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Barking up the right tree

For the Science Museum to have opened a series of new education galleries without including some hands-on information technology would have been unthinkable. The challenge was to provide something that would appeal to a wide age and ability range and would be robust enough to withstand daily pounding from thousands of excited youngsters.

The museum has come up with The Network, financed by Mercury Communications. The system runs on seven terminals - six in the museum and one at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford.

Each terminal consists of a screen set into a coloured surround, with a telephone handset below and the lens of a video camera above. There is no keyboard. Out of sight in each station is an Apple Power PC running a range of software including Apple's new Quick Time Video Conferencing. The screens are at child-height and are accessible to wheelchair users.

Digit, a jolly dog character, invites the child to start a game by touching the screen and moving through a choice of doors. Each game consists of trying to complete a jigsaw picture by adding the missing piece. These pieces are found on a database made up of on-screen cards containing facts about various objects, including where they are in the museum. For example, to fill the gap in one country scene, the child looks through the database at various rural tools and implements. Digit the dog, meanwhile, makes animated appearances with advice and suggestions and Digit's words are repeated as text for the benefit of children with hearing difficulty.

This is straightforward. The added ingredient is video-conferencing via the camera and telephone to enable the child to talk to others in the London or Bradford museums who are playing the game, seek advice or exchange ideas. It is this feature, explains Roger Bridgman, the system's designer, which convinces the young visitor that he or she really is working on a network because they can see and talk to someone who came on the same school trip.

Museum staff decided that each terminal should be identified by a different colour and a name associated with that colour. So the green terminal is called Treetop and the yellow one is Topaz. The system can take another ten terminals and there is the possibility of a "mobile" terminal that could be placed anywhere else in the world.

Grabbing the attention of today's computer-literate children is a challenge but the Science Museum seems to have managed it. The problem will probably be that faced by teachers trying to move their pupils to the next exhibit.

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