Category Archives: Gadgets

Three Dimensions of Augmented Reality — Background For Educators

Augmented Reality is an emerging technology that will have a profound impact on how we engage with the physical and virtual world. I’ve written this blog to give educators some more background on this trend. Here is a quick visual example of the capabilities that emerge from this technology. In this short video you will see virtual dominoes placed on a real object using a touch screen. Next the user “touches” the physical space and the virtual dominoes fall down.

Defining Augmented Reality

I define Augmented Reality or “AR” as a set of technologies that integrate the physical world with digital information to create a enhanced and unified experience via a seamless user interface. Consider apps that combine the smartphone viewfinder, GPS and camera to augment perception of the physical world. An example of this is Blackboard’s Explorer for iPhone app or Wikitude.

There is more to this than just hacking the smartphone viewfinder. To better explain this technology I’ve grouped it into three dimensions: X, Y and Z coordinates.

The X Axis: From 5 Senses to 5000

Consider the impact real time computer sensory data on top of our own biological senses. We can provide the user with enhanced perception, continuous biological monitoring, improved motion and location services. As mentioned above AR Apps like Wikitude and Blackboard Explorer leverage a smartphone, viewfinder and GPS to enhance the visual experience. The form factor of looking through the smart phone viewfinder is still a bit awkward. This fall (2013) expect to see devices like Google’s Project Glass provide an integrated “heads up display” for early adopters. The number of sensors being integrated into our phones and apps is enormous. My Nike’s talk to my phone while I run. I’ve got a Neurosky headset that can give me a real time EEG readout while I mediate. Apps are helping us sleep better by monitoring how restless we are in the bed. Near Field Communications chips and QR Codes are creating cheap infrastructure for hyperlinks between the real world as virtual.

The Y Axis: Motion Capture Based Interfaces

Gestures are already taking over from the mouse and keyboard on tablets and smartphones. Gestures captured via cameras on our computing devices using gadgets like XBOX Kinect and the Leap Motion Controller are the next wave. There are already really cool classroom activities and lessons built around Kinect. Leap Motion announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January that a number of manufactures will have their device built into high end laptops and gaming PC’s later this year. This technology is important because it simplifies the user experience and makes it easy for developers to merge physical and virtual space. As seen in the domino example above this synthesis creates interesting possibilities for simulation and interaction.

The Z Axis: 3D Projection Maps

Capturing motion and augmenting perception are increasingly combined with digital projectors to create 3D projection maps. Already this tech is appearing at concerts and stage performances. These technologies enable a digital projector to generate geometric shapes that are placed on real objects on a stage. Multiple projectors can be linked to create some awesome displays.

Look at this performance by Dandypunk called, “The Alchemy of Light” for a really stunning example of an interactive performance using 3D projection maps.

Educators should be excited about the new kinds of immersive learning simulations that will appear as this technology goes mainstream. I encourage more DIY/maker minded educators to look for ways to get students building projects that leverage these devices and systems. Most of these technologies have robust online communities and open source tools to help get you started.

Edufountain: More Thoughts on Technology, Culture and Language

Previously I blogged about Nootropic Medicine and other aspects of our evolving understanding of the mind and the resulting impacts of this technology on education. I’ve also written about Virtual Words, Mobility and other emerging technology. I noted in my posting on mobile technology that the cultural readiness factors in distributing a technology are just as important as the feature set. The need for a common language and cultural base to understand the technology is just as important as the concept itself.

This evolving cultural understanding of technology merits continued discussion. Recent linguistic research has uncovered a tribe in the Amazon that lacks key concepts related to numbers in their language. In fact their linguistic development seems to prevent a cultural understanding of basic concepts related to historical events, storytelling and mythology. This is an extreme example of limitations imposed by language. I recall from my own language studies when I took on an intense Arabic immersion program that there was a point where the thoughts in my brain switched over to Arabic. I dreamed in Arabic. The constraints on my vocabulary gave me the experience of a world of fewer colors, contrasts and shades. Conversation with educated peers including discussions over policy and politics moved to extremes simply out of the lack of the ability to express the nuances of our positions.

