Final Thoughts & Learnings

Yes! We finally completed and submitted the video + the document explaining the core of our project – What, Why & How. This also means that this would be the last entry for my FMP blog and I would like to summarise the project and list out the major learnings from my project.

After all the lectures of the course, I have been very fortunate enough to implement the core parts from almost all the units that  I had learnt and really understand all the concepts from a practical point of view. The major learnings include:

- Context & Theory of Interactive Media: The Tweeting Piano to me means something very different as a learning experience. When I joined this course, my understanding of “Interactive Media” was basically our iPads and iPhones and PCs. With this project and I could very easily relate to the first lectures from Sandra and relearn the basics of interactivity and the different types of interaction that we have tried to achieve with this seemingly new media based on Manovich’s principles. The use of Twitter laso created a huge debate within the team and the tutors too see how how interactive the medium is. And finally, by deconstructing the everyday QWERTY keyboard that we use for mapping it in onto the piano keys, we were able to understand how much we are influenced by the devices that we use and realise that it is quite hard for us to move away from the QWERTY format. Our devices have shaped us in such a way that when we close our eyes and try to type our name, our brain automatically draws a mental image of the QWERTY keyboard! This was challenging for us as we were trying a create a totally new keyboard layout which had to be usable and musical as well!

- User Experience & Usability - We literally created a brand new interface which was never before existed in history which is a true interactive experience with a piano. For this we also had to ensure it is usable for anyone coming and using it. We had to respect all age groups and our user group had to be as broad as possible. We had created a two row keyboard layout  and all the typing and actions take place with the inputs coming from this. We spent a long time researching and ensuring the keys are laid out as easy as possible for a QWERTY keyboard based population and at the same time ensured that the key combinations when typing sound as musical as possible with the Pentatonics layout.

- Physical Computing: As the Technical Lead this was my main area where I had my chance to really explore Physical Computing and I really explored as much as I could in one month. I had the opportunity to really experiment with Arduino and Processing and learn up a lot of APIs which include recording, twitter4J and FTP Uploads. As this Technical Lead I am truly proud of what I was able to achieve, and this is all thanks to my tutors who have been really supportive throughout the entire project and my team members being very patient and understanding with me as I spent days trying to clear our different road blocks.

- Sustainability - We created an Interactive Medium from a 90 yearly abandonded piano which could have ended up in the dump and we were able to convert it into a fully digital machine! Even though this was not the main intention (we just wanted a piano!), this was a lucky coincidence that had happened, but I feel happy that we could give him a new life and soul, instead of dying a slow death. We ensured that we did not damage the piano in anyway and we made sure that we did not have to drill a single hole in this magnificent musical instrument.

It would be an understatement to  just say that this was an exciting, challenging and complicated project. As I was in charge of the Technical Development, the task set out for me was enormous and despite my engineering background, I found each step getting more complicated. Everyday I was thrown with new roadblocks which were totally unexpected but thanks to exceptionally talented and helpful tutors, I was able to get through all of them. They have been exceptionally patient with our team and have done their best to ensure that we push the boundaries as much as possible and question ourselves in every step we took. We had a lot of debates and arguments over the decisions we took and I have learnt a lot from each member of my team. This has indeed been one hell of an experience and I am truly proud of being a part of it!

 

The Tweeting Piano

The Tweeting Piano



Twitter Account created!

Until today, I was using my own Twitter account as a test pad for sending the tweets from the piano. We delayed the creation of the twitter account as we found it difficult to agree on a name for it. We went through loads, trying out catchy words, different combinations of the terms and some of them included:

Tapino (Tweeting Arduino Piano), Tapiano,Typino (Tweeting / Typing Piano), Keytweet, Songbird, Tiano, Tweeno, Tingo The Tweeting Piano, Tapino, Senta Piano (Sensors Electronics Notes Twitter Arduino), Tingle, Twinkle, Tweek, Tenio, Tino, Tweetio, Twipio, Twino, Twiano, Tweetpi

After going through all of them, we decided to call it simply #TweetingPiano. Its simple and does what it says!

www.twitter.com/tweetingpiano

 



Video editing done

After quite a struggle with Final Cut Pro X and going through footage that was taken over the last one month from different cameras, the video is nearly done! We decided to give a soul to the piano through the video and tell a story of how we interacted with the piano over the last one month and give it a new life. I still feel the second half will need a bit more of work on it.

 



Recording upload quality issue solved!

After speaking to Olly, we decided to not use the Processing sketch to upload the .wav files and use Automator that comes bundles with Mac OS to watch the folder. If any new file is added to the folder where the recordings are added, then the files are automatically uploaded to the server! Thats a quick fix!



Issues with uploading of the recordings

The major challenge we are facing currently is the FTP upload mechanism we have implemented to upload the recording of the tweets has severe quality issues. The .wav files generated by the recording sketch in Processing works perfectly in the local directory, but once it is getting uploaded by the FTP sketch, there is severe data loss and much of the recording is lost once the file is uploaded to the server. This maybe due to the FTP sketch which uploads the file automatically once the Tweet is sent. Looking out for any suggestions at this point as we are severely out of time!



Installation Setup

Installation Setup

Installation Setup



User Journey for Piano Tweets

The User Journey of sending Tweets from the Piano

The User Journey of sending Tweets from the Piano



Our FMP is awesome. It is the “Tweeting Piano”.

After much discussion, debates and arguments we have decided to have the Tweeting Piano as the core part of our FMP. The final concept is this:

“Send a Tweet from the Tweeting Piano and hear what it sounds like!”

Taking cues from the units we studied during the course such as Usability, Physical Computing, Sustainability, and Context of Interactive Media; we have created a “Tweeting Piano” from a 90 year old discarded piano. From the outside, it still looks like a normal piano. The only feature that indicates it has been modified in any way is the presence of letters and numbers that have been carefully crafted onto the keys of the piano. If a user is to press any key on the piano, a large projection appears on the wall behind the piano that shows all the tweets that have been sent from this piano. On further interaction with the piano, the user is invited to write a message using the piano’s keyboard and then tweet it.

