m going to be taking trips to a number of these places in the next few months to find out what they’re really up to and to try to collaborate on some educationally and technology rich research projects.

Teaching…going back to basics

I was looking at a news story from Channel Four News recently about the Open University which has been involved in this debate about ELQ (Equivalent or Lower Qualification). Where the government is reducing or removing funding for students to study if they already possess a qualification at that level (e.g. second degrees etc.). I won’t get into that now as it’s a bit political but suffice to say I’m against it because I think it will inhibit lifelong learning for those who want to study at higher degree level to retrain in a new area.

Anyhow the news story contained snippets of old Open University folk in kipper ties showing things like wave form motion using a tank of coloured water. I am fascinated by these. I worked in the video production unit here when I first joined the OU and created animations for BBC programmes. We used to (in our spare time) watch the old video footage, including things where Professors had, for example, impressive sets of braces which could display different mathematical formulae as they talked about them. I really found it amusing and it did present quite dry subjects in a quirky way (which didn’t always work!).

 My theory now is that with technology we need to explore ways to go back to basics and to recreate this atmosphere. I think that the OU should be thinking about research into remote experimentation and remote instrumentation, actively engaging students in live experiments using the power of video, online media and interactive T.V.

 I’m currently involved in building a new centre for ‘ambient technology research’ at the OU and I have been enthusing (?) academic colleagues about how we could use the labs to do live experiments that we could stream and in which students could engage and actively participate and influence the outcome. This could open up our curriculum into new areas previously not explored by the OU (i.e. very hands-on activities in area such as physical sciences, sports, food, etc.) and also to help with student engagement and participation, making a more ‘virtual campus’ environment that can be achieved through a VLE or other simplistic online tool.

It’s an idea, it doesn’t need to cost a lot to do, it may be nonsense but we’ll see! – watch this space.