Getting Bits to Boxes

Okay – here’s a throwaway post for the weekend – a quick sketch of a thought experiment that I’m not going to follow through in this post, though I may do in a later one…

  • The setting: “the box” that sits under the TV.
  • The context: the box stores bits that encode video images that get played on the TV.
  • The thought experiment: what’s the best way of getting the bits you want to watch into the box?

That is, if we were starting now, how would we architect a bit delivery network using any or all of the following:

1) “traditional” domestic copper last mile phone lines (e.g. ASDL/broadband);
2) fibre to the home;
3) digital terrestrial broadcast;
4) 3G mobile broadband;
4.5) femtocells, hyperlocal, domestic mobile phone base stations that provide mobile coverage within the home or office environment, and use the local broadband connection to actually get the bits into the network; femtocells might be thought of as the bastard lovechild of mobile and fixed line telephony!
5) digital satellite broadcasts (sort of related: Please Wait… – why a “please wait” screen sometimes appear for BBC red button services on the Sky box…).

Bear in mind that “the box” is likely to have a reasonable sized hard drive that can be used to cache, say, 100 hrs of content alongside user defined recordings.

All sorts of scenarios are allowed – operators like BT or Sky “owning” a digital terrestrial channel; the BBC acting as a “public service ISP”, with a premium rate BBC license covering the cost of a broadband landline or 3G connection; Amazon having access to satellite bursts for a couple of hours a day; and so on…

Hybrid return paths are possible too – the broadband network, SMS text messages, a laptop on your knee or – more likely – an iPhone or web capable smartphone in your hand, and so on. Bear in mind that the box is likely to be registered with an online/web based profile, so you can change settings on the web that will be respected by the box.

If you want to play the game properly, you might want to read the Caio Review of Barriers to investment in Next Generation Broadband first.

PS If this thought experiment provokes any thoughts in you, please share them as a comment to this post:-)

Wake Up and Smell the Cordite – Why Broadband Access is Not Just for PCs

A few days ago, I posted a few observations about internet appliances, leaving the post dangling with a comment about how nice it would be to have an internet TV applicance that was as easy to use as the Pure Evoke Flow wifi radio.

Well, it seems that CES will flush a few first generation candidates out of the woodwork – like the LG/Netflix streaming broadband TV, for example.

Sony also do wifi TVs, such as the Bravia ZX1 for example, but I’m not sure if this can stream video content from the web directly? Using the BRAVIA Internet Video Link Module, however, it is possible to stream content from the web to Bravia TVs, as this landing page for the Amazon Video On Demand on BRAVIA Beta suggests.

(Apple also do an internet TV box, of course – the Apple TV. And in the UK, services like BT Vision and Fetch TV offer hybrid set-top PVR boxes that blend Freeview terrestrial digital broadcast reception with video-on-demand services via a broadband connection (see also IP Vision delivers over the top set-top box to Fetch TV).)

Netflix already have a streaming delivery deal with Microsoft’s XBox 360, too – though rights issues being as they are, neither the 360 play, nor presumably the LG TVs, are available outside the US. (C’mon, BBC, c’mon…;-)

In fact, although not appreciated by many people, all the latest generation consoles – Wii, XBox 360 and PS3 – come with support for internet connectivity; and many of the latest release games include options for network play. (The BBC iPlayer also works on at least PS3 and the Wii too – but you knew that already, right?)

So here’s where my one “prediction” for the year ahead comes in to play: we’ll start seeing adverts for broadband connections that both raise and play upon people’s awareness that broadband is not just for computers (because not everyone feels the need to have a networked computer), but it’s also a desirable for an increasing range of home/consumer electronics appliances.

Like these ads, for example:

Hmm – does that mean my prediction has already come true? Or does it mean that the rest of the world (but not me) knows this is how the world already works just anyway?