This is by far the most complex and coolest project I have been even remotely associated with. Nadia and Anna are currently busy with the branding and designs for the UI for the screens (both piano and web) and we are in full speed to meet the dead line this week.

Rebecca is busy trying to find the best way to get a the keyboard layout for the keys as this is the first time in history anyone has tried to layout a keyboard in a 2 row layout.

We have sort of lots of issues here and there like getting the keys to work perfectly and the recording to be automatically uploaded onto the server when the tweet is sent. This is going to be one hell of a week!



Twitter4J works – APIs rule!

After going through several blogs and tutorials explaining how to get Twitter4J to work, I finally found one very useful tutorial which has explained this in a very simple manner. It does involves a complex authentication but it works finally! The drawback of this is the piano will need its own twitter account as the account credentials need to be hard coded into the Processing code. But after discussion with the team, this actually makes the system a whole lot meaningful. A piano that can send tweets! Anybody can come and use this piano and realise that there is an interface hidden with the keys which allows them to send tweets about absolutely anything!



Arduino Keyboard setup working!

Finally got the Arduino to work as a Keyboard with Processing!



Getting the Tweet experiment to work

After speaking to Ollie about the experiment we were trying to do, he has given solutions to most of the problems we were facing. Firstly he recommended not to flash the Arduino board to a Keyboard and instead try to assign each +ve pin value with a letter or a number in Processing. This system is fairly simple and much, much less cumbersome than flashing the Arduino.

This solves the second problem as well. As Processing is done in Java, there are unlimited number of APIs available which can be used with it. For using Twitter, we found something called Twitter4J which a Java API, which can send tweets and even get the twitter timeline feed.

Next step – figuring out how Twitter4J works.

http://twitter4j.org/en/



A new experiment which Tweets!

On discussions with the team this weekend, we decided to push the Email experiment even further. We discussed using the piano key interface to send Tweets, as this would be a more public and global medium to communicate! A piano that tweets. This would be a major technical challenge for me as I am yet to solve using the Arduino as a PC keyboard.



Pong Experiment!

Pong with Processing

Pong with Processing

We just completed wiring up all the 85 keys of the piano with a lot of aluminium and around 150m of wiring. We are currently testing the keys but we are facing some of issues with the keys as around 20% of them are not responding. The adhesive used for sticking the aluminium is creating a non conducting surface and thereby failing the circuit. As we are trying to sort it out, Ollie helped me out with small experiment which involves using the piano keys as an interface for playing pong!

We split the piano keyboard into two and each section would be the controlling the paddle’s location with the keys. Ollie help me to create pong in just two hours. With Processing, we created movable rectangles whose position would be determined by the key of the piano and a constantly moving circle whose location is randomly decided. If the circle comes in contact with the rectangle, the player scores. It’s that simple! Never imagined creating Pong would be so easy!

 



Full steam ahead!

We recorded the process of placing the aluminium sheets on the keys and its base using a webcam place above the piano. Here is the result:

Time lapse video of converting the piano into a digital interface



We discovered the pianos age!

On trying to add the switch system within the keys of the piano, we discovered something quite fascinating – its age. Key number 0 of the piano holds a signature and a date  - 18.05.25. This piano is nearly 90 years old and will complete a century in a decade and it has survived WW2!! Rebecca checked the serial number of the piano with the date of its manufacturing which confirms this signature. Online resources claim this to be made in the mid 1920s.

 

18.05.25 - nearly 90 years old.

18.05.25 – nearly 90 years old.



New roadblock and a new solution!

We were quite happy yesterday when we realised that we could use pressure sensors, but disappointment hit us again today when we tried to order these sensors. These sensors are quite pricy and if we order sensors for all 90 of them, in total it would cost us £500!!! This is just not viable for us.

Luckily Ollie suggested using buttons underneath the piano keys which would be turned on when the keys hits it. This made a lot of sense but we were doubtful if the space underneath it would be able to accommodate it. We check it and our doubts were confirmed – it does affect the piano key movement. But this gave us a better idea!

We thought of how the button worked as a switch and we tried deconstructing it – it is basically two contact points completing a circuit when it comes in contact with each other! We used the same principle and tried to use something that is 1)Flat and occupies less space 2)good conducting properties. We used something that is easily available – aluminium foil.The layer of this aluminium foil is placed under the piano key which is connected to the +ve and we placed a foil in the base where the key hits which is connected to the ground. This means that when the piano key is pressed, the circuit is complete and sends a digital HIGH to the Arduino. The setup involves NO complex circuits whatsoever!! Just one wire coming from the ground and one wire going to the pin slot. This setup is simple, clean, noise free and economical! Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best ones!

 inputPullupButton inputPullupSerial_sch



Using other sensors to get a steady digital signal from the piano

We realised that we can’t use the 90 piezo sensors and we decided we have to move fast and find a sensor that would be able to get signals from the piano keys and read it without any repetition. Ollie was telling to write an algorithm which could create a delay after each keystroke that would allow the strings to stop vibrating but we cant do that for this experiment as it would cause a considerable lag which will cause usability issues with the keyboard.

The next one was suggested by Ban Li, where we used pressure sensors and it worked quite well. These pressure sensors send a HIGH signal to the Arduino when pressure is applied to it. We placed it this sensors between the hammer mechanism of the piano and this proved to be successful! It also solves the lag problem.



Major issue with Piezo sensors!

After trying the get the Arduino board to work like a PC keyboard with HIGH signals from the pins, we tried connecting it to a Piezo sensor which could catch the vibrations from the strings and use that as the HIGH signal to print a character from the keybaord. The setup was fairly simple but when we actually tried we saw a major issue with this setup. The piezo sensors detect vibrations from the string and send analog signals to the Arduino.

The problem is this – when the piano key is pressed, the hammer hits the string and it vibrates. The piezo sensors detects this vibration and sends a HIGH signal, but the strings keep vibrating and do not stop immediately. This causes the board to print the letter multiple times till the string stops vibrating and thereby making this setup not useful for our experiment. The major problem is not this. We ordered 90 of these piezo sensors from eBay and we won’t be using any of them!



