Learning on Location: WorldHistory.com from anywhere

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From Wired.com, May 18th:

Technologists have long dreamed of a clickable world, where machine-readable tags link physical objects to the universe of information on the Web. That dream came closer to reality this month with the release of Semacode, a free system that lets camera phones convert bar codes into URLs.

From Smart Mobs by Howard Reingold (pp. 91-93), a must-read book.

[Rheingold met Jim Spohrer in October 2001] . . . Spohrer had taken a sabbatical from Apple . . . in 1994 with the intention of finding something new to work on. He was particularly interested in the future of education. Walking on a trail, he asked a fellow hiker the name of a plant. “The hiker said that he didn’t know, but his friend probably did. While I waited for the friend to come down the trail, I realized that I had a cell phone and a computer. It occured to me that if I could add a global positioning system, then the person who knew the plant could geo-code the message. Why not make the entire world into a geo-spatial information bulletin board? I got back to Apple and started building prototypes.”

What emerged what a proposed infrastructure called WorldBoard. In 1996, Spohrer wrote:

What if we could put information in places? More precisely, what if we could associate information with a place and perceived the information as if it were really there? WorldBoard is a vision of doing just that on a planetary scale and as a natural part of everyday life. For example, imagine being able to enter an airport and see a virtual red carpet leading you right to your gate, look at the ground and see property lines or underground buried cables, walk along a nature trail and see virtual signs near plants and rocks.

Rheingold has looked for similar research elsewhere and has “found it everywhere.” Sweden has a GeoNotes system, “which enables people to annotate physical locations with virtual notes, to add signatures, and to specify access rights.”

“Jun Rekimoto and his colleagues at Sony described in 1998 ‘a system that allows users to dynamically attach newly created digital information such as voice notes or photographs to the physical environment, through mobile/wearable computers as well as normal computers. . . “

At Infobase Ventures, we are hoping to see Worldhistory.com become a leader in the field of geocoded history. We envision a world history database that can be accessed on location either with a gps-enabled portable device or with a physical bar code (using something like Semacode) that triggers a lookup in a local database (stored on your PDA, for example) or does a wireless query to a remote database.

The key challenge with any “augmented reality” system described by Rheingold is providing individuals with information that they are truly interested in. Who wants the “annotated world” to be as cluttered as modern-day chat rooms–full of useless garbage?

The key to a useful system will be to find those educated and wise people (probably for our system historians) whom former BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland said could “sift, sort, prioritize, integrate, and give some sense of wholeness, some spirit of connectness” to the great stories and truths of history. (Educating Zion, p. 151).

If I am visiting Pearl Harbor or Gettysburg, do I want to see a virtual guest book that has thouands of comments left by random visitors? Or do I want to hear a re-enactment or listen to eyewitness accounts of those who fought in these historic battles? If I belong to a certain religion, or ethnic group, will I want my visit (including the texts I read and the audio I hear and the video I see on my portable device) to be customized based on my personality and profile? Or perhaps do I want to tune into a recorded guided tour given by the leading living expert on these famous 19th and 20th century battlegrounds?

Creating a “learning on location” system of history that is user-friendly will be a very challenging task, especially since it is impossible today to predict what future portable devices will look like and which of the many combo cell phone/PDA/mp3 player/game device systems we will need to build for.

Will Apple include cell phone capabilities in its future iPod or iPod mini? I think they’ll have to in 18-24 months when standard cell phones start shipping with hard drives. Will Sony or Nintendo’s new portable gaming devices that can feature full-motion video and other content as well as wireless connectivity be carried by teenagers all over the world? Could they tie into a “learning on location” historical database?

Lots of questions remain to be answered. Our primary concern is to position Worldhistory.com as one of many players that can help shape this incredibly interesting and rich future. The whole planet will become a learning device capable of teaching us everything that is known to have happened in the past. We’re hoping to have our piece of the “learning on location” puzzle working in the next 2-3 years. Stay tuned.

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