Perhaps not the most exciting video ever, here’s a quick, 45-second look at the environment at Millennium Park yesterday evening, during a free show by legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen and his band.

Once again, shot with Motorola Droid phonecam. This one is hosted on Youtube, because I wanted to get an idea of quality differences between the videos that I encode and upload to my own host, and those which are encoded and hosted by YouTube. Consider it an A/B test with the Maifest video below.

Author Howard Rheingold demonstrates his Social Media Classroom project on Friday.  Photo: Kathryn Murphy/Medill

Author Howard Rheingold demonstrates his Social Media Classroom project on Friday. Photo: Kathryn Murphy/Medill

Whether it’s mapping an ancient Roman burial route over time, constructing a homemade flashlight or learning how to make art from recycled materials, HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation are helping fund the digital media experiments that could provide innovative learning opportunities for youngsters.

In an effort to bring education up to speed with the digital era, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation along with HASTAC, a consortium of humanities, arts and science professionals, awarded $2 million dollars in grants in the second annual Digital Media and Learning Competition on Thursday.

Howard Rheingold, futurist and author of the book “Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution“ was a winner in last year’s competition, and served as a judge for this year’s applicants. “The educational model that is 1,000 years old, that is based on handwritten books that are chained down to lecterns that some old guy stands up and reads to you, is severely challenged when all the students in the room are online and you’re competing with the rest of the internet,” Rheingold said.

“Young people are changing as a result of digital media,” said Julia Stasch, the vice president of human and community development at the MacArthur Foundation, “This has huge implications for teaching and learning.”

To celebrate the announcement of the winners of this year’s grants, HASTAC brought together 17 of last year’s winners to demonstrate what kinds of projects the grant money helped produce, develop and expand. The event kicked off with a reception and performance by PLOrk, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra at the Newberry Library and concluded with an expo Friday afternoon at the Palmer House.

“[PLOrk] was one of the winners last year,” said Cathy Davidson, professor of interdisciplinary studies at John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and co-founder of HASTAC. “And they’re not only a performing orchestra. When they teach students, they’re teaching students everything from computer music to atonal music to signal processing.”

Both creativity and user-involvement are key factors in determining winners for the competition. The winners of this year’s grants will display the results of their projects at next year’s reception.

“We were looking for things that were not one-off’s, that can replicate and influence,” Rheingold said. “We’re looking at projects that have some degree of ingenuity regarding the technology and particularly projects that are centered on participatory learning.”

Some of this year’s grant recipients included: DigitalOcean, which will connect 200 classrooms worldwide to help observe and monitor declining fish populations; PlayPower, which will use an inexpensive ($12) TV-computer for interactive design of learning games; and Global Challenge, an online competition using media and social networking tools to develop and propose solutions to problems such as global warming and the future of energy.

The emphasis on interactive learning was evident in last year’s winning projects on display at Friday’s expo.

LEDs, resistors, and origami illustrated Ohmwork's winning entry in last year's Digital Media and Learning Competition.  Photo: Ian Monroe/Medill

LEDs, resistors, and origami illustrated Ohmwork’s winning entry in last year’s Digital Media and Learning Competition. Photo: Ian Monroe/Medill

Hypercities, scheduled to publicly launch this summer, allows users to take real maps of cities and overlay both geographical and time-based information. A HyperCity can include everything from its architectural history to the stories of residents past and present.

This has uses in both general education and for high-end research, according to Diane Favro, director of the UCLA Experiential Technologies Center.

“You can go through time and see the different maps and add your own content,” she said. “So you could add somebody’s trip through the city, or where riots had occurred in a particular historical time, or other events, and link that with music or pictures or, as we did with the Rome one, with 3-d models, so it just depends on what your goal is. It’s going to be open for everyone to use, and serve as a platform where everything gets geo-temporally tagged.”

Some of the projects, like Ohmwork, brought students in to help develop the projects. Ohmwork is a social networking site centered on do-it-yourself science and technology projects.

“About 70 kids helped develop the prototype, start and run the project,” said Corbett Beder, director of high school programs at Vision Education and Media. “We let them run wild with it.”

The site, directed primarily towards middle-school-aged kids, offers podcasts about experiments kids can try on their own, as well as the ability to comment on and contribute to the experiments of others.

The grants awarded in last year’s competition were also used to expand projects already in place. The Global Fund for Children created a hub for information and story exchange between grassroots organizations and vulnerable children.

“The grant allowed us to buy flip cameras to send to our partners,” said Monica Grover, a digital media projects manager for the fund. “It helped build this hub and post training in digital storytelling, so these people can share their stories, get their voices heard and help empower them.”

These stories can inspire additional learning, Grover said. People in India can learn from people in Honduras about how to cope in a food crisis, for example.

The MacArthur Foundation’s Stasch was confident the digital media competition would continue to produce innovative opportunities for learning.

“We’re looking around the corner at the best ideas of tomorrow,” she said.

[flashvideo file=”flash_video/PLORK_slideshow.flv” /]

An audio slideshow illustrating the concert by the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk) on Thursday.  The performance was to celebrate the winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition.  PLOrk was a winner in last year’s contest.