Using Arduino as a keyboard

For using the Arduino as a PC keyboard I expected the process to be fairly simple. I thought I could assign the signals coming from each pin a certain letter or a number. But as I started researching online to see how the Arduino board can be used as a keyboard, I learn that the process is quite troublesome and in fact dangerous to the Arduino board to an extent.

http://mitchtech.net/arduino-usb-hid-keyboard/

This website details the tedious process in which the Arduino board can be used as keyboard but this involves completely flashing/erasing the Arduino memory and install a custom Keyboard drivers into it and a desktop or a laptop with read it as normal keyboard. This process has been one of the most complex ones I have done so far. The process summarised in the website involves:

Step 1: Flash Arduino-usbserial.hex bootloader with dfu-programmer (erase/flash/reset)
Step 2: Plug cycle the Arduino
Step 3: Flash firmware sketch using Arduino IDE
Step 4: Plug cycle the Arduino
Step 5: Flash Arduino-keyboard-0.3.hex bootloader with dfu-programmer (erase/flash/reset)
Test and repeat

The flashing process is incredibly complicated and indirect as well which involves making contact points with reset pins which are generally not used.

Flashing Arduino without soldering

Flashing Arduino without soldering



Finally got Arduino working a keyboard!

Yes I finally got it working as a keyboard! Once it is flashed with the Keyboard drivers, the Arduino board detected as a Keyboard in the USB drive and the HIGH pin signals are read as letters! Tomorrow we have to connect this to the piezo sensors from Nicolas and see how it responds with the keys from the piano!



Second Experiment: Trying to make Ardunio board behave like a PC Keyboard

We were discussing today that once we get the piezo sensors we can convert all the keys of the piano into digital input signal to the computer using the Arduino board. We decided to test how this would work by making use of these signals and convert them into letters and numbers and maybe if we can stretch this experiment by sending an email to someone that is entirely typed in the piano! It would be like ‘Sent from my Piano’ instead of the ‘Sent from my iPhone’! This experiment more in line with one of the installations I saw earlier where they used the piano as an interface for doing something other than make music.



Magnetic Sculptures

In doing more research on experiments with magnets and sounds, I happen to stumble on this installation that can be found in the BMW Museum in Munich. I was thinking if we could use magnets and iron balls in a format similar to this video and create sculptures. We can show how sounds waves are created from the piano sounds, explaining how air molecules vibrates to high and low notes of the piano.

 



More Visualising Sound examples

Ferro Fluids: I happen to see some videos about Ferro liquids and it looks extremely cool and literally alien like! Ferro liquids are oily liquids with tiny particles of iron in it and these iron particles stick out from the liquid when a magnet is kept near it and this effect is really cool! This video was part of an interactive installation where the ferro liquid reacts to sound.

I also happened to see a video which tells you how to make Ferro liquids and it seems quite simple. I want to see if we could make this in class and do some experiments in the class and see if we can map the sounds from piano.

 




Visualising sound with fluids!

As discussed during our meetings I am now focusing on concepts related to ‘Visualising Music’ and to more specific I want to try using fluids and see how they interact with sound. I was going through some videos online and I found the extremely interesting and effects are extraordinary.

This video involves the use of “Non-Newtonian” fluids. These type of fluids tend to behave more like liquids when they are disturbed, especially by vibrations from sound and  flow properties differ in any way from those of Newtonian fluids. The video was shot at 30 fps and the speaker cone was vibrating at 30 Hz. This is the original video with the actual sound of the speaker. The fluid behaves in extremely strange ways and moves around as if it is alive and wants to escape from the vibrations! I wonder if these can be mapped with sounds from the piano?



First technical experiment

Getting digital signals from the Piano:

We wanted to see how we could get this piano to communicate with an Arduino board which would be needed for further experiments. Nicolas had told us that we could try using ‘Piezo sensors’. A piezoelectric sensor is a device that uses the piezoelectric effect to measure pressure, acceleration, strain or force by converting them to an electrical charge. The prefix piezo is Greek for ‘press’ or ‘squeeze’.

He mentioned that these sensors can be triggered with vibrations and we can measure these vibrations from the Arduino board. We decided that we could place them on the piano strings and see if it triggers the sensors.

 

Piezo sensors

Piezo sensors

 

We placed one of these sensors and then tried to light up a LED light when the sensors is activated. The sensors will throws a range of values when it is triggered as it is an analog sensors. We used the following circuit diagram to get convert input from the piano key into a digital signal.

Arduino circuit diagram for Piezo Sensors

Arduino circuit diagram for Piezo Sensors

And we found sucess! On hitting the piano key, LED is lighting up and we have officially converted the piano key input into a digital signal! We decided to buy a sensor for each of the string so that we could use it for recording inputs from all the keys. We made an order of 90 Peizo sensors on eBay.



One of the best musical instruments I have ever seen!

This may not be completely related to the project but it is just so awesome!!! It is the American Fotoplayer. The instrument combines a piano with organ pipes, drums, bells and various sound effects, using switches, pedals, levers, buttons and pull chords. It can chirp like a bird, or create the sound of thunder, pistol shots or sirens, among others. Some of them have a matching roll cabinet that features music specially composed for romantic, dramatic or chase scenes with “Picturolls.”



Interactive installations involving Pianos

I was going through different installations which involved pianos and most of them seemed uninteresting as I felt they were quite obvious and  I felt that we should use the piano was more than what we perceive it to be – just a musical instrument.

This particular video caught my attention where the piano creates all sorts reactions all over the building from turning on light bulbs to switching off fans when someone plays the piano. What caught my attention was the fact that the piano is being used as more than a musical instrument and  the user interacts with the room with different events being triggered when each key of the piano is pressed.

This was this first video is saw the keys of the piano being used as a form of input to trigger something totally unrelated to music. This made me look at the piano from a whole new dimension. This video actually illustrates the keys of the piano behaving as a form of interface between the user and the strings that generate the music and I feel this aspect of the piano is worth examining.

 



Breaking it apart!

We tried to see what all can be taken out from the piano to examine its innards and learn how the delicate hammer mechanism works. We also inhaled decades of dust during this process!

Dusty dusty!

Dusty dusty!