PS if I was writing this post as a “serious” piece, I’d probably include some commentary about broadband and wifi router penetration in the UK, numbers of online gamers in the UK, the Ofcom communications Report 2008, the Caio Review of Barriers to investment in Next Generation Broadband etc etc. I’d also idly wonder what on earth our esteemed Prime Minister thinks he means about using a programme of public works to roll out ubiquitous high speed broadband access in the UK? But I’m not going to, ‘cos I’m a blogger not a journo;-)

New Year, New Job? OU Vacancies Round-Up

Given that OUseful.Info is a personal – rather than a corporate – blog, you may be forgiven for wondering why I post round-ups of OU job ads every so often. The answer is simple – I look at the OU jobs listings (via a public RSS feed) to find out about what projects are actually going on around the OU, and get some idea about where the institution’s current priorities lay, at least in terms of staffing needs. And then I post on details about some of the jobs that I think may be interesting in a context, both as a personal reminder to find out who’s been appointed to the posts but also because there’s an outside chance that a small percentage of the readership might actually be interested in applying…

So without further ado, here’s a quick round-up of posts that are currently being advertised. (Note that the deadline on some of them is – err – today…)

  • Enterprise Content Management Programme Manager: ECM will touch all aspects of our business; from committee minutes, to product catalogue workflows, to learning materials production. This is just not about technology; it is about changing our culture, understanding business processes, and building intelligent workflows.
    You will work with many other parts of the University including Computing Services (who manage the technical developments of ECM), and Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS), who manage the production of our learning materials.
    Our core tool for ECM is EMC Documentum; released to a number of early adopters we have just upgraded to version 6.5.
  • JISC TELSTAR Project Manager : This is a superb opportunity to join a proactive world class Library service and provide leadership and excellent project management skills for The JISC (Joint Information Services Committee) funded TELSTAR (Technology Enhanced Learning supporting students to achieve Academic Rigour) project. TELSTAR is a collaborative project between the Library, Learning and Teaching Solutions and Proquest and is based at The Open University headquarters in Milton Keynes.
    The project aims to deliver; more integrated systems solutions for managing course and programme related references within web based courseware; an improved personalised student experience for the management of bibliographic references for learning, teaching and research purposes.
  • Research Associate/Assistant: Semantic Web: The Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute has an opening for a Research Associate to participate to the research activities realized within the NeOn EU-funded integrated project on knowledge sharing and ontology publication. This work is part of our ongoing research program on enabling the development of the Semantic Web, and in particular, of the next generation of Semantic Web applications, by providing the necessary foundation for the realization of such applications. More precisely, this work is at the forefront of emerging semantic technologies, combining infrastructure components for Semantic Web search (i.e., the Watson Semantic Web gateway) and peer-to-peer knowledge sharing with principles of social networks for collaborative evaluation and trust management in ontologies. Core to the work is the development of a new ontology sharing and publication system (Cupboard), which addresses the need for an open, distributed ontology repository system for the Semantic Web.
  • Senior Lecturer in Education (‘Educational ICT’ and Professional development): You will lead the development of courses to extend practitioners’ ability to support the effective use of new technologies in both formal and informal educational contexts (e.g. playgroup, school, home, youth club). This will require understanding how ICT can be used as a tool to enhance subject learning and its assessment across the curriculum as well as in informal settings and workplaces. In addition you will provide academic leadership in the use of ICT to enhance course design within the Department. In this respect you will support course teams in using ICT as pedagogic tools in a way that models the practices that students are expected to develop as an outcome of their study. You will be contributing to the development and transaction of a range of courses as well as playing a key role in extending research in the area of ‘educational ICT’ and the future of education.
  • Senior Learning Developer: Are you interested in on-line learning development? Can you help meet the growing demand for professional learning and development? The Centre for Professional Learning and Development (CPLD) is looking for a Senior Learning Developer to join the team. This appointment offers the opportunity to help shape the OU’s Professional Learning and Development provision that is key to diversifying the learning opportunities we provide to current and potential students and alumni and to our commitment to engage with employers’ skill development needs.
  • Producer Sound & Vision: Learning and Teaching Solutions (LTS) is The Open University’s media production centre. We take academic ideas and turn them into multimedia products for the OU’s distance learning courses.
    We are looking for an imaginative producer to work with academics and within media teams to create innovative ways to deliver educational ideas and content.
    What are you like? You are most likely to have started out in television, video, or radio, and will have taken those narrative and storytelling skills into the world of interactive media. You understand the value and uses of video and audio in education and in multimedia products. You will have had experience of overseeing production teams to ensure high quality and on budget deliveries.
  • Internal Communications Manager: We are looking for a top-flight, Internal Communications Manager to help us align our internal communications with our external image. Working within Communications you will play a strong part in developing effective communications systems, including our intranet, with professionals from within the unit and with colleagues throughout the University. You will be a skilled communicator with a strategic approach.
  • Media Relations Officer, Communications: We’re looking for a creative media professional to help us tell the world. The university needs an experienced media officer to join a small team working in a busy and dynamic environment. We are looking for a media professional with proven experience in a press office or journalism. Experience in the corporate sector, TV publicity and social media would be an advantage. You will need to have strong communication, interpersonal and organisational skills to service the needs of internal and external clients, and the drive and enthusiasm to take advantage of an almost inexhaustible source of PR opportunities.
  • Publications Co-ordinator, Marketing and Sales: You will be responsible for project managing the production and delivery of some of our University publications, aimed at both prospective and existing students. This will involve managing the output to print, digital and online formats of all the university prospectuses and subject-specific prospectuses. You will also be responsible for the production project management of the core publication which conveys the OU/BBC partnership and its activities.
  • Information Literacy Specialist: We are looking for an enthusiastic and creative information professional to help us to develop and embed information literacy skills through all areas of the curriculum.
    You will be a superb communicator with experience of developing effective and engaging learning materials and an up to date knowledge of both information and digital literacies.
  • Business Performance and Planning Manager, The Library and Learning Resource Centre: We are seeking an enthusiastic, highly motivated individual with sound experience of managing budgets and working with complex financial information.
    Providing direct support to the Associate Director (Business Performance and Management) you will be ensuring delivery of the business performance and management agenda.

