Wearable personal sensing

The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Geospatial Science recently held a workshop on wearable personal sensing. First up was Evtim Peytchev of Nottingham Trent University who explained how GPS-enabled mobile phone technology is catalysing a new range of location-based services and applications. He outlined how this might be used, for example to enable road traffic data to be crowd-sourced as people move around.

There then followed a number of talks outlining different aspects of location and sensor-based work. Notable with respect to possible implications for education were Jan Feyereisl and Gobe Hobona. Jan outlined a project that was trying to develop a teaching tool for skiing. The system used in the research included a wearable sensor ski suit with video capture, various physiological sensors and location technologies. This then generates an accurate, replayable record of a ski run that can be used in teaching.

Gobe detailed his work on the JISC-funded SPACER project, which aims to enable mobile phones with built-in positioning technologies to query catalogue services conforming to Open Geospatial Consortium(OGC) standards to researchers during fieldtrips.

The implications and possible uses of GPS on mobile phones is only just beginning to be explored. If you would like to learn more about the educational implications of all this, then have a look at our 2005 TechWatch report Future Location-based Experiences and of course there is our forthcoming report on the geo-web and geo-spatial data mash-ups.

A roadmap for low carbon computing

Climate change minister Ed Miliband likens the challenge facing us over climate change to the Apollo mission which landed a man on the moon. And it’s not just the technology that we need to get right – a huge collective, society-wide endeavour is required. We are, as they say, all in this together, so what role will education have to play? A new report from JISC TechWatch, Low carbon computing: a view to 2050 and beyond, attempts to answer that question, outlining a technology roadmap for moving to a more energy efficient information systems infrastructure.

Driven by the UK’s Climate Change Act and the proposed carbon accounting system the education sector faces stiff energy challenges. Whilst business workplaces in general will be expected to provide an overall reduction of about 13%, the public sector is expected to reduce by 30% of 1999/2000 levels by 2020. The TechWatch report explains that it is likely that data-intensive sectors such as tertiary education will probably find themselves facing even harsher targets and argues that the impetus will fall not only on reducing demand but also on generating supply. In summary, the report covers:

  • best practice measures and standards for metrics (section 3)
  • short term ‘quick fixes’ based on simple staff actions and/or low cost investment (section 4)
  • longer term solutions that either represent a more costly investment, or are based on more experimental technologies (section 4)
  • discussion of the factors that are likely to affect how these technologies develop in the future
  • a first attempt at a Low Carbon ICT Roadmap, which puts these issues into a framework that also takes into account what is currently known about the targets associated with the Climate Change Act (section 6)
  • a discussion of the factors and technologies that are likely to feature in the long-term plans and decisions that senior managers in tertiary education will need to make (section 5).

3D and OLED Displays

Major changes are afoot in the world of TVs and computer displays and we are likely to see big developments next year.  First off will be the introduction of Organic Light Emitting Diode (OLED) devices. These displays have been used in smaller devices such as digital cameras for a while now, but manufacturers have recently started demonstrating OLED-based computer monitors and TVs. Samsung, for example, recently announced it will ship a laptop with an OLED screen by the end of next year. And Sony and LG already have OLED TV products, albeit at a high price.

OLED screens can be manufactured to be very thin (as little as 1mm deep) and their proponents claim greater brightness and superior picture qualities. But perhaps their most important contribution concerns energy use. As JISC TechWatch will be detailing in our forthcoming report on Low Carbon ICT, OLEDs are potentially more energy efficient than conventional LCD-based displays as they do not require a form of back-lighting (recent article claimed they were 30% more efficient).

3D TV is the other big development coming next year. Back in August 2005 JISC Techwatch published a report on advanced displays and this included some discussion of the emerging field of 3D display technologies. Although the report outlined the work that was taking place on prototypes and a number of specialised, high-end visualisation products there were few or no computer monitor or TV products. Back then, various manufacturers and analysts told us that 3D was definitely on its way and indeed, one of them argued that it would be normal within ten years. It seems he wasn’t too far off, as 2010 is gearing up to be the year in which 3D enters the mainstream.

There has been a lot of press coverage of 3D film recently, with the launch of James Cameron’s Avatar, but markedly less so about the forthcoming launch of 3D domestic TV. However, the big manufacturers are lining up products for launch next year. Sony’s CEO told the IFA conference last month that “the 3D train is on the track” and the New York Times reported that the company intends to produce TVs and a 3D Vaio laptop next year.  Panasonic are also in the running, showing off a prototype 50-inch Viera plasma 3D set at a trade show a couple of weeks ago. Samsung are also reported to have a prototype system.