Without the cover

Without the cover

Understanding the hammer mechanism

Understanding the hammer mechanism

Breaking apart the piano

Breaking apart the piano



The Piano has arrived!

After much difficulty transporting the heavy piano all over LCC, we finally have it in the class room. Its looks quite worn out and really dusty, but still sounds beautiful!

Piano has arrived!

Piano has arrived!



Confirmed: It’s a project involving a Piano

It’s a Piano project.

We had the first tutorial with Ben Branagan  and he was also quite satisfied with the fact that our FMP would be based on an actual piano! We discussed different themes involving Pianos, which ranged from the fact that its obsolete and people are throwing away their pianos to how it can be used to visualise music. I expressed my interest in doing experiments on how fluids react to sound and Nadia mentioned how it can be used to express peoples emotions with types of different types of music that can be played on it.

Pianos being thrown away

Pianos being thrown away

Ben insisted on making sure that our project should be as objective  as possible and not subjective and this should be followed during the decision making in the team. He mentioned how emotional music can be perceived differently by different people and can be more subjective than objective which could cause contradictions for some people.

 



Getting a real Piano!

Rebecca mentioned during our first tutorial that there are used pianos available online for extremely cheap rates or sometimes even free! With this we were extactic about the possibilities of working with a piano for our FMP! I have always loved musical instruments even though I was never fortunate enough to learn how to play a single instrument. I bought a casio keyboard when I got my first job, hoping to learn a little bit during the spare time. But it just remained in its original packaging, as my work was occupied most of my time and I never got the time to learn it. I had eventually sold it off after 2 years.

But getting an actual piano would be really awesome for our FMP and we feel that there it has lot of potential to explore and experiment with.



First discussion/meeting of team Walnut

We had our first team meeting today! On having been assigned team members by Ben & Ben, the first meeting commenced where we discussed different themes each of us wanted to explore.My team members are Nadia, Anna and Rebecca and we shared the different areas of interest that we would like to explore.

I had also described a small pet project I wanted to experiement with 3D interaction.  Based on the Research Methodologies report I had submitted which talks about why 3D has failed in the consumer market, I wanted to explore true 3D interaction where 3D input is translated onto a true 3D digital space. This basically involved  getting an input from a 3D input device like the Kinect using that data to be shown on a 3D space which can be done using a 3D LED cube.

3D LED CUBE

3D LED CUBE



Dissertation Abstract – CAN ‘WEBTOPS’ HELP SOLVE INDIA’S EDUCATION CRISIS?

CAN ‘WEBTOPS’ HELP SOLVE INDIA’S EDUCATION CRISIS? 

On its path to becoming a developed nation, India is currently facing a mammoth crisis, where 90% of its students are unable to complete school. Confronted with the enormous task of providing mass education in an environment with lack of skilled teachers and infrastructure, the question arises as to whether the conventional methods of education would be feasible. Non- conventional methods like the unsupervised use of computers have proven to accelerate learning skills in children. With this, many organizations have tried to develop low cost computers to work in such environments and all are yet to witness any success. We analyze their shortcomings and we conclude that these devices were not ideal for the given parameters of the environment in which they were supposed to work.

From this, we examine if utilizing resources that already exist would provide a better solution for such a daunting task. With more than 900 million cell phone connections, India is the second largest mobile market; with a very high usage of smartphones that is expected grow even higher. Even though smartphones may not be able to provide a full learning experience for children, its processing and 3G capabilities, combined with recycled monitors, keyboards and mice (which come as e-waste) could provide a full-fledged desktop experience with web connectivity.

 

Motorola Webtop

The similar concept that was first used by Motorola in its ‘Webtop’ may prove to be an almost perfect solution for mass education in India. We examine the feasibility of how such a system could be successful in the given set of parameters it is supposed to work in and analyze if this could be a viable solution for India’s education crisis. Also, we try to predict the possible challenges that such a system might face and finally try to understand what its impact would be on the country.

 



DISSERTATION

1.INTRODUCTION

Over the last 20 years, the economy of India has grown to become the tenth largest in the world (by nominal GDP) but in the terms of education, 90% of the student population (324 million) cannot complete school. Be it primary or higher education, the quality of education is significantly poor as compared to the major developing nations. On top of this, as of 2008, 25% of teaching positions nationwide are vacant (ASER Report, 2012). This is the current education crisis that is plaguing India.

Considering the complexity of this educational crisis, questions arise as to whether the conventional method of teacher-classroom based education would actually be effective enough. With experiments like ‘Hole in the Wall’, we learn that unsupervised use of computers can lead to an accelerated learning of skills in children (Mitra, 2000). Based on this understanding, there have been several organizations that have tried to create low cost computers to bridge the education gap in developing countries (Venkatraman, 2011). Most of these devices have failed to meet the expectations and have not made any impact on the countries where they were launched (Kramer, 2009). We examine the most famous ones – the $100 XO laptop from One Laptop Per Child program (Figure 1.1) and the $35 Aakash Tablet, and we try to find out why they had failed.

Figure 1.1: XO from One Laptop Per Child (OLPC)

We observe that these devices may have succeeded in a context that would have been different, but they fail in the environmental parameters in which they were deployed. From this, we try to define the parameters and set them as the objectives that a low cost computing device has to achieve for mass education in India. The complexity of the parameters leads us to the conclusion that it may be more viable to use something that already exists, rather than developing a completely new device.

The mobile telecommunications system in India is currently the second largest in the world (TRAI, 2012). There is also a sudden surge of inexpensive and powerful smartphones powered by Android and this is expected to grow even higher (IDC, 2013). With good mobile connectivity all over the country, 3G connectivity of smartphones could prove to be an inexpensive and viable alternative for Wi-Fi that is required for Internet connectivity in remote rural areas

With the massive success of these low cost, yet, powerful smartphones in the country, its feasibility of using them as a medium for mass education needs to be investigated. With their popularity amongst children documented all over the world (Cooper, 2011), they have the potential to be a viable low cost educational computing device. But would a smartphone alone be enough to facilitate learning for students?

One major drawback of using smartphones as a medium of education would be its small form factor attributing to its small screen size. Studies show that bigger screen sizes provide a faster and more efficient way for learning. Also, the smartphone form factor lacks the capability of being a productive media and it still remains mostly as a consumption device and this alone may not be enough to facilitate learning and a full-fledged desktop experience will be needed.