Please note, that (as ever) I have nothing to do with any of the posts mentioned above – though if you do apply for one, and get called to interview or even take up a post, feel free to ping me for a coffee sometime ;-)

Trackforward – Following the Consequences with N’th Order Trackbacks

One of the nice things about blogging within the WordPress ecosystem is the way that trackbacks/pingbacks capture information about posts that link back to your posts, in much the same way that using the link: search limit on a web or blog search engine allows you to see what other webpages are linking back to a particular web page.

In the latter case, for example, searching for link: on Google blogsearch will turn up blog posts that link back to the original HE Debate blog post on On-Line Higher Education Learning.

(Actually, that’s not quite true. In an apparent tweak of the Google blogsearch algorithm last year, the Google blogsearch engine now seems to be indexing and returning results from complete web pages rather than indexing the content of RSS feeds i.e. blog posts – which means that as well as the useful links referred to in the body of a post, links are also indexed from blogrolls, twitter feeds and bookmark lists displayed in blog sidebars, blog comments etc etc. Which in turn is to say that Google blogsearch qua a web search of blog web pages is not much use as a blog search engine at all…)

By judicious linking back to your own blog posts, it’s possible to build up quite complex pathways between related posts that are navigable in two directions: from one post that links to another, previously published post, via an inline link; and “forwards” in time to a later post that has itself linked back to a post of interest and been picked up via a trackback/pingback.

(For examples of these emergent link structures, see Emergent Structure in the Digital Worlds Uncourse Blog Experiment, Uncovering a Little More Digital Worlds Structure and Trackback Graphs and Blog Categories.)

So the question arises – if I write a blog post that several other people link back to, and several further posts in turn link back to those posts that referred back to my post, but not my original post, how do I keep track of the conversation?

Keeping track of posts that cite my post is easy enough – if I have an effective pingback set-up, that will tell me who’s linking back to my posts; or I can simply run link: searches against the URLs of my posts every so often to see who the search engines think are linking back to me.

The answer lies in a recursive algorithm of the form:

function showInLinks($url){
  foreach ($link in $links){
    print $link;

This will then display URLs for the pages that link to an originally specified URL, the URLs of pages that link to those URLs, and so on…

So here for example is a quick test:

The items numbered “1.” are links that Google blogsearch thinks link back to the original URL. The items numbered “2.” are links that link to the links that link back to the original URL.

