Archive for the 'Oddment' Category

Something I wrote almost 10 YEARS AGO on 3D display technology

Back in 2000/2001 I was studying for an MSc Multimedia and Interactive Systems. At the time I was quite interested in 3D technology and the birth, death, birth, death, birth, death of the 3D web. Digging around some old files the other day I came across a piece of work I did with my long standing friend Drummond Cargill on ‘3D Web Interfaces – The Next Dimension?’. Below is the section I wrote on hardware. Amazing how little has changed in 10 years (other than increased availability/lower cost).


Current display and input devices available to the general public have remained unchanged for a number of years, but as the IT industry in general heads towards a more enriched 3D environment new methods for viewing and navigating these world are being developed.  While many or these new devices remain in the domain of specialists there has already been a diffusion of these new technologies into the home in countries like Japan and North America.  These new output devices required to view and navigate virtual environments can be divided into two broad categories, display and navigation. The following section investigates the hardware available in both of these categories.


All current display techniques use the same method to deceive the brain that it is looking at a 3-Dimensional object.  This method is based on giving a different data to the left and right eye and at present there are four basic ways to achieve this effect: 

Liquid Crystal (LC) glasses for video and computer monitors.

AnotherWorlds LC Glasses, Another Eye 2000  £65.

Liquid Crystal (LC) glasses or Shutter glasses are used to view Stereo3D on video and computer monitors. They are inexpensive and provide viewers with full-colour images. LC glasses can be used on standard CRT monitors but if the refresh rate is 60 Hz there is a noticeable flicker due to the low frame rate, this is however not a problem for 120 Hz monitors.  LC glasses are emerging as a future technology for the home because of there low cost and the fact that they don’t use a dedicated system to display images.  LC glasses range in price from £50 - £350 and are already directly support by software packages such as 3D Studio Max.

Polarized glasses for images projected on large screens and specially equipped computer monitors.

VRex VR-3100 Projector and Polarised Glasses £7,500.

Polarised glasses are used to properly view 3D objects from projections and specially equipped VGA monitors. Inexpensive polarized glasses are available in both plastic and paper frames and may be imprinted with logos, promotional text or other graphics.  Polarised glasses are more commonly used for large audiences and trade fairs.  Although polarised glasses cost between £0.30 - £3.50 projectors range in price from £5,000 - £10,000 and adaptations of standard CRT monitors using liquid crystal plates ranges from £1,500 - £5,000.  Polarisation is a techniques commonly used in theme parks such as Disney and IMAX to achieve 3D effects because of it’s accessibility to a wide audience and relatively low cost.

Interactive Imaging Systems VXF3D Headset £1,250.

Head-Mounted Display (HMD) devices are similar to Liquid Crystal glasses except the each eye has a dedicated liquid crystal display to generate the Stereo3D image removing the possibility of flicker. HMD’s often also incorporate audio headphones to give a complete immersive experience.  HMD devices although considered the way forward in the early nineties are considered expensive and cumbersome compared to LC glasses.  This has lead to many major manufactures such as Sony and I-O Display Systems to discontinue lines.  HMD headsets which including tracking devices have found use in total Virtual Environment immersion applications.  HMD headsets range in price from £350 - £5,000.

Dimension Technologies 18.1" DTI 3D flat panel display £5,000.

Auto-stereoscopic flat-panels use parallax illumination which involves sending two images – one to the left eye and one to the right eye - to different columns of pixels, the left eye images to the odd numbered columns and the right eye to even numbered columns. The LCD display has a standard arrangement of LCD backlighter and the LCD panel but Auto-stereoscopic panels have an additional panel in between called a TN panel.  The vertical columns on the TN panel illuminate either the even or odd columns of pixels, depending on which image is coming through. Your left eye sees only left eye images and your right eye sees only right eye images, just as you do in real life.  Auto-stereoscopic panels do require you to sit in an optimum position relative to the panel to get a true 3D effect but they have the advantage of not requiring cumbersome headgear or glasses which may lead to health issues.  Auto-stereoscopic flat-panels range in price from £1,200 - £10,000 and price is very sensitive to viewable area and addition function such as eye tracking.