So far there’s a big catch (apart from the likely, top-of-the-range price tag), all these devices require the user to wear special glasses which synchronise the view each eye receives in order to create the 3-D effect. In fact, the killer tech for 3D – lenticular 3D, a system in which thousands of tiny lenses built into the screen direct the pictures to the eyes without the need for glasses – is still a way off. We saw a working demonstration of this kind of kit at CeBit back in 2006 and it was pretty impressive.

So, it seems that just as we complete the switch over from CRT to LCD a whole slew of new display technologies will be upon us, with more set to come. Institutions thinking about their refresh cycle for display technologies need to take a long-term perspective or risk being caught out by the speed with which this technology is set to change.


There is a great deal of interest in the idea of software as a service at the moment. JISC has been leading the way in the education sector with its e-Framework and Enterprise Architecture work, some of which has been published through TechWatch, and for a general introduction, see UKOLN’s materials prepared for the CETIS 2008 conference, available at the session’s webpage.

More recently comes an announcement from the EU Commission about its S-Cube Network of Excellence. S-Cube aims to create a vibrant, pan-European research community to establish links with industry and act as an incubator for the next wave of service technologies. The network is currently recruiting for members and links to further details are on the S-Cube website. There is a closing date for applications of 25th September.

Semantic Web

Four years ago TechWatch published a report on Semantic Web technologies written by Brian Matthews, from the UK office of the W3C. He argued that semantic technologies have great potential in education, and new work published by JISC fleshes out some of the bones of this earlier report.

Semantic Technologies for Teaching and Learning is essentially a ‘state of play’ report that looks at semantic technologies and tools and outlines how they could be of use to education. It also includes a very useful survey of different tools and details 36 of relevance to HE.

The report argues that activities to encourage exposure of data by HE/FE in semantic formats, such as RDF, will pave the way for new applications that will help with teaching and learning. Finally, it outlines a roadmap for adopting semantic technologies, involving a transition from what it terms ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ semantics and envisages pedagogically aware applications within four to five years. Readers interested in further discussion of semantics in education might also be interested in The Semantic Web in Education, an article recently published in the EduCause Quarterly.

100G Ethernet and beyond: preparing for the exabyte Internet

TechWatch has just published a report on the future of Ethernet, 100G Ethernet and beyond, which explains the background and technical development to the next upgrade of the thirty-year-old family of networking standards, which will be formalised in 2010.

The key thing is that, traditionally, Ethernet has developed in incremental steps of ten. This means that the next step should be from 10G (the current standard) to 100G and indeed, JANET recently undertook a trial of some of the technology that will be used in 100G networking. However, there has been a lack of consensus over whether to move to 100G or a less ambitious target of 40G. The report reviews these debates and explains why the next IEEE standard will be for both 40G and 100G.

As far as institutions are concerned, larger universities and major research centres are likely to be the first to face these questions and there is a lot of money at stake: a typical 224-port switch with 10G on every port is of the order of £250,000 (and of course they’re not bought singly). Newer equipment with 40G or 100G is likely to be more and early adopters often pay over the odds for being at the cutting edge. Taken together with the buying cycles of academia, the message is that network managers have to look ahead to what the demands on the network are likely to be over the next three to five years and plan for the likely levels of traffic in the distribution and core network equipment, allowing for depreciation, in accounting terms, and suitable levels of return on investment.

The TechWatch report explains why there does not appear to be a consensus for a single target and looks at the implications that may have for network managers in HE, particularly in light of JANET’s recent announcement of trials into 100G transmission. It also looks ahead to the development of terabit Ethernet and predicts a period of ‘chaotic’ development before the standards bodies catch up with the new technologies that will inevitably emerge to fill the gap between 100G and 1T Ethernet (the next increment of ten). All this will happen in the context of re-engineering the basic architecture of the Internet and the report argues that layers 1 and 2 of the Internet, which Ethernet handles, will need to be ‘re-virtualised’ to take account of this.

RFID and the Right to Silence

The European Commission has issued an action plan concerning the use, and possible abuse, of RFID, smart chips and other aspects of what is becoming known as the Internet of Things.

The report, “Internet of Things – an action plan for Europe”, proposes 14 action points, including work on the policy governance of RFID, continuous monitoring of the privacy and data security issues arising, action over the recycling of the potentially vast number of smart chips and cards, and pan-European standards work.

