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Digital Literacy in the context of Smart Cities

September 8th is UNESCO’s International Literacy Day. This year the theme is ‘Literacy in a digital world’:

At record speed, digital technologies are fundamentally changing the way people live, work, learn and socialise everywhere. They are giving new possibilities to people to improve all areas of their lives including access to information; knowledge management; networking; social services; industrial production, and mode of work. However, those who lack access to digital technologies and the knowledge, skills and competencies required to navigate them, can end up marginalised in increasingly digitally driven societies. Literacy is one such essential skill.

Just as knowledge, skills and competencies evolve in the digital world, so does what it means to be literate. In order to close the literacy skills gap and reduce inequalities, this year’s International Literacy Day will highlight the challenges and opportunities in promoting literacy in the digital world, a world where, despite progress, at least 750 million adults and 264 million out-of-school children still lack basic literacy skills.

International Literacy Day is celebrated annually worldwide and brings together governments, multi- and bilateral organizations, NGOs, private sectors, communities, teachers, learners and experts in the field. It is an occasion to mark achievements and reflect on ways to counter remaining challenges for the promotion of literacy as an integral part of lifelong learning within and beyond the 2030 Education Agenda.

In the past days I’ve been preparing for a conference talk this weekend and its has become clear to me that digital literacy is of key importance for helping individuals to engage with urban technologies and exercise digital agency. It is through digital literacy that people living in cities will be able to understand and make informed decisions with regard to the use and impact of emerging technologies. Smartphones, the Internet of Things, driverless cars, drones, artificial intelligence and automation can be very daunting and their implications unclear.

A common response to the perceived imposition of digital technologies is to try to disconnect. It is up to the individual to determine to what extent they engage with such technologies. However, ignoring these technologies altogether is no solution. At the very least we have to provide the opportunity for those that are sufficiently capable to be able to inform themselves, enabling them to more effectively assess the advantages and disadvantages of different technologies. We need to move away from the kind of binary thinking that leads to an all or nothing approach to technology. Fostering digital literacy is key for helping individuals and communities negotiate lives that are increasingly mediated by digitally technologies.

At the conference on Monday afternoon I’ll be presenting my paper ‘Opening Urban Mirror Worlds: Possibilities for Participation in Digital Urban Dataspaces’. In this talk I’ll discuss some of the ways in which technologies like virtual and augmented reality might be used to give people access urban data. I’ll also be part of a panel discussing ‘Engagement in the Smart City’. Further details can be found on the conference website: Whose Right To The Smart City.

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Habitat: Drama and Adventure in Early Online World’s

Today while trawling the web I stumbled on this promo for an early MMO from 1986 called Habitat. Produced by Lucasfilm Games in collaboration with online service provider Quantum Link the game provided for real-time interaction between Commodore 64 users via dial-up modem. The advert repeatedly assures potential players of the possibilities for fast paced ‘drama and adventure’, but its hard to get that sense from the in game footage. The appeal of the game likely had more to do with the novelty of synchronous interaction between players in a persistent and graphically represented online environment. To that point online MUDs had tended to be text based.

I love the way the players’ interactions are presented in the video. Combined with the jaunty music and voice over they seem jarringly innocent. At the same time the implications of their interactions weirdly presage the tensions and less comfortable aspects of online interaction today. While stealing another avatar’s head is totally fair game [IT TOTALLY IS!], the suggestion that an armed robbery in the game might be averted by a trip to the sauna…from the perspective of a critical reading there’s a lot going on there. I believe today’s augmented audiences are a little less naive.

Bang!

The game and its advert are wonderful artefacts from the perspective of media archeology, not only insofar as the game is a precursor to today’s MMOs, but also as it relates to the wider context of early developments in online communities, virtual environments and social media. The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) have obtained the original source code from Lucasfilm Games in an attempt to preserve and restore the game in working condition. The code is available on GitHub here.

Both the advert and the game provide wonderful artefacts for critical reading and media archeologies. The Museum of Art and Digital Entertainment (MADE) have obtained the original source code from Lucasfilm Games in an attempt to preserve and restore the game in working condition. The code is available on GitHub here.

Exploring London’s Underworld in VR

In collaboration with academic and urban explorer Bradley Garrett the Guardian have released this new interactive tour virtual reality of London’s sewers. The tour has been specially created for Google Daydream. However, there is also an interactive demo for your desktop web browser. For more information check out the Guardian VR page.

CleanSpace: Mapping Air Pollution in London

phones-two

Today I received a personal air quality sensor, the CleanSpace sensor tag. The device is a carbon monoxide (CO) sensor which is designed to be carried by the user and paired with the CleanSpace Android or iOS app via blueetooth. While the sensor takes readings the app provides real time feedback to the user on local air quality. It also pushes the anonymised sensor readings to a cloud server which aggregates them to create a map of air quality in London.

