Archive for July, 2008

Third Life?: Open Source Virtual Worlds

Educators exploring online virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL) have often commented on the impact of commercialisation on virtual environments. In the case of SL, that impact can be overwhelming, where real estate entrepreneurs are often racing to acquire as much of the (virtual) landscape as possible, with a view to on-selling it to innocent new-comers and thereby turning a profit.  An apparently endless supply of SL designers seem to have decided that their future is in designing virtual objects for sale, and the SL management is happy to support this as it fits their model of what virtual reality should be; a mirror of the real world as a market economy.

Any commercial virtual environment, no matter how enlightened it’s philosophy, will always operate according to the will of it’s proprietors.  It’s not that different from how newspapers are run, where the political , ethical and commercial persuasions of the proprietor will always over-ride any radical ideas presented by individual journalists.  Fortunately, the open source programming community can provide alternatives to commercially prescriptive VR worlds such as SL.  A recent example is the Open Simulator Project, currently in alpha development, which has produced a “virtual worlds server” written in C#. The server hosts an SL-like environment that can be extended by users to “produce more specialized 3D interactive applications”.

The Croquet Consortium is  an  alliance of open source software developers whose Software Developer’s Kit allows developers “to create and deploy deeply collaborative multi-user online vitual world applications on and across multiple operating systems and devices”. Cobalt is one product of the open Croquet effort that aims to create a “metaverse browser and toolkit” aimed specifically at developers working in research and education.

Another approach currently in development is  the idea of connecting virtual worlds. The realXtend organisation produces “a free open source virtual world platform”  that allows users  to create and host virtual worlds and avatars, or move between worlds with a common avatar.

More soon…

Image Based Rendering in Education

A computer’s ability to process large amounts of graphic data has seen the development of some exciting new fields over the last fifteen years or so.  Light field photography, sometimes referred to as “synthetic aperture” photography, is one area that would not have been possible without the availability of computing power capable of manipulating large graphic data files in a reasonable amount of time. Most contemporary laptops with a graphics card included are more than up to the task, but prior to 1990 this ability was generally confined to specialist graphics labs such as scientific visualisation sites or, more recently, commercial operations such as Adobe’s Advanced Technology Labs (ATL).

The last ten years has seen the gradual convergence of digital photography with  computer graphics imagery (CGI) applications, driven largely by commercial CGI production companies such as Pixar (producers of the animated features Toy Stories 1and 2) and Animal Logic (Happy Feet), online games producers and visualisation labs.

NASA recently released a series of photographs of its latest Mars  project, the Phoenix Mars Lander, which included something they call a “Flyover Animation“.  This animation was compiled from the data captured by the Lander’s  two-lens Surface Stereo Imager camera, then rendered as a Quicktime movie. The flyover appears to show the Lander in a tracking shot as it moves slowly to the right across the landing site.  In fact, the movie exploits a graphics approach closely aligned with Light Field photography known as Image Based Rendering (IBR). where a series of 2D images are combined into a 3D graphic object which can then generate “novel views” through interpolation of the data.  In 1999 two researchers at Stanford University used a similar technique to produce a light field photographic series of “Night” – a statue created for the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo by Michelangelo, around 1534.

Both Light Field Photography and IBR approaches are examples of plenoptic modelling, a term originally coined by Edward Adelson and John Wang in a 1992 paper titled “Single Lens Stereo with a Plenoptic Camera“. The word plenoptic is derived from the Latin word root for “complete” or “full”, combined with the Greek word root for “view” or “sight” – which makes the term rather self-evident.  In 2005, Stanford University researchers and others implemented Adelson and Yang’s proposed plenoptic camera (which had never progressed beyond a basic  non-portable prototype)  as  a hand-held plenoptic camera.

So what does all this have to do with educational technology?  Well, when you think about it, educators are doing a lot of thinking about engagement recently. Courses delivered online compete with online games and virtual environments that may have little or suspect educational value.  One of the problems with online education is that it’s difficult to strike a good balance between text-based and image-based resources.  Too much text read off a relatively low-res screen becomes tiring (and even headache-inducing) after a short time, while graphics-rich pages may lack the depth necessary for deep research.  A partial solution would be to somehow enhance the information carried in the visual elements of a page.  If a picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, then a plenoptic picture has got to be worth considerably more.