Here’s some minimal PHP code if you want to try it out:

$urlstub = "";
if ($_GET['url']) $url=$_GET['url'];
echo "Starting with: ".$url."<br/>";
echo "via: ".$testurl."<br/><br/>";

function handlelinks($url, $depth){
	$urlstub = "";
	//echo "testing".$url."  ";
	//echo "testing ".$testurl."  ";
	$ch = curl_init();
	curl_setopt($ch, CURLOPT_URL, $testurl);
	curl_setopt($ch, CURLOPT_RETURNTRANSFER, 1);
	$body = curl_exec($ch);
	// now, process the JSON string
	$json = json_decode($body);
	//var_dump($json); echo "<br/&gt";    
	if ($depth<3) 
	  foreach (responseData->results as $result) {
		for ($i=0;$i<$depth;$i++) echo "  ";
		echo $depth.".$result->title;
		echo "<a href='".$result->postUrl."'>".$result->postUrl."</a><br/>";
		handlelinks($result->postUrl, $depth);
handlelinks($url, $depth);

By using this sort of algorithm to generate an RSS feed of links, it becomes possible to subscribe to a feed that will keep you updated of all the downstream posts (“blogversation” posts) that are contributing to a discussion that at some point referred to a URL you are interested in.

All Set for a Year of Internet Appliances?

Towards the end of last year, my better half rediscovered the joys of radio… Around the same time, James Cridland wrote a post extolling the virtues of the Pure Evoke Flow wifi radio (Pure Evoke Flow – what it means for radio, or see this video walkthrough), so that was that Christmas present sorted…

As JC pointed out in his post, gadgets like the Evoke Flow could indeed be a game changer. On Christmas Day, we were wifi-less, which meant that the first experience of the radio was as a DAB radio. A quick self-tune on start-up, and a good selection of DAB channels were available. Getting back home meant we could get the wifi channels too – configuring the radio with a wifi key went smoothly enough, and getting an account with the online Lounge service provided a key to register the radio with lots of online goodness.

Wifi radio channels can be favourited online, along with podcast subscriptions, and stored in separate folders; the favourites are then also available on the radio itself. Radio stations can also be browsed and favourited on the radio itself – favouriting them also adds them to a particular folder in your online account.

So here are a few of my immediate impressions:

  • being able to just switch the radio on and tune into a wifi radio or podcast station is really attractive; no need for the radio to receive content via an intermediary PC – it gets its network connection directly from your wifi router;
  • within a few minutes of being connected for the first time, the appliance found a software update and offered to install it – a process which was achieved quickly and efficiently; in an age where automatic software updates are increasingly possible, what does this mean for built-in/planned obsolence?
  • the integration between the appliance itself and the online account means that the radio has a full web browser interface and management tools, if required. (I’d quite like an iPhone interface too;-) I’ve written about “dual view” working before (Dual View Media Channels) – here’s an example of it in action with an interface for one device being provided through another.
  • the appliance makes good use of soft/programmable buttons – a bit like a mobile phone, the functionality of the “buttons” is context dependent; the “undo” (or “go back” a step) button is incredibly useful, too.

I haven’t tried streaming music to the appliance from another computer, but that facility is also available.

From even just a couple of days playing with the Pure Evoke Flow, I’m sold on it – and the idea of streaming, dedicated internet appliances in general. So the idea of the BBC/ITV set-top box – Project Canvas – really appeals… (e.g. Canvas and the connected home and Partners to bring broadband to the TV; looking forward, this is also relevant: IMDA – Internet Media Device Alliance, a trade alliance for agreeing on protocols and formats for streaming digital media).

While on the topic of internet TV (sort of!), I noticed an advert last night on ITV for the ITV player… which is something I’d missed… Assuming that this revamp would be of yet another Windows only player, I was pleasantly surprised:

So if, as with me, the announcement passed you by, here’s a catch-up: in early December, 2008, ITV rebranded its online catchup TV service as ITV Player.

(Sky also launched a (subscription based) online TV play, called – can you guess? – Sky Player (e.g. as reported here: Sky and ITV launch new Silverlight online video players). Channel 4’s watch again service is still tethered to Windows, although some Channel 4 content – such as Shameless – is available via the Flash powered Joost.)

Unlike the Adobe Flash’n’Air approach taken for the BBC iPlayer, ITV and Sky have both opted for Microsoft’s Silverlight (as described in ITV’s case here: Silverlight on the ITV Player).