At present true 3D display is very feasible and is on the verge of entering the home market.  Applications for Stereo3D remain limited but with the increasing desire for the total home entertainment system it is only time before minimum specifications for personal computers will include a form of 3D output.  Having a method for displaying Stereo3D images is only the first step in the problem. To utilise this new hardware development fully 3D objects and worlds have to be designed with this new technology in mind and at present very few software companies, except those dealing with computer aided design and animation, are considering the potential of this output medium while it is in such an early stage of consumer acceptance.  But with Microsoft’s continual development of TaskGallery, a 3D desktop, Steroe3D imaging appears to have a strong future. 

MASHe Monthly (Email Newsletter and Template)

It’s fair to say I’m keen to get my message out any which way. As well as the blogging staples of RSS feeds I also have a print-friendly PDF Magazine version and a eBook addition in various formats (EPUB | Mobipocket/Kindle | PDF).  For a while I’ve also give an option to sign up for a monthly email newsletter. This uses the MailPress plugin to handle subscriptions and send a monthly update which snippets of blog posts from the last month.

Old MASHe Monthly Layout [click to enlarge]One of the things I was never happy with was the layout of the email, which was basically a list of snippets of posts based on date order. As I uses this site to collect lists of links to news items and sites I find interesting in ‘What I’ve starred this week’ and more technical posts recording my personal research, there are times I would like to put these further down the reading order.

New MASHe Monthly Layout [click to enlarge]Fortunately MailPress allows users to use/create custom templates. Having tried to find a suitable existing template and failed I knocked together a new one. This allows me to highlight a featured post, followed by snippets of my regular posts, finishing with the list of links from ‘What I’ve starred’. With the lack of MailPress templates I thought it would be worthwhile releasing:

*** RSC MailPress template ***

You should read the MailPress documentation for more information on installation customisation.

[If you are testing the monthly template the plugin only pulls in a random older post. I’ve posted a workaround for this in the MailPress forum.]  

Material to support Tony Hirst’s (@psychemedia’s) promotion

If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ve probably noticed that a lot of my work is directly influenced by Dr Tony Hirst at the Open University. Tony is currently Crowd Sourcing a Promotion Case… so rather than filling in his impact form I thought I would openly acknowledge how his cutting edge research has influenced my own work (I may regret starting this post as there is so much material on this blog which is a direct result of Tony’s work, but here goes).

Have any of my blog posts or other communications significantly influenced you? If so, which ones, and how? Did they impact on any projects you have worked on, processes you are involved with, or policies you have had a role in developing? 

Yahoo Pipes

Who’s Tweeting Our Hashtag? - this work was the genesis of a series of posts (6 in total) which presented solution for a free electronic voting system using Twitter. As well as presenting this solution to member of the eLearning Alliance FE/HE SIG the work was also mentioned in JISC Inform Issue 27.

Tony’s numerous posts on the use of Yahoo Pipes, which were my introduction to this tool, have also influenced a number of other posts on this site including Using Yahoo Pipes to generate a Twitter ‘out of office’ messaging service, Creating a PDF or eBook from an RSS feed ( and Festive fun: Auto tweeting your Google Reader shared items using Yahoo Pipes and twitterfeed, as well as uses within our RSC which have not yet been documented including twitter - noreplies (TwitterPad) and the JISCAdvanceUberTwitStream.

Google Apps

Maintaining a Google Calendar from a Google Spreadsheet, Reprise -  this work resulted in Using Google App Scripts as an Event Booking System. Again just as Yahoo Pipes are used to support the operation of our RSC, the event booking system was also piloted with one of our events and is likely to be used more extensively.

Just like Pipes, my interest in Google Apps was a direct consequence of reading Tony’s work in this area. Consequently this has resulted in other research  including Convert time stamped data to timed-text (XML) subtitle format using Google Spreadsheet Script and Using Google Spreadsheet to automatically monitor Twitter event hashtags and more

Timed Tweets/Twitter Subtitling

This is best summarised in the wikipedia entry for twitter subtitling which highlights that my resulting work on this area is not only a built on Tony’s initial research into Twitter Powered Subtitles for Conference Audio/Videos on Youtube, but also its very beginnings was a question raised by Tony and furthermore its continual development is a collaborative endeavour.


Evidence of the effective supervision of full and part time post graduate research students should be included under this criterion as well as innovative contributions to the development of early career academic staff engaging with research or other modes of scholarship - Excerpt from Academic Staff Promotions Committee Guidance 

I don’t know if the Committee guidance on supervision is supposed to just limited to OU staff/students, but I feel the above statement is evidenced by the examples I’ve highlighted. Concise and constructive guidance has meant that I have taken my personal development into a new direction and so enthused am I by Tony’s work, that I spend hours of my own personal time exploring new ideas.

