Chip Bruce speaks of exploration kits in a recent blog post
[Backpack-based exploration kits] would be available to individual youth, or to organizations such as community centers, after-school programs, boys and girls clubs, 4-H, and so on. They would allow youth to take tools into many different settings, thus promoting ubiquitous learning.
I have been obsessing on the technical components of such an exploration kit. Is there a certain set of technologies that various professionals use in their daily work lives that could be included in such kits and made available to youth and other citizen professionals?
I’d like to propose a group brainstorming exercise to design such a toolkit, and invite comments on what others would see as the ideal components for such a kit. To kick things off, here’s some components we’re beginning to play with for our first kits. In choosing the specific items, I’ve tried to balance cost, ease-of-use, quality, and completeness of the kits. As such, devices are sometimes chosen because they can serve multiple purposes, although it sometimes may sacrifice a bit on ease-of-use and/or quality. At other times, components were chosen to improve quality even if it increased cost to some degree.
- MSI Wind 10″ ultra-mobile netbook PC (UMPC). Laptops are becoming the general computing device of choice over desktop computers. The UMPC shows great promise of providing an increasingly mobile format that remains fully functional. The slightly larger screen and near full size keyboard of the MSI Wind are expected to serve well as a general purpose computer, while the under 3 pound weight and relatively small size maximize portability. The specific model includes a 6-cell battery to provide over 5 hours of charge in the field, a 160 GB hard drive to allow storage of digital photos and video for editing, and bluetooth to connect to GPS and other wireless components.
- Sound Professionals ‘Super Stealth’ High Gain, High Sensitivity Omnidirectional USB Microphone. We’ve had great success using this external microphone to enhance Skype conference calls and to capture high quality archives of interviews and group discussions using Audacity software.
- Garmin 10x Bluetooth GPS receiver and Mobile PC software. As geo-coding becomes integrated with a growing number of applications, it seems valuable to equip toolkits with a GPS receiver. The Garmin 10x receiver was chosen because it works with any GIS-enabled software, for the flexibility of wandering with the receiver within 30 feet of the UMPC, and its quality of satellite reception. The Mobile PC software provides driving directions and resource location within North America.
- Canon Powershot SD1100IS digital camera. A highly reviewed sub-compact camera that provides good quality still images and potentially YouTube quality video.
- Pinnacle Studio Ultimate 12. This has been used very successfully by some of our community partners to enable youth to produce quality video presentations with minimal up front training.
- Tripod. Something like the Canon mini-tripod 7 is highlight portable and provides a stable base for long exposure captures, for time-lapse photos, and for shots in which the photographer is included in the image. A larger tripod, such as the Proline ST-400, while less portable, provides eye-level positioning of the camera and greater stability in windier conditions, among other advantages.
- Logitech Clearchat Comfort USB Headset provides the ability to listen to recordings live to confirm recording quality, and to also provide improved recording quality by an individual when doing things like voice overs or podcasts.
- Canon ZR930 Camcorder. This DV-based camcorder provides higher quality video recordings, but just as importantly provides an external microphone input for improved audio recording in a consumer-level camcorder. We’ve had many reports that the most problematic aspect of video capture has been the audio input when interviewing people in the field. The tradeoff of using a higher quality, DV-based camcorder is that transfers to PC occur real-time (1 hour recording requires 1 hour to transfer) via firewire (which is not included as part of the MSI Wind and therefore must be performed on a separate device).
- Azden Cam-3 passive mixer, Audio-technica ATR-35S wired lavalier microphone, Audio-technical ATR288W wireless microphone system. Combined, these provide a mechanism for a mix of lavalier and handheld microphone inputs via mini-phono plug that can be used with either the ZR930 camcorder or the MSI Wind laptop. As pointed out above, audio recording quality has been a major issue during interviews. There is considerable value in having a mixture of different microphones to best meet the recording needs under different environments.
- Garmen eTrex Legend. This standalone GPS device has been field-tested in many different situations. It remains to be seen whether the UMPC combined with the Garmin 10x bluetooth receiver can fully replace this tried-and-true method for collecting geo-coding data.
With each of the add-ons, a kit runs around $1600 USD including various incidentals. Certainly to make these widely available, a number of logistics would need to be worked out regarding maintenance and security. But I’d like to focus this brainstorming session on components.
So what do others think? When sending out citizen scientists, citizen planners, citizen journalists, and other citizen professionals, what technologies are most needed? Is it possible to create one exploration kit to cover most or all citizen professional needs? Is it possible to create one base unit and a mixture of add-ons to include as needed for specific purposes?