Tag Archive: MIT

Tablets have largely eclipsed the netbook market and some (myself included) have argued that this format of device will disrupt education profoundly.  In saying this, I in no way am suggesting that radically new technologies will not emerge.  In fact, they already have – even if they are not commercially available yet.

For example, in 2009, MIT Grad Student Pranav Mistry gave  TED presentation in which he showed his sixth-sense technology with which a special necklace held a camera and a projector to facilitate augmented reality explorations of really neat things.  For example, if you picked up a book and looked at the cover, information about that book, including reviews, would appear projected on the book itself.  His video is a whirlwind tour of amazingly cool stuff that seemed like science fiction at the time – only he made it work in the laboratory in preparation for becoming products.

Fast forward a year or so and the focus shifts to Google.  While the public face of Google Labs has been closed down, Google is continuing to explore cutting edge ideas.  One shot over the bow was a free app called Google Goggles that lets you use your smartphone to do many of the things dome by Panav Mistry’s system.  Take a photo of a book cover, for example, and it not only recognizes the book, but provides links to reviews and even a link to Amazon in case you want to get your own copy.  Stand in front of a landmark building, take a picture, and get links to information about the building.  Take a snapshot of a Sudoku puzzle, and it recognizes it as a puzzle and asks if you would like the solution.

Last year buzz started to build around the idea that the Google Goggles software was going to get its own dedicated hardware – a pair of glasses with a built-in heads-up display.  For example, a recent article in the New York Times blog describes some of the possible features such a device would have.  This would be a truly hand’s free device using head gestures to send commands to the system.  While this format probably tops out on the nerd scale – which is probably why I think it is cool – it may in fact represent the new face of computing.

Only it isn’t new.

In July, 1945, President Roosevelt’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush, wrote an article for the Atlantic in which he described his vision for the future.  One of his ideas was the following:

“Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut. It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice. The lens is of universal focus, down to any distance accommodated by the unaided eye, simply because it is of short focal length. There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposures, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with two spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.”

Of course he was thinking in terms of the photography of the time  which was film-based.  He was aware of photocells and even speculated about their use in photographic elements.  Instead of Bush’s “walnut” Google is opting (it seems) to use glasses – something well accepted in our society.

No matter how it all shapes up, it seems the time is ripe for wearable computing.  And it would be foolish to think Google is alone.  Apple’s iPod nano comes with wrist straps, using arms instead of noses as the support for wearable technology.

Of course these technologies are not going to replace computers any more than tablets have – they will be additional tools that open new opportunities for creativity and productivity – and may even have a place in education.

Only time will tell.


With the explosive growth of tablet sales around the world, the debate has started regarding access to these devices by young children – from toddlers on up.  Watching the ease with which my four-year-old granddaughter uses both the Android and iPad tablets, this is an interesting question – one that becomes more interesting as we see price points drop to the point where many parents will be getting powerful (and inexpensive) tablets for their kids this holiday season.  Name brand seven-inch tablets have already broken the $200 price barrier, and the prices will continue to drop for lower-end devices.

Make no mistake, though, these cheap tablets are powerful devices – not just for web searching, but as platforms for everything from painting programs to puzzles and (soon) programming languages for kids like MIT’s Scratch.

Arguing about whether kids should have access to these new devices reminds me of the arguments against children watching television that we (or more likely, our parents) followed during the rapid rise of that medium.  Yet the revolution today is far greater in scope than television.  Looking at just SmartPhones, for example, more than 50% of all new phones sold are Android-based devices.  With a subscriber base of 5.3 billion cell phone accounts in the world, the impact of this technology overwhelms that of televisions which are in only 1.6 billion homes (according to the data I’ve been able to find.)

So, if the tablet argument is like the discussions in the past, it is because we recognize how pervasive this new technology has become.  Today’s kids increasingly expect to be able to move things on a screen by swiping their finger across it.  They seem to be coming prewired for the game.

To the issue of suitability, I would make the following argument.  It is not access to the devices that we should be caring about – that will happen anyway.  Our focus should be on the things children do with these tools.  As I’ve said for decades, the hammer used to create Michelangelo’s Pieta is not that different from the one used by the vandal who tried to destroy it.  The tool’s use is the issue – not the tool itself.

One can argue that, unlike television, tablet use is interactive and, therefore, more engaging.  But that begs the question; engagement toward what end?

On this topic, MIT’s Seymour Papert has had plenty to say over the years.  F0r decades, Professor Papert has argued that the real power of computers (and by implication, today’s tablets) becomes unleashed when children use them to build programs of their own design.  He argued that Logo (a language whose development he fostered, and a precursor to Scratch) had “no floor, and no ceiling,” meaning that the novice user could work with the language and continue using it over the years as his/her sophistication increased.  In this sense, Logo was like a natural language in which users increase their sophistication over time.  He even displayed a version of Logo for pre-literate children, reinforcing the idea that age was not a factor.

My recommendation is that we all pay close attention to the goings-on at MIT (http://mitmobilelearning.org/) whose new lab will be home to some amazing projects, many of which will appeal to children of all ages.