Something about the value of your institutions website (and how you might improve it)

University Website

The image above from webcomic was doing the rounds on Friday.

I’m sure you recognise parts of your institution’s own website in this diagram, in particular I usually find more joy in finding faculty members phone/email addresses on Google rather than on the official site.

A couple of tools which sprung to mind when I saw this diagram were Google’s Browser Size Tool, which let you see contours of the the average percentages of users browser window size. This helped Google discover that 10% of their visitors couldn’t see the download button for Google Earth without scrolling. You can also overlay these contours on your own site. I’m sure many web admins are also already using Google Analytics click overlay to work out where visitors are going (and if they are on the ball assigning goals and click values).

If you want to chuck some formal/informal evaluation techniques into the mix Mike Nolan has been using a modification of Nick DeNardis’ EDU Checkup turning it into ‘Slate My Website’ in which groups collectively perform first impression and ~5minute reviews of a sites design, content and code (more info in this post by Mike).

If you are looking for something a more formal usability technique I’ve always been fond of ‘cognitive walkthroughs’:

The cognitive walkthrough method is a usability inspection method used to identify usability issues in a piece of software or web site, focusing on how easy it is for new users to accomplish tasks with the system. The method is rooted in the notion that users typically prefer to learn a system by using it to accomplish tasks, rather than, for example, studying a manual. The method is prized for its ability to generate results quickly with low cost, especially when compared to usability testing, as well as the ability to apply the method early in the design phases, before coding has even begun.

The topic of maximising and streamlining institutional websites featured in a couple of presentations at IWMW10, including Ranjit Sidhu’s ‘So what do you do exactly?’ In challenging times justifying the roles of the web teams and Paul Boag’s No money? No matter - Improve your website with next to no cash.

I’ve embedded Paul’s presentation below who suggests that one of the best ways to make sure you get the most out of what you’ve got is to simplify your offerings by automating the removal, hiding or review of material.

The need for speed: Tuning up to keep your students (and Google) happy

The need for speed
The need for speed
Originally uploaded by toastforbrekkie

Google recently announced that it is using site speed in web search ranking and while the weighting of this metric is slight (less than 1% of search queries will be affected) it is still good practice to make sure your web resources are optimised.

I was a little shocked to discover MASHe didn’t fair particularly well on speed tests. Inherently, self-hosted WordPress blogs give you a lot of flexibility in how you configure your blog, making endless tweaks to its appearance and available functionality via plugins. The cost of this flexibility is you can quickly turn your site into a quagmire of extra coding slowing down page loading times. You are also reliant on your server configuration being correctly optimised. This post documents what I discovered and how I fixed it.


Having already signed up to Google’s Webmaster Tools I was able to check the Labs –> Site performance and was a little shocked to see “your site take 6.9 seconds to load (updated on Apr 2, 2010). This is slower than 83% of sites

My first step was to diagnose where I was loosing time. The site performance results give you some pointers but these aren’t real-time and I wanted a way to make sure I was heading in the right direction. I chose to download Google’s Page Speed and Yahoo’s YSlow. Both these tools run a barrage of tests on a web page, highlighting area’s where you can make improvements.


Because performance of self-hosted WordPress blogs is a known problem there are a number of plugin’s available to optimise performance. Previously I had been using  WP Super Cache  but as the site performance data has shown there is perhaps more I could be doing, so I switched to W3 Total Cache which has some nice features. The key words to look out for when optimising websites are page caching, server-side gzip compression, content delivery network (CDN) integration (also known as parallelizing) and minifying.  

Just to expand on a couple of these:

Server-side compression – the basic idea is a requested webpage is compressed at the server before being sent to the user reducing the bandwidth required. A number of 3rd party hosts don’t enable this feature presumably because of increased processing load on their servers. So despite my best efforts I was unable to use server-side compression.

CDN -  because there is a limit to the number of page elements the browser can download at one time, distributing assets across hostnames allows items more items to be downloaded simultaneously. A quick fix for me was to use our host providers control panel to create a sub-domain which mirrors my existing directory structure. W3 Total Cache then allows you to choose the type of files to server from the different domain practically allowing you to doubled the number of page elements downloaded simultaneously.