Making web-based information more engaging has as much to do with presentation as it does with the content itself. The ability of blogs like the one you’re currently reading to aggregate dynamic information such as world news through RSS feeds has little engagement value if the presentation consists largely of pages of text with the occasional token graphic thrown in.  One group has recently sought to address this problem by developing an application that builds simulated broadsheet newspaper pages from an RSS feed.  The system is able to create an adaptive, simulated hard-copy version of The New York Times, for example, drawing “inspiration from newspaper design” for the broadsheet’s general layout and authentic-looking masthead.

Why does this matter? Well if your learning topic was to do with ethical journalism  you could learn a lot by the way newspaper editors choose to present disparate news items to their readers – in terms of their layout,  prominence or placement on the page, or even which page they ended up on. Comparing the relative “newsworthiness” of items such as celebrity marriages and large-scale human disasters (e.g. tsunamis) in newspapers presented as authentically as possible can tell you a lot about what the proprietors think, or what they want you to think.  It all comes down to how we process information.  Learners in the 21st century have so much more information coming at them than their forbears that they need new strategies for arranging and filtering it, to  avoid an overload situation, if nothing else. More on this topic soon…

iPhones in Education: M-learning for the masses?

Web App Anatomy OK, recently some colleagues have questioned my lack of commentary on iPhones so far, so I thought it was time to make the effort to link this late-breaking tech to education in some way. Web Apps are applications specifically designed for the iPhone. They cover a wide variety of topics.Here’s a list of Web Apps that can be downloaded to an iPhone with possible educational value:

At a guess, there are currently hundreds or thousands of would-be iPhone WebApp developers burning the midnight oil (and probably adding to global warming)  to provide iPhone users with ways of pushing the envelope that most of us haven’t even thought of yet.  Watch this space …

(Anatomy image above sourced from here)

Barcode Makeover: The QR Code in Oz

QR Code Sample A print-based code technology that has already been in use for several years in Japan is about to debut in Australia.  The QR (quick response) code operates in the same way as the more familiar bar code; it contains information that can be scanned by an appropriate reader.  The difference is that since it’s actually a 2D  matrix, it can contain far more information (up to 4,296 alphanumeric characters), and the scanning device is any 3G camera phone with appropriate QR software installed. A smaller version, Micro QRCode, holds up to 35 characters.

QR codes are now mainstream in Japan, and have been for a few years.  Originally developed in 1994 by Denso-Wave, a company created to support the tracking of car part components  manufactured by its parent company, QR codes gained a foothold in print media in Japan at the end of the last century, and international recognition with the publication of an ISO standard in 2001.  Since then, QR codes have become ubiquitous in Japanese print media, outdoor advertising, and even on the occasional T-shirt. Sushi bars use them to track plates of sushi consumed by their customers. They appear in Japanese bus shelters posters, linking travelers to a site that provides up-to-date information on bus arrival and departure times.

A large installed base of 3G camera phones with software capable of reading captured QR codes as images was the final piece of the technology jigsaw required to bring QR technology to the masses.  A number of open source or corporate groups produce free decoding/encoding software for QR codes, such as Taiwanese company Quickmark, which has decoder software for a huge range of camera phones. The image at the left is the QR Code for Macquarie University’s Learning and Teaching Centre (LTC), generated QR Code LTCby the site’s DIY QR Code page. Generated code images can be downloaded in a range of formats, including PNG, SVG, GIF, and JPG.

Decoding the image will produce the following URL:  A web-capable phone could immediately connect the user to the website, providing further in-depth information on the LTC.

Telstra has now seen the light is is about to unleash QR technology on Australians in the form of QR-capable mobile phones with the scanning software pre-installed. Their QR intro site is here.  Or see a Sydney Morning Herald Technology article on QR here.

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