PS I’m not sure what this means, if anything, but both Apple and Intel have been buying into Imagination technologies, the parent company of Pure (Intel ups stake in Imagination following Apple’s buy-in). Imagination own the IP to the semiconductor cores used in a wide range of digital appliances, so tracking their news releases and OEM relationships over the next year or two could prove interesting…

PPS the consequences of this imagined phrase kept me awake a couple nights ago: “Pure Camvine Flow“. If Project Canvas resulted in an Imagination core capable of streaming BBC and ITV content, what would it mean if those cores were integrated within Camvine “digital signage” screens, so you could just plug your screen in, connect it to your home network, and start streaming watch again and catch-up content? (Ideally, of course, there’d be an iPlayer desktop like facility too…:-)

PPPS Here’s an interesting interview with Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix (via GigaOM: Here Come Broadband TVs). The topic of internet TVs is discussed from about 1m15s in…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

So What Else Are You Doing At The Moment?

I was intending not to write any more posts this year, but this post struck a nerve – What’s Competing for Internet Users’ Attention? (via Stephen’s Lighthouse) – so here’s a quick “note to self” about something to think about during my holiday dog walks…:

What else are out students doing whilst “studying” their course materials?

Here’s what some US respondents declared when surveyed about what else they were doing whilst on the internet:

A potentially more interesting thing to think about though is a variation of this:

In particular, the question: what other media do you consume whilst you are using OU course materials?

And then – thinking on from this – do we really think – really – that contemporary course materials should be like books? Even text books? Even tutorial-in-print, SAQ filled books?

Newspapers are realising that newsprint in a broadsheet format is not necessarily the best way to physically package content any more (and I have a gut feeling that the physical packaging does have some influence on the structure, form and layout of the content you deliver). Tabloid and Berliner formats now dominate the physical aspect of newspaper production, and online plays are increasingly important.

OU study guides tend to come either as large format books or A4 soft cover bindings with large internal margins for note taking. Now this might be optimal for study, but the style is one that was adopted in part because of financial concerns, as well as pedagogical ones, several decades ago.
“what arrived in the post today” – Johnson Cameraface

As far as I know, the OU don’t yet do study guides as print-on-demand editions (at least, not as a rule, except when we get students to print out PDF copies of course materials;-). Print runs are large, batch job affairs that create stock that needs warehousing for several years of course delivery.

So I wonder – if we took the decision today about how to deliver print material, would the ongoing evolution of the trad-format be what we’d suggest? Or do we need an extinction event? The above image shows an example of a recent generation of print materials – which represents an evolution of trad-OU study guides. But if we were starting now, is this where we’d choose to start from? (It might be that it is – I’m just asking…;-)

One other trad-OU approach to course design was typically to try to minimise the need for students to go outside the course materials (one of the personas we consider taking each course is always a submariner, who only has access to their OU course materials) but I’m not sure how well this sits any more.

Now I can’t remember the last time I read a newspaper whilst at home and didn’t go online at least once whilst doing so, either to follow a link or check something related, and I can’t remember the last non-fiction book I read that didn’t also act as a jumping off point – often “at the point of reading” – for several online checks and queries.

So here’s a niggle that I’m going to try to pin down over the holidays. To what extent should our course materials be open ended and uncourse like, compared to tighly scoped with a single, strong and unwavering narrative that reflects the academic author’s teaching line through a set of materials?

The “this is how it is”, single linear narrative model is easier for the old guard to teach, easier to assess, and arguably easier to follow as a student. It’s tried, trusted, and well proven.

The uncourse is all over the place, designed in part to be sympathetic to study moments in daily rituals (e.g. feed reading) or interstitial time (see Interstitial Publishing: A New Market from Wasted Time for more on this idea). The uncourse is ideally invisible, integrated into life.

The trad. OU course is a traditional board game, neatly packaged, well-defined, self-contained. The uncourse is an Alternate Reality Game.

(Did you see what I just did, there?;-)

And as each day goes by, I appreciate a little more that I don’t think the traditional game is a good one to be in, any more… Because the point about teaching is to help people become independent learners. And for all the good things about books (and I have thousands of them), developing skills for bookish learning is not necessarily life-empowering any more…

[Gulp… where did that come from?!]