Minifying – is the technique of compacting and sometimes merging different HTML, CSS and JavaScript elements. Compaction is achieved by removing additional whitespaces, line breaks and code comments. Whilst W3 Total Cache has minifying features it didn’t like my CSS and JavaScript so I used a separate WP Minify plugin.

The results are looking reasonably promising, pages that have been cached loading in 1.5-2 seconds. I’ve also gone from grade F on YSlow to grade B/C. The problem I’ve still got is pages that haven’t been visited for a long time (not being cached, or having to be re-cached) taking 20 seconds to load. I’ll perhaps come back to this another day unless anyone has some immediate suggestions. In the meantime I need to get back to posts on enhancing teaching and learning with technology ;-)     

2009 Edublog Awards - Nominations

The Edublog Awards

The Edublog Awards 2009 are open for nomination!

This is our chance to nominate and celebrate

the achievements of edubloggers, twitterers, podcasters, video makers, online communities, wiki hosts and other web based users of educational technology.

My nominations are:

Best individual blog: Gabber (Kevin Brace) -
Best individual tweeter: @psychemedia (Tony Hirst)  -
Best group blog: Mashable - (I would have nominated RSC NewsFeed, but as one of its writers I don’t think that is allowed)
Best new blog: Don’t Waste Your Time (David Hopkins) -
Best resource sharing blog Jane’s E-Learning Pick of the Day (Jane Hart) -
Best teacher blog: EdCompBlog (David Muir) -
Best educational use of a social networking service: RSC Access and Inclusion Ning -

You can nominate your own by following the instructions on the EduBlogAwards site

Key dates are:

  • Nominations: Close Tuesday 8 December
  • Voting: Ends Wednesday 16 December
  • Award Ceremony: Friday 18 December

Oddments from RSC NewsFeed

NewsFeed Cover While toiling to polish off the Google Wave 101 post a call went up in the office for contributions to RSC NewsFeed. In no time I had managed to put together 5 posts.

There isn’t really a common thread to pull them together so below is the title and short synopsis:

  • Automatic Captions in YouTube – This post relates to Google’s announcement that YouTube will begin to use voice recognition software to automatically add captions to videos, which also back videos a lot more searchable. 
  • 50 Educational Apps for the iPod Touch – A link to a great list of educational applications for the iPod Touch (mainly schools focused but there is something for everyone).
  • PowerPoint: Embedding YouTube Video – A nice ‘how-to’ by David Hopkins on embedding live YouTube videos in PowerPoint.
  • Edinburgh College of Art Launches its ‘Vision’ of Academic Research – Wow! When art colleges produce a publication, they really produce a publication. This 184 page publication is designed to showcase some of Edinburgh College of Art’s best research.
  • Hotseat: Any Mobile Will Do – This post highlights the work of Purdue University in developing a micro-in/out-of-class discussion tool which enables lectures to use multiple social networking sites to facilitate discussions.


HE oddments from RSC NewsFeed

RSC NewsFeed Tabbloid Edition Cover The RSCs in Scotland publish a fortnightly electronic newsletter, RSC NewsFeed, to keep the FE and HE community informed about the latest ICT-related news, events and resources.

Our editor, Hugh Daily, does a stirling job in rallying us all to make contributions. For the edition published however Hugh was away so I made a concerted effort to make sure there was enough ‘in the store’. This resulted in a record breaking 8 post from your truly (my posts are here).      

A couple of these posts are very pertinent to HE so I would like to repost them here:

First I would like to highlight the work of Alistair Young, Senior Software Developer at UHI, who won a prize in JISC MOSAIC Developer Competition.

Alistair’s prize winning iLib, the Course Book Finder perhaps highlights how roles within institutions are becoming increasingly blurred. In my own work as a learning technologist I’m finding more need to understand computer programming and server architecture. This may also be evident in another post from this week highlighting that St George’s University London have won this years JISC Times Higher Education award for their virtual paramedic training in Second Life. Having had an insight into this project it is clear that the team have had to be multi-disciplined and multi-skilled. 

The final post I would like to highlight is on the International University of the People. This is a project which is exploring low-cost higher education achievable by using online communities to support learning. Cost is obviously a big talking point now particularly with the looming New Framework for universities.


This blog is authored by Martin Hawksey e-Learning Advisor (Higher Education) at the JISC RSC Scotland N&E.

mhawksey [at] | 0131 559 4112 | @mhawksey

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