Note:  Kathryn Murphy and I co-wrote this piece.  It was first published on the Medill News Service website on 4/21/2009, and is republished here for my own archives.

Joe Born, CEO of Chicago-based Neuros Technology, discusses the new Neuros LINK device.  Photo credit: Ian Monroe/Medill

Joe Born, CEO of Chicago-based Neuros Technology, discusses the new Neuros LINK device. Photo credit: Ian Monroe/Medill

Joe Born wants to change the way you use your television.

Born, chief executive officer, of Neuros Technology International, is an entrepreneur in the classic sense. He got his start in the 1990s with a patent on a device for repairing damaged CDs. Then in 2001, he started Chicago-based Neuros Technologies, which started out making portable digital audio products, much like Apple’s ubiquitous iPod.

On Wednesday at the Neuros headquarters downtown, Born showed off his company’s newest innovations. In a small conference room with whiteboards scrawled with notes and flowcharts mounted on exposed brick walls, he walked through the operation of the Neuros LINK, a device that is known in technical circles as a “media extender.” A media extender enables users to access digital media such as MP3s and movies stored on a home computer, and then watch or listen to them on a television or living room stereo.

“Joe Born is an important pillar of Chicago’s technology community,” said Michael Krauss, co-chair of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Council of Technology Advisors. “He’s a true entrepreneur and inventor that has succeeded more than once, and is challenging convention with his Neuros products.”

The thing that sets Neuros’ products apart from many of their competitors is the emphasis the developers put on using open hardware and software systems as much as possible, instead of building proprietary, closed systems that leave the user at the mercy of the company that built them. “These products are all open source, all the source code is out there,” Born said.

He added that the LINK was Neuros’ most open device to date, and it relies heavily on community-driven development and open software.

The Neuros LINK device, photo courtesy of Neuros Technology

The Neuros LINK device, photo courtesy of Neuros Technology

The Neuros LINK is basically a PC designed to be the “brain” of the entertainment center in the living room. It’s a full-featured machine that is specially designed for audio and video applications. It runs on open-source Ubuntu Linux and uses open-source XBMC as media center software.

The device streams video from a home server or network attached storage, and supports a wide variety of video and audio formats. It sports high-speed ethernet and wireless connectivity, and will play back web video from sources, such as Hulu, Amazon, and YouTube.

Soon Neuros LINK will support Netflix Instant Viewing streams as well. It outputs video and audio over HDMI, meaning it plugs  directly to a high-definition television with a minimum of hassles. It also supports six-channel audio and optical audio outputs.

Born says that the LINK fills a void in the current living-room electronics market. “On one end, there’s a full-fledged home theater PC, of whatever stripe or variety you want,” Born said. “Apple has the Mini, which is sort of in the low end of that vein … and then it goes all the way up to $2,000 or $3,000 machines, generally big, noisy, full keyboard, but no real navigation. On the other end you have AppleTV, Tivo, Roku [a device that streams movies from Netflix], a whole host of embedded devices, but each of those is very limited, it’s a cross section, and it doesn’t have that comprehensiveness. So the LINK [is] a box that is slimmer and has more friendly navigation, but gives you the comprehensiveness of the Internet.”

Neuros.tv is a website designed to complement the Neuro LINK home theater PC. It aggregates online video sources, and sorts videos in an intuitive way. Search for ABC’s “Lost” for instance, and Neuros.TV will return the results sorted by season, with the newest episodes first.

Born said the final version will remember which episodes you’ve already watched, and will highlight the ones you have yet to see. Because it pulls in results from other video services, such as Joost, Hulu, YouTube and FanCast, hundreds of shows are available immediately, on demand. The Neuros.TV site works on any computer, but also has an interface optimized for viewing directly on your television via the Neuros LINK hardware.

The Neuros LINK is currently in what the creators are calling the “Gamma Program,” a sort of public beta testing phase. The software and interface are still undergoing substantial development, but the device is available for sale at a small number of retailers, mostly to early-adopters and hackers that want to try out the platform and contribute to the development efforts.  The LINK is priced at $299, about the same as an Xbox 360.  Born said that this testing phase is essential to get the system refined to the point that everyday users can feel comfortable with the device.

“Having stuff that works, and the details ironed out is vitally important,” Born said. “You can look at doing this yourself, and you can get it 90 percent of the way there, but if you really expect it to be a consumer product that you can sell and someone can just drop in their house, then 90 percent  is not nearly good enough.”

Technology writer Ryan Paul previewed the LINK on the Web site ArsTechnica.com, and wrote, “for experienced Linux users, it just takes a little bit of the usual tweaking to get everything working just right. After that initial time investment, I haven’t had any trouble with it at all. It gives me everything I want in an Ubuntu-based set-top box, and it offers a broad assortment of options for third-party media center software.”

Born is confident that devices such  the LINK constitute an important next step in the evolving media environment. “It’s a very, very exciting and disruptive time; predicting the exact winners and losers and the exact time line is very difficult, but you can’t help but look at this and say, this is going to change everything.”

Note: This article was first published on the Medill Reports website on 4/15/2009.  Some edits were made for this version, now posted for my own archives.