Most interestingly, the EU will launch a debate over what it terms the ‘Right to Silence of the Chips’ – empowering individuals to be able to disconnected from the emerging networked infrastructure at any time.

Although this may seem of tangential interest to higher education, university libraries are among the early adopters of this new technology. There is also likely to be considerable uptake of smart card-related technologies for the identification of staff and students and for building security.

Indeed, JISC TechWatch published a report on RFID in May 2006 which discussed these emerging developments and put them into an education context. The TechWatch report discussed privacy concerns in depth, pointing out that as individuals move around in a society of widespread tagging the products they buy, wear and consume, as well as the places they visit, will be capable of being identified and recorded by a widespread network of readers. Such information could provide a great deal of intelligence on a person, their habits, likes and dislikes and movements.

TechWatch concluded that the benefits of these technologies would only be properly realised if they can be trusted. The EU report backs this view and argues for a widespread debate over the issues and for the ultimate development of an Internet of Things for people rather than for technology’s own sake.

Open office document formats

In August 2007, TechWatch published a report on XML-based office document standards and there are a couple of reasons why this has come to the fore this last week.

First of all, at JISC’s strategy meeting this week there was much talk of the need to support institutions dealing with antiquated administration systems that are unable to provide, for example, the kind of business intelligence that managers need. One of the things the TechWatch report did was to acknowledge that institutions were going to need to update their systems. It also provided a way for thinking about the issues that put procurement questions into a bigger picture of soon-to-be mandatory policy requirements around the need to provide information without creating vendor lock-in.

Secondly, the IEEE Internet Computing magazine has recently published an article on ODF (OpenDocument Format: The standard for Office Documents) which looks at some of the new work being undertaken by the OASIS ODF Technical Committee. To understand why this is important you really need to have read the TechWatch report first, but we think what’s interesting is the ODF Futures section. This talks about: improved support for the use of mathematical and scientific formulas in applications that make use of ODF; facilities to help applications make use of collaborative editing and semantic tagging; enhancements for accessibility. The move towards Semantic Web-type applications is particularly interesting. Rob Weir, the article’s author, argues that such tools will “let authors capture… more of what they’re thinking”.

Heroes, warriors and revolutionaries: bloodshed in the library of the future?

This afternoon I attended JISC’s Libraries of the Future conference in Oxford. I was in the Second Life version of the conference and I think I probably got the better part of the debate. Whilst the Real Life talks were OK, there wasn’t really that much I hadn’t heard before, albeit dressed up with different examples. The other Second Lifers seemed to agree and their responses to the speakers were probably more deeply interesting (in a ‘flashes of inspiration’ kind of way) than the general, bobbing along kind of interest from the floor in Real Life (RL).

One Second Lifer (SLer) called Lulu Quinnell, who seemed to be what I would call a librarian, calls herself an Information Warrior and has this on her business card. This was particularly interesting to me because I’ve just written an article for JISC’s Libraries of the Future campaign called Holding out for a Hero: technology, the future, and the renaissance of the university librarian, which was based on insights I’ve garnered from working on various TechWatch reports over the last few years. I’m certainly not pretending to have coined a term, or even a concept, but I think it’s interesting that this type of image is starting to be associated with a ‘new’ breed of librarian – another SLer, JJ Drinkwater used the term ‘Information Hero’, and Chris Batt, one of the RL speakers, used the term ‘Knowledge Warriors’.

My personal preference, based on what I’ve seen from the TechWatch perspective, is for more of an advocacy role, hence the hero (although, if you’ve read the ‘Holding out for a Hero’ piece you’ll know that I’m not averse to a bit of bloodshed where necessary). However, whilst I was listening to the conference I was wondering how ordinary, workaday librarians feel about their profession being put under a microscope like this. Do they feel a bit miffed by all these people telling them how they should do their job? Owain Blessed (another librarian SLer) said that his staff wanted more time to engage with developments in the profession and Vienna James (SL) put forward the idea of LIS graduate studies courses including courses on innovation, so it does seem like there is a real interest in engaging with both the issues and the technology. So maybe it’s just the rest of us that are antsy because perhaps we don’t feel we can see anything emerging.

In the ‘Holding out for a Hero’ piece I make the point that one of the big tasks is to make people realise that library stuff is sexy. The starting point for this has to be a question for librarians, namely: what inspires you about your job? What is it about what you do that gets you about of bed in the morning? That’s the essence of what other people will find interesting and is at the heart of what librarians, at any point in time, have to offer.