When we consider the rapid pace of technology change for users and consumers of technology it is really impressive just how quickly people have adapted. I believe that we have too often mistaken adoption and usage for understanding. The brilliance of Apple and Google in the last decade have been to understand that key difference and use it to reshape how we interact with technology.

Users may appear comfortable with web browsers, twitter, iPhones, YouTube and Facebook based on their usage. Careful examination of user behavior may determine that users are not fluent with the technology, but are instead working by rote memorization along a predetermined path. Users may appear to be quite sophisticated, but upon careful analysis actually have a limited understanding of the tools they use. Their knowledge gained by trial and error may not be actual knowledge but just well trained reflexive responses. Expose them to something unusual and these users will often fail to reach their goal. We can look at things like the variations within usage path, observing how users recover from being directed away from normal paths, and their adoption and usage of features to measure their real understanding of the tools and technologies. The impact of working to understand and measure users can be seen in a number of “2.0” technologies from the last few years. In understanding the true fluency of users application developers and technology innovators can create huge cultural shifts and build amazing new things.

Consider the cases of the Google Chrome Browser and the Apple iPod. Google creates sophisticated user profiles through adwords, search queries, gmail and their other services. This profile enables an understanding of how users consume web content and interact with one another. Using this data Google has been able to create a new browser called Chrome. It is my view that the success of Chrome comes directly from challenging the assumptions about how a browser works, and optimizing the experience of web browsing towards the user rather than attempting to teach them to use existing features better. Designers of early web browers made a number of assumptions about the utility of features and how the user would interact. These shaped the culture of the browser and how other future browsers would be laid out, until Google Chrome emerged. To highlight a few of the things one expects consider bookmarks, the URL bar and the homepage. Designers assumed that you would navigate primarily by means of entering in URLs (e.g., that you would want to maintain a list of those URLs (e.g. a bookmark), that you’d want to navigate multiple windows at the same time (tabs, browser windows), finally we assume that you would have a “home page” that you define and personalize which would launch into the world. Yet in studying users we find many of these assumptions are wrong. Many users open their browser and search. Firefox introduced the search box in the upper right corner, but Google was the one to really push it home by asking how often you really will enter a URL anyway. Bookmarks are not used, and the adoption of truely personalized home pages remains low. When we look beyond this to technologies like RSS and Feeds we find that while some users are benefiting adoption is still quite low. Chrome has addressed some of these issues by rethinking the model. Rather than fight the behavior of failing to understand the ability to make URLs and bookmarks; Google supports you. Second Google knows that outside of searches many people stick to a few common websites (a local newspaper, a favorite blog, perhaps some site featuring photos of cats with captions). When you open Google those sites are simply there. You don’t need to bookmark them or take any action. The result of understanding how users were using the capabilities and optimizing around them; has resulted in rapid adoption of their technology.

As a second example consider the original iPod. I think this illuminates a second pattern at work here which is the cultural and community aspects created through the deeper understanding of users. An early tech geek reviewer wrote, No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame. Yet the device triumphed over every MP3 player out there and ultimately rewrote the rules of music, pdas and smartphones. I think this resulted directly from focus on culture and user fluency and form over function. Either through luck of design and intent the combination of the iPod and the iTunes music player/store into something that simplified the user experience to a core set of use cases and also provided legitimacy to a previously underground practice. The filesharing culture of Napster and other sites was replaced with a legitimate outlet of iTunes and an easier experience than the pre-iPod MP3 players. In setting aside the gadget elements and focusing the user and cultural experiences of music Apple was able to mainstream a technology gadget and breakout of the commodity PC corner of consumer electronics.