This large screen desktop experience could be made possible by bridging smartphones and desktops with the concept of ‘Webtop’ that was developed by Motorola in 2011. The Webtop revolved around the idea of using a smartphone as a central processing unit. Such a system where the smartphones could provide the processing power to run a desktop having recycled monitors, keyboards and mice would prove to be the best possible solution for the given parameters. This dissertation tries to theoretically test the feasibility of such a ‘Webtop’ system and tries to prove if this could be a viable solution to India’s education crisis and examine the possible challenges it might face.

2. BACKGROUND

2.1 INDIA’S EDUCATION CRISIS:  

Ever since India opened its market for foreign investments and introduced pro-economic liberalization reforms in the early 1990s, India has grown to become the 10th largest economy in the world and is expected to grow even further (World Bank, 2011). Unfortunately, this massive growth rate has not been reflected in the other verticals of the country as it still battles evils like abject poverty, corruption, malnutrition and illiteracy, etc. Compared to other countries, these social issues are more challenging to solve because of the massive population of the country. With more than 1.2 billion people as of 2010, India is expected to overtake China as the most populated country by 2020 (Haub, 2012).

Despite this tremendous economic growth, the country is facing a severe crisis trying to provide education for its students. As per the World Bank figures, India has increased its literacy rate to a fairly optimistic figure of 75% of its population or 900 million people. But does this literacy rate translate to an educated public? Now on the consideration that education is defined as being able to complete school and apply for colleges, the figures are no more optimistic. 90% of the student population or 324 million kids in India do not complete school. Be it primary or higher education, the quality of education is significantly poor as compared to the major developing nations. Also, as of 2008, 25% of teaching positions nationwide are vacant (ASER Report, 2012). This is the current education crisis of India.

To tackle this education crisis, the Government of India implemented the ‘Right to Education’ Act of 2009 to enable free and compulsory education to all the children but this also has failed to provide quality education as it suffers from shortages of teachers, infrastructural gaps and several habitations continue to lack schools altogether (Satya, 2011).

2.2 EDUCATION WITH LOW COST INTERACTIVE MEDIA:

Considering the complexity of the educational crisis in India and the lack of teachers and classrooms, questions arise as to whether the formal method of teacher-classroom based education is actually effective enough to solve the crisis. Non-conventional methods like the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments done by Sugata Mitra’s have proven that unsupervised use of computers can lead to accelerated learning of skills in children (Mitra, 2000). The experiments dealt with computer being placed in kiosks created within a wall in slums and children were allowed to use it freely. This experiment proved that children could be taught by computers very easily without any formal training. Mitra termed this as Minimally Invasive Education (MIE).

The success of the theory that ‘not requiring any teachers or classrooms’ has been questioned, as critics have claimed that there are ‘holes’ in the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments and it only facilitates low-level learning in children (Clark, 2013) (Warschauer, 2006). Nonetheless, several organizations are using this theory and trying to create low cost computers to bridge the education gap in developing countries like Africa and India (Venkatraman, 2011).

2.3 LOW COST COMPUTING:

With the understanding that unsupervised use of computers could lead to an accelerated learning of skills in children, there have been several organizations that have tried to create low cost computers (Venkatraman, 2011). We examine two of these devices, one which is very popular and another one that was designed in India.

The most famous low cost computing device was the XO laptop developed by the One Laptop Per Child program (OLPC), where they tried to create a $100 laptop called the XO. The XO is an inexpensive laptop computer that is meant to be distributed to children in developing countries around the world, to provide them with access to knowledge, and opportunities to “explore, experiment and express themselves” (OLPC Mission Statement).

Figure 2.1: The OPLC XO laptop being used to children in Africa

On paper, the XO laptop seems to be the perfect low-cost computing device that would have made computers available to every student of the developing world. But even after 4 years, its success remains to be seen. Since its release and its deployment in 2007, only 2.4 million laptops have been shipped as of 2013. This is a far cry from its target of shipping 150 million devices by the end of 2007 (Kramer, 2009). As of now the XO laptop has been labeled as a failure.

A major reason for its failure was it’s pricing. OLPC was never able to meet the target of $100 for the XO laptop and is now currently priced at $188. There were other hardware and software bugs that included a difficult-to-repair screen and a faulty spill proof keyboard where the keys would fall off even after normal use (as seen in Figure 2.1) (Warschauer, 2010).

Figure 2.2: Design Flaw: Keys falling off the XO laptop even after normal usage

The other device we examine is the ‘Made in India’ tablet called ‘Aakash’ (Figure 2.3). The tablet was designed and developed in India itself and was competing with the OLPC initiative. The Aakash tablet was intended to link 25,000 colleges and 400 universities in an e-learning program. It caught international headlines in 2011, when the Government of India announced that they would be launching this device with a low price tag of $35 (Gierasimczuk, 2011)

Figure 2.3: India’s low cost tablet ‘Aakash’

As of 2013, these tablets, have not yet reached any student and the program seems to have faced a lot of setbacks. The first model was scrapped as it was termed ‘unusable’ during its testing phase. This was largely due to the extreme compromise on hardware to reach the target of the low price point. The $35 price tag led to Aakash suffering from sluggish performance because of a very slow processor, an unresponsive touch screen and very low RAM running the stock version of Android. The tablet also had only 2 hours of battery backup and required a Wi-Fi connection for it to work (Rabkin, 2012). This device was destined to fail, as most of the schools in India – especially the rural parts – have no electricity, let alone Wi-Fi connections.

 

CONCLUSION:

The ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments indicate that low cost interactive media could help solve the education crisis all over the world. But with success is yet to be witnessed on a massive scale, the failure of the existing low cost computing devices raises doubt about the design methodology that was used to develop them. The devices may have been successful in the context in which it was designed – as an inexpensive computing device for the developed world, which has electricity and well connected to the Internet. But in a context where the environment is relatively poor with no electricity or Wi-Fi, these devices just seem out of place. The next chapter tries to outline and understand in detail what the parameters of the complex environment where such devices would be implemented.

