Sunday, February 20, 2011

Where Is The Cool Video Eyewear?

The cell phone is increasingly becoming the center of our digital universe: we use it not only to communicate with one another, but also to surf the web and consume audio and, increasingly, video media.  We appear to be accepting and working around its inherent physical limitations: screen size and poor audio.  But do we have to?

Even a few decades ago, researchers played with the notion of head-mounted displays (HMD) - displays that were mounted on the head (initially via ugly helmets, later with less bulky visors/glasses) and which could project images directly in front of its user's eyes.  Despite gigantic leaps in miniaturization elsewhere in the electronic industry, HMDs seemed to have never come into vogue.  I have always wondered why - because the idea, to me, is the path to the cell phone's future!

Imagine wearing a cool set of shades which wirelessly communicate (wireless HDMI, anyone?) with the cellphone in your pocket to provide either an augmented- or totally virtual-reality to your eyes - at an eye-popping resolution that could never be attained within the tiny physical dimensions of a cell phone screen.

One company, Vuzix, has been selling pretty good looking eyewear for a few years.  But it doesn't seem like it's terribly successful at it - the glasses haven't progressed much from when I last looked at them 5 years ago: the resolution has become reasonably acceptable (their high-end model provides 1024x768), but it still relies on unsightly wires to communicate with its video/audio source.  Has the industry progressed so little because of lack of demand?  Do people think such eyewear would just look too geeky or do they simply not see the potential?

Have you guys ever seen Layar?  It's an augmented reality application that I first encountered a couple years ago - it's pretty amazing: it uses your cell phone's built-in GPS and camera to show you, through the cell phone's screen a reality that has been "enhanced" with the information you'd like to see.  For example, one day I was standing in the middle of a street in Philadelphia when my daughter whined about being hungry.  I took out my iPhone and brought up the Layar application and asked it point out restaurants around me.  I simply held up the phone and looked at the screen.  As I swept in a 360-circle, the street scene in the phone showed little bubbles indicating where the restaurants were.  Very cool.  Layar can be configured with all sorts of location-based information.

Now imagine how cool it would be if you didn't have to pull out your cell phone?  If you were wearing glasses that always superimposed interesting information (where you configure what's interesting) in your field of view?  Initially, this could be Layar-style location-based information.  But in the not-to-distant future, this information could include facial recognition (no more embarrassing silence because you forgot the name of the person in front of you).  This is not science fiction stuff we're talking about - the technology is all there (the iPhoto application on the Mac can already go through my photo collection and connect it to previously identified faces).

I just wonder when someone will come up with the eyewear to enable all of this.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Longer School Year - A Followup With Links

I did a bit of searching and found an extensive study on the subject by the National Center for Time and Learning:
The study tracked 650 schools (both charter and public/district) that offered an expanded school day or year (on average these schools offered 25% more school time than the national average of 178 days/1100hrs) and found a statistically significant correlation between an expanded school time and student performance.  The full report, including detailed results can be found here:

My daughter (she's a 7th grader in Millstone) also found a news article about Obama proposing a longer school year.  What's most interesting about the article is the table that lists the school years of other countries.

My daughter and I are now independently researching  states who have mandated a longer school year.  So far, she's found Kansas and Ohio.  Our goal is to look into whether these states have standardized tests and whether test scores show improvement after they have moved to the longer school year.  This might take a bit longer.  We'll let you know what we find.

An expanded school year may mean an increase in teacher salaries (the above report states that, on average, teacher salaries rose 14%; but the report also mentions that the proportion of schools in the study that were in economically depressed areas were higher than the national average.  To me, this means that teacher pay in those areas were also depressed - so the 14% pay increases seen in these schools may not reflect the increase a suburban school district such as ours would face).  But, again, our BOE just gave our teachers a 6% raise for really no reason I can discern other than a feeling by the union that teachers 'deserved it after not getting any increase the previous year' (never mind that inflation was near zero and there were no measured student performance improvements in the school district).  So if we decided to move towards an expanded school year, there should be significant wiggle room in salary negotiations.

On a related front, the Millstone Examiner published what I thought was an interesting letter by a teacher of 46 years.  The author's main thrust was that teachers should not solely be graded on the results of standardized tests as Christie seems to propose.  I actually agree with this teacher!  A better empirical way to assess a teacher's effectiveness is to measure the *progress* his students make relative to their academic history.  For instance, student A takes a test both at the beginning and end of 7th grade and improves his math score by 10%.  But in 5th and 6th grade math, his score improved 20% each year.  This is an indication that the 7th grade teacher is not teaching this student as well as expected.  If the other students in his class also show reduced improvements, the lack of effectiveness on the part of the teacher is confirmed.  This method of assessing teacher performance is beginning to be used in some schools across the country.

The author of the Examiner article also makes the point that fostering a 'culture of learning' is just as important, if not more so, than the teacher: if kids are around parents who don't place much importance on academics or if kids hang out with other kids who don't value education, then they themselves will value education less.  The author also found and admits that it's definitely true that K-12 schools don't adequately prepare kids for college: he found that almost 2/3 of the students who attend community college need to take remedial courses to bring them up to a college level!  If true, that's pathetic.  Parents wake up!  You're basically paying for your child's education twice: once through property taxes into the ineffective K-12 system, and then again in the form of an extra year or so of college tuition on remedial courses!