Lest you think this is easy read this fascinating insiders history on Microsoft Bob and how an attempt to simplify the user experience and make things culturally relevant fell flat.

I invite commenters to cite other examples of optimizing products towards users even after the product appears to have become mainstream. If you were looking for other examples consider researching the Wii, or other recent breakout products. Based on my early usage of the Apple iPad I think Apple may have found yet another technology that wasn’t quite aligned to the fluency of the population as a whole with regard to the technology.

I have a lot of thoughts and examples on how this relates to the world of the VLE. Following from previous discussions though I invite readers to post their own meditations, or argue with my reasoning above. To layout a framework for discussion:
1) How do you profile your users (students and instructors) and what are you doing to improve their experience
2) A recent report from the US Department of Education indicated that 53% of instructors felt undertrained in the technology available in their classrooms. What can be done to lower the barriers in current technology and encourage more widespread adoption.
3) The VLE (Moodle, Sakai, Bb, etc) has evolved in a common ecosystem of early adopters and designers. In this model there are a number of features and capabilities considered “standard” (much like the browser homepage, bookmark and URL entry). Comparing these capabilities to usage patterns which ones do you consider most in need of reform / revision or simplification?

A 3-D Future without Funny Glasses

Watch this opening video for a Dutch TV program.

“Het Klokhuis” Opening titles from Johnny Kelly on Vimeo.

An article gives us some background. Much of the video was created using stop motion animation and objects that were printed from a 3-D printer.

Just as publishing was transformed in the last 20 years by the www, 3-D printing and scanning will transform the world on a level greater than the introduction of the PC. New software like ProFORMA and DAVID are laying the ground work to turn any digital camera into a 3-D scanner. New low cost 3-d printers are enabling the home user to print 3-d objects. There are also a large number of on demand print providers who will mass produce your model on demand allowing designers create items on demand.

The ability to print ever more complicated 3-d structures is now moving into food, movies, construction, medical, nanotechnology and specialized manufacturing. Scientists are currently working on a 3-d printer that can literally print out complex tissue structures, imagine some vat growing the approrpriate tissues and printing a new heart or kidney.
The ability to transform other manufacturing processes is equally profound. New low cost solar cells are being rolled off inkjet printers.
Even more dramatic these machines are now capable of making copies of themselves.

Thinking about Tablets

This is going to be the week of the iSlate or whatever Apple announces on Wednesday so here are my hopes for the future of eReaders, Tablets and related Gizmos. I had a tablet pc for many years and use the Kindle 1.0 and Kindle for the iPhone app. So I think I can speak from some sense of familiarity with these devices and how they work or don’t work today.

Here are my current frustrations with eReaders and ‘Pods in general:

1) I can’t easily cite, share, link or even share comments about what I’m reading or viewing. If all my music, books and media will be in the cloud and I can make bookmarks, annotations and highlights; shouldn’t I be able to share those things with my friends and social contacts?

2) Form factor and battery life. I live on my iPhone which means by mid day I’m always looking for a USB port or a power plug when I’m on the road. I hate having to always plug the thing in. Kindle is really great in that it can go for a long long time between recharges, but the compromise in terms of UI and page responsiveness is tough. Plus the fact that the Kindle only does one thing, read books means it gets left behind when I travel most times because I don’t want to put another gadget in my carry on. In the end I’ve gotten the Kindle for iPhone app and purchased a case with a built in battery.

3) The stylus as a disaster. Trying to decipher hand writing is the most useless thing anyone ever came up with. In fact why do we even have to write by hand anymore. Isn’t it better if we all use a keyboard. A responsive keyboard, or virtual keyboard that gives me predictive text, is a lot better than trying to decipher my chicken scratch. I really tried to make the tablet note taking thing work, but to be honest I gave up eventually and went back to the keyboard. The only thing I liked in my old tablet was the capability to lay the screen flat so that the laptop screen wasn’t hiding me from the other folks around the table like a dungeon master behind a screen.