 

3. OBJECTIVES

On analyzing the failures of the earlier low cost computing devices, we can come to the conclusion that they failed to realize the drawbacks of the environment in which they were supposed to work in. Here, we try to define the important parameters describing the environment in which such a device would be deployed. We have to understand that it may not be possible to have one solution for all possible scenarios and we are exploring a solution that would be ideal for a given set of parameters. By defining the major parameters or criteria that such a system would have to work on, we can draw the objectives that the device would have to achieve and increase its chance of being successful. The objectives that the device would have to achieve are:

1. Low Cost – This is the most important and obvious parameter for a device needed for mass education in the developing world. The device would be deployed in areas of extreme poverty and even though the local governments can provide very subsidized rates, it has to be economically viable for the schools or the parents; otherwise it will never reach the classrooms. Most of the devices mentioned earlier had targeted a very low price point and utilize the hardware that would be available for that price.

2. Teaching Tool – One of the major problems with the education crisis in India is the lack of skilled teachers for the students. As of 2008, 25% of teaching positions nationwide are vacant (ASER Report, 2012). The device would have to act as a stand-alone virtual teaching tool that would be a replacement for a skilled teacher.

3. Power Management – With over one third of rural India not having electricity (Remme, 2011, p. 26) the device would have to work in conditions which have severe shortage of electricity and this means that it should be able retain battery power for a very long periods of time and also be able to utilize alternate forms of energy.

4. Internet Connectivity – Most of the low cost computing devices are dependent on Wi-Fi for Internet connectivity.  India is yet to have good Internet connectivity in rural areas and Wi-Fi is yet to be mainstream even in the urban areas. A device should be able to utilize other wireless methods of going online like GPRS or 3G.

5. Usability – The device will have users who are only children, and hence, it has to facilitate high engagement with the device and accelerate learning and provide a ‘pull’ education and not ‘push’ education (Leadbeater, 2010, p. 21). The device should also provide lag free operation so that the students don’t end up getting frustrated and give up on the device. The earlier devices had tried to compromise on the hardware to keep the price low and this led to the devices being extremely slow and unusable.

6. Sustainability – The number of students required to finish school is 324 million. Even if such a device could be provided for all these students, the device needs to be sustainable. India is slowly turning into a dumping ground of e-waste from all over the world and also from the domestic IT organizations. Large amounts of harmful elements like mercury, arsenic, etc. from the devices no longer in use, are being dumped into the environment (Jain, 2011). It is currently facing an alarming problem of non-biodegradable waste occupying vast areas of the country. Now, if a device were introduced into the number that is required to solve the education crisis, it would lead to an environmental disaster for the country.

CONCLUSION:

On understanding the complexity of these parameters listed above, it may be impossible to develop a new solution. We may be only able to come up with a solution by following the design methodology similar to Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the Real World’ (Papanek, 1985). By utilizing something that already exists and works well within the parameters of the environment in consideration, it could prove to be a viable contender for solving the country’s education crisis.

The following chapters describe a viable option called the ‘Webtop’, where smartphones power the brain of the desktop. Because of the massive success of mobile phones in India, this could prove to be extremely helpful in solving India’s education crisis. We study the feasibility of using the concept of ‘Webtop’ with refurbished desktops powered by inexpensive smartphones and evaluate if such a system could satisfy all the objectives that have been listed above.

 

4. WEBTOPS

4.1 INTRODUCTION:

‘Webtop’ was the term used by Motorola to call its new docking system for its Android flagship model Atrix 4G (Figure 4.1). First launched in 2011, the Webtop was a system where the user plugs the Motorola smartphone to a laptop shell and effectively converts it into a PC. The optional laptop dock for the Atrix 4G looked and worked like a thin laptop with an 11.6” screen, but it didn’t have its own processor or storage. Instead, the phone is placed in a slot behind the display, and it provided the brains for running Android apps on a large screen with a comfy QWERTY keyboard. (McCracken H., October 2012).

Figure 4.1: Motorola ‘Webtop’ dock with the Atrix 4G attached to its back

This system was able to run a full-fledged browser with support for Flash animations, open and edit documents and spreadsheets etc. Webtop in its original form was a locked down version of Ubuntu with Firefox preinstalled (Ulanoff, 2011). The docks that were released later could be connected to a monitor and to a keyboard and mouse via Bluetooth.

4.2 FAILURE OF THE WEBTOP:

When launched in 2011, the Webtop was a critical success where everyone hailed it as the next paradigm of computing that could bridge the gap between the PC and smartphones and could potentially be successor to the laptop. But within just 2 years of its launch, Motorola announced that it would stop its production of the Webtop. The company claimed that the Webtop’s extremely low adoption rate with the consumers made it no longer viable to use their resources for further development. The Webtop officially died by the end of 2012 (Cheng, 2012). Even though the idea was far ahead of its time, it was a system that had a lot of flaws. Most reviewers highlighted some of these flaws that lead to its untimely death and this includes:

1. High Price - The high price of the Webtop kept a lot of customers away when it was first launched. The dock alone priced at $300, Motorola found it difficult to sell them (Savitz, 2011). They eventually brought down the prices and introduced inexpensive versions (Figure 4.2) but by then the customers found the Webtop no longer a compelling buy.

2. Lack of Applications – There was a severe lack of third party applications that could utilize the large screen of the Webtop.

3. Quality Issues - The early versions of the Webtop were plagued with hardware and software issues, like the keyboard and track pad being unresponsive and the OS and browser being too slow.

 

Figure 4.2: An inexpensive version of Motorola ‘Webtop’ dock released later

4.3 FUTURE OF WEBTOPS:

Even though Motorola ceased production of its ‘Webtop’ in 2012, they released the software running on the dock as open source and it is now available free for download. The Webtop was a perfect example of a good concept executed badly. The concept may have failed in one part of the world, but it could prove useful in an entirely different part of the world.

In the next chapter, we look at how the Webtop concept could be taken even further. We analyze the feasibility of using recycled desktops that are powered by smartphones; and how they could prove to be a powerful, yet low cost computing device for mass education in developing countries like India.