As well as providing data for analytics the app is intended to encourage behaviour change. It does this by rewarding users with ‘CleanMiles’ for every journey made on foot or by bike. The clean miles can then be exchanged for rewards with CleanSpace partner companies and retailers.

Another interesting aspect of the project is that the sensor tag is powered using Drayson Technologies’ Freevolt. This enables the device to harvest radio frequency (RF) energy from wireless and broadcast networks including 3G, 4G and WiFi. In theory this means that the device can operate continually without needing to have its batteries recharged because it can draw energy directly from its environment. In this way the CleanSpace tag provides a perfect test bed for Drayson’s method of powering Low Energy IoT devices.

The project kicked off with a campaign on Crowdfunder last autumn which raised £103,136 in 28 days. The campaign was initiated shortly after the announcement of results from a study at Kings College which found that nearly 9,500 deaths per year could be attributed to air pollution. Two pollutants in particular were found to be responsible: fine PM2.5 particles in the air from vehicle exhaust along with toxic Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) gas released through the combustion of diesel fuel on city streets. While the CleanSpace tag does not measure PM2.5 or NO directly it is believed that recorded levels of CO can provide a suitable surrogate for other forms of air pollution given their shared source in car fuel emissions.

While the UK government are under pressure to clean up air pollution from the top-down, Lord Drayson who leads the CleanSpace project argues that there is also need for a complementary response from the bottom up:

“I think the effect of air pollution is still relatively underappreciated and there is work to do in raising awareness of the impact it has.”

“Yes, the government has a role to play, but this isn’t solely a government issue to tackle. The best way to achieve change, and for legislation and regulation to work, is for it to grow from and reflect the beliefs and behaviours of the general public as a whole.”

I’m looking forward to seeing what the device reveals about my own exposure to air pollution on my daily commute. It’ll also be interesting to see how my contribution fits in with the broader map being built up by the CleanSpace user community. After collecting some data I’m keen to compare the apps output with the data collected by the London Air Quality Network based at King’s College.

I’m a card carrying walker. At the same time I’m struck by the paradox that every CleanMile walked or cycled is essentially a dirty mile for the user. I can see the device and app appealing massively to those who already walk and cycle, and want to contribute to raising awareness on the issue of air pollution. However, with the sensor retailing at £49.99 the CleanMile rewards will have to be sufficiently compelling to encourage a wider base of new users participate, especially if the project is expected to have a genuine impact on the way they commute. Of course, it has to start somewhere! It’s an exciting challenge so I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Microsoft HoloLens: Hands On!

It’s taken a while but I finally had my first hands on look at Microsoft HoloLens last night. The demonstration was given as part of the London Unity Usergroup (LUUG) meetup a talk by Jerome Maurey-Delaunay of Neutral Digital about their initial experiences of building demos for the device with Unity. Neutral are a design and software consultancy who have a portfolio of projects including work with cultural institutions such as the Tate and V&A, engineering and aviation firms like Airbus, and architectural firms such as Zaha Hadid architects who they are currently assisting to develop Virtual Reality visualisation workflows.

During the break following the presentation I had may first chance to try the device out for myself.  One of the great features of HoloLens is that it incorporates video capture straight out of the box. Although clips weren’t taken on the night these videos from the Neutral Digital twitter stream provide a good indication of my experience when I tested it:

After using VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive the first thing you notice about the HoloLens is how unencumbered you feel. Where VR headsets enclose the user’s face to block out ambient light and heighten immersion in a virtual environment, the HoloLens is open affording the user unhindered awareness of their surrounding [augmented] environment over which the virtual objects or ‘holograms’ are projected. The second thing you notice is that the HoloLens runs without a tether. Once applications have been transferred to the device it can be unplugged leaving the user free to move about without worrying about tripping up or garroting themselves.

Being able to see my surroundings also meant that I could easily talk face to face with Jerome and see the gestures he wanted me to perform in order operate the device and manipulate the virtual objects it projected. Tapping forefinger and thumb visualised the otherwise invisible virtual mesh that the HoloLens draws as a reference to anchor holograms to the users environment. A projected aircraft could then be walked around and visualised from any angle. Alternatively holding forefinger and thumb while moving my hand would rotate the object in that direction instead.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of these demos. The ability of HoloLens to project animated and interactive Holograms that feel anchored to the user’s environment is impressive. I found the headset comfortable and appreciated being able to see my surroundings and interact easily with the people around me. At the same time I wouldn’t say that I felt immersed in the experience in the sense discussed with reference to virtual reality. The ability to interact through natural gestures helped involve my attention in the virtual objects I was seeing, but the actual field of view available for projection is not as wide as the video captures from the device might suggest.

