Way ahead of the game

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Today's cutting edge offers insights into what we can expect to see two decades from now, writes Leon Cych

What will education look like in 20 years' time? Every so often something appears that looks way out. Often, educators fail to spot it at first, but then suddenly it's mainstream. Think of whiteboards 10 years ago. And the rise of wi-fi (wireless) networks in the past two years. Or the use of web addresses (URLs).

In all this technological growth, where you are on the planet is a crucial factor. Hence the rise of the location-aware device. This is usually a handheld computer enabled with a GPS - global positioning system. These computers use satellites to track your exact position on the earth's surface. The GPS communicates with up to three satellites which can pinpoint your whereabouts to within 20 metres, or often less. This allows you to track your movements in real time and interact with others who are GPS-enabled. This technology can be found in cars, boats and planes as a navigation aid, and soon it will be in almost every handheld device, including mobile phones, allowing you to find your way around cities.

So, how are these advances being used in education?

Martin Owen, director of learning at Nesta Futurelab, says: "We are exploring small, playful intelligent devices based on technologies that already exist in mobile phones - high-definition colour screens, sound input and output, ability to interact with similar devices. This might be in the form of, say, an alphabet block that knows its phonemes and words."

These ideas have been around for some time but only now can technology deliver. The Archigram exhibition at London's Design Museum shows that architects of 40 years ago imagined mobile devices much like today's mobile phones but could only draw them. Some also imagined cities that could move about by themselves.

Lets take a trip to a field in Bristol, where the Savannah project offers an adventure game in which a virtual space (an African savannah) is mapped on to a Bristol playing field. Children move around with mobile computers attached to GPS receivers. As they pretend to be a pride of lions, they encounter hotspots where they can smell, hear and see various objects on their screens. Their computers tell them where they are and what is happening in real time, so they can communicate with each other in a bid to catch their prey. Their handheld devices give them feedback about where they are, and their progress can be monitored on a whiteboard by other "lions" back at the den.

Savannah gives an insight into the future of learning. It shows what pupils could be doing 10 years from now when this technology is rolled out.

Savannah uses rich media and elements of computer games in a "real life'"

setting where the participants navigate an outside space and, with personal digital assistants, can see, hear and smell the savannah.

The Savannah project originated in a three-way discussion between Nesta Futurelab, the BBC's Natural History Unit and colleagues at Hewlett-Packard working on the Mobile Bristol initiative. The groups had a shared interest in creating engaging experiences, in the potential of new wireless GPS technologies and the BBC's natural history footage.

Owen says: "Ambient technology will have a profound effect on how we see space and time. Being able to predict the time of the next bus may change our travelling behaviour in ways we find it hard to predict. Maybe new sets of manners will arise when you divide time differently - because you have more information to base decisions on how you manage time. For example, take a photograph that shows where you are and mail it to your friend who has a project to design some street furniture. The camera knows where and when the photo was taken. This 'metadata' goes into the database, which your village shares, making the picture useful for comparative studies for centuries to come."

Introduce gaming into this place-time equation and exciting things begin to happen. In New York recently, people played Pac-Manhattan, a large-scale game that used the city's grid to recreate the 1980s video game Pac-Man.

This analogue version is being developed on New York University's Interactive Telecommunications graduate programme. It explores what happens when games are placed in the "real world" of the city. Using cell-phone contact, wi-fi internet connections and customised software designed by the Pac-Manhattan team, Pac-Man and the ghosts were tracked from a central location and their progress broadcast worldwide on the internet.

In the UK Uncle Roy All Around You is a game currently being played by adults. It is one of Professor Steve Benford's latest experiments at the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Nottingham - in collaboration with the art group Blast Theory, the media company BT Exact and the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

Street players use handheld computers to search for Uncle Roy. They use the map and incoming messages to move through the streets to find a secret destination. Using the latest wireless technology, Uncle Roy All Around you overlays a virtual city on to the real city and allows communication and co-operation between the two.

Professor Clair O'Malley in the psychology department at Nottingham University is deeply involved with research projects such as Shape (situating hybrid assemblies in public environments). Shape is a European project to evaluate mixed-reality installations for collaborative learning in public contexts such as museums and galleries. It mixes virtual environments with real ones. For example, you can sift through virtual sand using a torch to find hidden objects with information about artefacts hidden on an historical site.

In a few cases, schools and education action zones are already making use of these new technologies. At King's Cross EAZ, for example, pupils from five schools made cars powered by mousetraps as part of a NASA science project. The challenge was for the London schools and Coopers Elementary Magnet School for Technology, in Hampton, Virginia, to make cars powered entirely by mousetraps. Designs were compared, stability evaluated and speed measured. Of course, the outcomes could be shared by everyone involved thanks to an international videoconference, now archived on the internet.

These technologies seem largely fanciful today, but it's odds-on that they will be part of everyday life in the near future.

And what of the next decade or two? Well, imagine being able to travel anywhere in the world with a portable computer that gives you detailed information about more or less everything around you. Imagine the web in 3D, in real time and space, available on a device the size of a credit card. Indeed, manufacturers are already on the trail of such advances.

These, too, are only a matter of time - and space, of course.


* PacMan - Singapore Reality Lab http:mixedreality.nus.edu.sgresearch-HP-infor.htm

* PacManhattan www.pacmanhattan.com


* Design Museumwww.designmuseum.org

* Uncle Roy All Around You www.blasttheory.co.ukroyimage1.html


* Mobile Learning www.mobilearn.org

* Shape Project www.shape-dc.org

* SavannahNesta Futurelab www.nestafuturelab.orgshowcasesavanahSavannah.pdf

* Transatlantic car race NASA archive http:ali.apple.comali_sitesaliexhibits1001340

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