 

5. LOW COST COMPUTING WITH WEBTOPS

5.1 USING AN EXISTING MEDIUM:

The local parameters discussed in the earlier chapters show the mammoth task that a low cost computing device has to accomplish. The complexity involved in solving the education crisis in India is so massive that it may be impossible to design an entirely new device that could tackle all this. Instead of developing something totally new, we may find a solution by utilizing something that already exists and works well within the parameters of the environment in consideration. This is more in line with the design methodology similar to Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the Real World’ (Papanek, 1985).

With mobile phones being highly successful in India – even in its remote rural areas – this could prove to be the already existing medium that can be utilized for mass education. Most parts of the country are now well connected with network towers. Smartphones have also become very successful over the past few years, with inexpensive Android smartphones being sold in millions.

If we take the concept of Webtops even further and use these inexpensive smartphones to power recycled desktops, the Webtop could prove to be the almost perfect interactive medium for mass education. The following sections outline how smartphones and Webtops could be used for mass education and evaluate its feasibility with the complex parameters of mass education in India.

5.2 SUCCESS OF SMARTPHONES IN INDIA:

With the iPhone revolutionizing the smartphone industry in 2007 with its intuitive UI and a year later, with the launch of Android, a more open alternative, the world is now using smartphones more than ever before. People are now using their smartphones for most of their tasks that used to be done on a full-fledged desktop (Bennett, 2011). Over the last few years, these smartphones have matured to be very powerful devices with nearly as much computing power as a desktop.

With a subscriber base of more than 900 million, the mobile telecommunications system in India is currently the second largest in the world after China (TRAI, 2012). The smartphone revolution also had a big impact in India was brought on by the inexpensive and powerful smartphones powered by Android. With 15.6 million smartphones shipped in 2012 alone (CyberMedia Research, 2013), India is now projected to become the third largest smartphone market by 2017 (IDC, 2013). Indian companies like Micromax, Karbonn, Lava etc. have created a huge market by selling millions Android smartphones that are quite powerful, yet extremely affordable. With the massive success of these intuitive, low cost & powerful smartphones that are readily available all over the country, it holds good potential as a medium for mass education in the country.

5.3 MASS EDUCATION WITH SMARTPHONES:

Mobile phones have proven to be very useful tools for education in developing countries. In Philippines, mobile phones have proven to be a useful tool for education where a program called SMART TXTBKS provided school textbooks that were condensed in the form of SMS messages. They were made available in old SIM cards that were provided by Smart (Figure 5.1), the largest telecom company in Philippines. This learning was a form of ‘mobile learning’ or ‘m-learning’.

Figure 5.1: Smart TXTBKS SIM cards

The major success of this program was in providing textbooks to anyone who had any type of mobile phone. However outdated the model was, it could deliver the information as it was stored in the SIM card (Smart TXBKS, 2013). The only drawback with this program was that the depth of information that could be provided was limited to the amount of data that could be displayed in a SMS message. The impact of this form of condensed learning will not be able to facilitate deep learning that is needed for school students.

Smartphones have proven to be very user-friendly and their popularity amongst children has been documented all over the world (Cooper, 2011). This further supports its use in the field of education and could also prove to be a viable low cost computing device. But would a smartphone alone be enough to facilitate the learning process for students?

Figure 5.2: Motorola Webtop dock connected to a monitor and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse

5.4 WEBTOPS WITH SMARTPHONES & OLD HARDWARE:

One major drawback of using smartphones as a medium of education would be its small form factor attributing to its small screen size. Studies have shown that that screen size is critical to the success of effective learning (Maniarn, 2008) (Papanikolaou, 2006) and this is also supported by empirical work that demonstrated screen size can affect the general usability of a mobile device (Chae, 2004). These studies show that bigger screen sizes provide a faster and more efficient way for learning.

Also most smartphones have only touch screens as a form of input and this reduces the capability of producing media and behaves as more of a media consumption device. Typing on a small touch screen keyboard for long periods is not possible with smartphones.  For mass education, information consumption alone may not be enough and will require a productive environment where students can learn, explore and experiment. This will require the use of a full-fledged desktop experience with a full keyboard and mouse.

This is where Webtop could prove its usefulness. With the large number of monitors, keyboards and mice that are dumped as e-waste, their usefulness and lifespan could be extended further by making use of them in schools and by powering them up with smartphones (Figure 5.2). The powerful hardware of modern day smartphones can provide the processing power required for running desktops with most of the tasks needed for e-learning. Even the very cheap smartphones are powered by hardware resources that are easily capable of running virtual learning tools like interactive animations, e-book applications, and internet browsers.

This system has the potential to be a powerful, connected, inexpensive and sustainable solution that satisfies many of the objectives required for mass education in India. In the next section we study the feasibility of using Webtops with smartphones and old hardware as the interactive medium of educating students in India.

5.5 FEASABILITY OF WEBTOPS FOR MASS EDUCATION:

The success of Webtops as a low cost educational device would be determined by how well it holds up against the environmental parameters in which it would be most likely deployed. These parameters have been set as the objectives that the device has to achieve and here we investigate how Webtops would accomplish these objectives:

1. Low Cost – This is the most important parameter needed for a low cost device for mass education and Webtops have immense potential for breaking the price barrier. As Webtops will be using recycled desktops, keyboard and mice, the cost will be minimal or nil for those components. The only cost issue of Webtops would be the price of smartphones.

Even though the smartphones in India are affordable, they are yet to break a price point where it could be a low cost computing device like the $35 Aakash tablet. But as the cost of hardware components are getting cheaper, this is likely to happen in the coming years. As of writing this (July 2013), Karbonn, one among the Indian smartphone companies sells a 1Ghz processor powered Android smartphone for just $60. This price is without any subsidy from the Government or any other organization and this is the same price as the unsubsidized version of Aakash (called as ‘Datawind Ubislate 7’), which retails at more than $60 (Pavlus, 2013). So, if the government can provide heavy subsidies for inexpensive Android smartphones, they could be easily be given to students and schools at very low price points.