As it stands I wouldn’t mistake Microsoft’s holograms for ‘real’ objects, but then I’m not convinced that this is what we should be aiming for with AR. While one of the prime virtues of virtual reality technologies like Oculus and Vive is their ability to provide a sense of ‘being there’, I see the strength of augmented reality technologies elsewhere in their potential for visualising complex information at the point of engagement, decision or action.

Kind thanks to Neutral Digital for sharing their videos via Twitter. Thanks also to the London Unity Usergroup meetup for arranging the talks and demo.

One Man Game Jam: HTC Vive Basketball

HTC Vive BasketballLast week CASA finally received the HTC Vive. Everyone in the office had great fun exploring Valve’s demo experience The Lab. During the week the Longbow emerged as a particular favourite and caused several of us to discuss which sports might work in VR as viable training simulations. Wanting to get to grips with the HTC Vive hand controllers I decided to take up the challenge by creating a basketball simulation for the Vive in Unity.

I started by downloading a SketchUp model of a basketball court from the 3D warehouse. The model had no walls and a lot of reversed faces so I quickly fixed it up in SketchUp with the aid of the S4U Material plugin, ThomThom’s Material Tools and ThomThom’s excellent CleanUp³ plugin. I also obtained a royalty free basketball model from TurboSquid.

Basketball Court SketchUp

As the Unity importer for SketchUp had failed last time I used it I exported the model from SketchUp in Collada format, and converted it to FBX out of habit using the Autodesk FBX converter. After importing the models into Unity I downloaded the SteamVR plugin and added the CameraRig prefab to my scene to handle the basic Vive interaction.

Basketball Court Unity

Trigger colliders were placed in the basketball hoops with a C# script attached to count the score. The Steam scripts for TestThrow and Teleporter were then added to the hand controllers and modified to enable the player to navigate the entire basketball court and to spawn and throw the ball. The ball physics were handled with a simple Unity physics material which was surprisingly effective.

Using the Vive hand controller works well with two qualifications: Firstly it isn’t possible to apply back spin to the ball; secondly there is a high risk of throwing the hand controller out of the window. Risk of breakage in injury aside the final game is really challenging but great fun. I thought I’d actually got the drop on Basketball games in VR but it looks like HelloVR are adding a basketball experience to their social VR platform Metaworld. Could be fun!

SpatialOS: What If We Had A Digital City?

In this video from Slush 2015 the CEO of tech company Improbable, Herman Narula, introduces the company’s ground breaking SpatialOS by asking the question ‘What if we had a digital city?’  Its value is the possibility it provides for seeing into the future of the city and answering the types of questions that start ‘What if?’ In this way the concerns motivating the creation of SpatialOS coincide with those of my own PhD in Near Real Time Urban Data Spaces here at CASA.

In his presentation Narula considers the impact that the introduction of self-driving autonomous vehicles might have on our cities. We might expect them to change patterns of usage on transport networks by making journeys more efficient, and this could have further implications for land uses associated with related phenomena such as parking. This in turn suggests an impact on economic activity which, in turn, could have implications for transport related crime and policing. We can guess what the impacts might be but what will this really look like?

The motivation behind SpatialOS is the ability to understand the consequences of complexity. In complex adaptive systems such as cities the interactions between different components of the system are non-linear. Contrasted with the relationships in linear systems where effects will be proportional to and more directly related to their causes, the relationships in non-linear systems will be disproportionate, indirect and, therefore, extremely difficult to predict.

While large amounts of data about cities can now be gathered in near real time for the purpose of up to the minute analysis, this does not provide any guarantee that the currently observed patterns of behavior will persist into the future. This limits our ability to answer questions of the kind ‘What If?’ What if we add a new station to the tube network? What if we route the trains differently? What if we build a new district? What will the impact of a new technology be? SpatialOS offers to help answer these questions by enabling us to digitally recreate and simulate the entire system.

The challenge Narula identifies is that of achieving a form of ‘Strong Simulation’ which leverages sufficient computational power that is fully dedicated to the process of simulation. This is contrasted with ‘Weak Simulation’ which Narula characterised in a previous presentation as the necessity of sharing computation between simulation and other processes such as rendering. With SpatialOS Strong Simulation is achieved through the distribution of computational load across servers in the cloud.

This is potentially ground breaking technology for data scientists but also has amazing potential for the creation of virtual environments and video gaming. The presentation ends with a presentation from Bossa Studios whose game Worlds Adrift uses SpatialOS to provide a massive mutliplayer online gaming environment.

What makes the game special is the way in which each of the individual objects in the game environment are indefinitely persistent and affected by physics in real time. Already simulating over four million objects at the current stage of development the potential of SpatialOS for both gaming and scientific simulation is massive!