2. Teaching Tool – The major problem with the education crisis in India is the lack of skilled teachers that are needed for the students. This means that ‘Webtops’ have to undertake the role of a skilled teacher or at least behave as a virtual tutor, and provide an engaging, intuitive method of learning. The very inexpensive smartphones are powered by hardware resources that are easily capable of running virtual learning tools like interactive animations, e-book applications, internet browsers, etc.

The Webtop system can extend the virtual learning experience to a big screen and allow the students to experiment, create content like documents and even later on allow them to take part in national level examinations. The Webtops cannot replace teachers completely but follow the principle where ‘technology is best used as a supplement to normal teaching rather than as a replacement for it’ (Higgins, 2012, p. 4).

3. Power Management – With over one third of rural India not having electricity (Remme, 2011, p. 26) the device would have to work in conditions that have severe shortage of electricity and this would be the biggest drawback of Webtops. The smartphones need electric power to recharge its batteries and to run the monitors and keyboards. There have been instances where the Government and other organizations have deployed solar panels in rural areas (Sharma, 2011) and this might solve the problem of lack of electricity.

4. Internet Connectivity – Even though Wi-Fi has not reached rural India, thanks to the massive mobile phones success in India, GPRS is available in almost all parts of the country and 3G rolls outs since 2010 is slowly gaining adoption. These wireless technologies commonly found on smartphones can provide Internet connectivity even to the remote rural parts of the country. The smartphones can provide Internet access to students on the Webtops as it can run a full-fledged browser that can play Flash animations as well.

5. Usability – Smartphones have already been proven to be extremely popular with children because of its form factor and user-friendliness (Cooper, 2011). Most of the inexpensive smartphones have good and speedy processors on the hardware front and this enables a smooth lag-free operation. On the software front, almost all the inexpensive devices are powered by Android. Android in its current version called as ‘Jelly Bean’ has matured to be a very robust and smooth OS (Hane, 2013). It can deliver a frustration-free user experience for the students that can encourage them to engage and explore with the device.

6. Sustainability – The Webtop can prove to be a highly sustainable system, as it would be utilizing most of the resources that already exist in the environment. This includes the reusing of old hardware that is no longer needed by IT organizations as it may have become outdated. It can also utilize the e-waste coming from different parts of the world that is being dumped into the country.

Webtops try to use mostly elements that would already exist and the only new device that would be needed is the smartphone. Since smartphones sales in India are expected to grow much higher in the following years and would eventually replace all feature phones, this would also be an element that would exist within the environment.

 

6. CHALLENGES

We have seen that Webtops are theoretically able to tackle most of the challenging issues facing education in India. But there are a few major challenges that the Webtop may face when it is deployed and which it may find difficult to tackle. The major challenges that the Webtop might face are the following:

1. The lack of electricity in rural areas questions the large-scale feasibility of Webtops.

With over one third of rural India not having electricity (Remme, 2011, p. 26) the biggest drawback of Webtops would be its requirement for electric power. There have been instances where the Government and other organizations have deployed solar panels in rural areas. For example, the project ‘Light for Education (LFE)’ allowed 1,600 students in 40 schools across Karnataka to carry solar-powered batteries which power LED lamps at their houses and charged them with the solar cells in school (Sharma, 2011). A similar system could perhaps be implemented in schools that lack electricity and use these solar cells to recharge the smartphones and also power the Webtops.

2. Webtops cannot provide a total replacement of teachers or a classroom environment.

The question arises as to whether the Webtops can completely replace the teachers and classroom and whether or not the students should be supervised. A complete lack of supervision as mentioned in Sugata Mitra’s Minimally Invasive Education (Mitra, 2000 may not hold true here as children will need some guidance to study. Critics have highlighted that there are ‘holes’ in the ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments and this would only facilitate low-level learning in children (Clark, 2013) (Warschauer, 2006).

A proper school and classroom environment will be needed for a concrete learning experience and it also helps in the development of social skills of children. Tutors will be needed but they may not require concrete subject knowledge, as the Webtop will act as the medium that will provide all subject-based education that will be accomplished with good e-learning software. Webtops will follow the principle where ‘technology is best used as a supplement to normal teaching rather than as a replacement for it’ (Higgins, 2012, p. 4). Also, the Right to Education acts also forbids home schooling and this means that the students have to go to school to study (Tilak, 2012) and a classroom environment is compulsory.

3. Impact of having an education through a digital medium like the Webtop:

Studies have to be done to investigate the impact on how digital medium based education would reflect on the different skill development of children. The digital learning alone can be less useful in developing social skills and even though it can support accelerated learning, it can also end up being a source of distraction. There are also chances that learning through interactive media can increase the processing power of the brain more than the development of the memory retaining capacity of the brain (Howard-Jones, 2012).

 

7. CONCLUSION

The task of providing mass education for the students in India under very challenging circumstances, is so complex that it maybe impossible to find a single solution that work out successfully. We examine and study the failures of the most popular low cost computing devices that are available in the market. Learning from their failures, we are able to draw out the objectives of what a low cost educational computing device would have to achieve.

We evaluate the potential of Webtops as a viable low cost computing system and examine how it would fair against the objectives that it has to achieve. We learn that Webtop is able to stand up to most of the challenges that are present in Indian rural classroom environment. It proves itself as a low cost, powerful, and sustainable teaching tool, that can even work under the circumstances like lack of Wi-Fi. Being powered by smartphones and the ability run a near desktop experience, Webtops are able to achieve most of the objectives set against it.

We also see that there are drawbacks with that would challenging later when it is deployed in schools. The lack of electricity in rural areas will have to be solved, either through solar panels or by the Government finally providing them with the basic requirement of electricity that is needed in the modern day world. We also realize this is not a replacement of teachers or a class room environment but it is more of an assisting tool.

We put forward this solution as not the best and perfect device for low cost computing device, but as a device which has high potential of succeeding under the given parameters found in Indian classrooms. Webtops can provide the students with ability to engage, explore and experiment with tools that would have never available before and students can now have a ‘window to the world’, thanks to its wireless internet capabilities.

Can Webtops help solve India’s education crisis? With this study, we can conclude that Webtops can be the near-perfect interactive medium that could supplement normal teaching, even under the challenging factors that plague India’s education and deliver quality education to the masses.

 

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