Archive for the ‘Innovation’ Category

35W Bridge Rendering

35W Bridge Rendering


It was just over a year ago when I began this blog and wrote about the collapse of Minneapolis’ I-35W bridge. I focused that post on the city-enabled wireless technology deployed within hours of the collapse, aiding communications to and among first responders (since the cellular networks were overloaded), and proivding an avenue for real-time sharing of information and videos with the rest of the world. Given that I live in the Twin Cities and the focus of this blog – in a round-about way, is about technology – I thought it a fitting post then and again now, to talk about the technology used in the new bridge. 

I haven’t personally traveled on the bridge yet, but have noticed significant relief from the congestion on nearby arteries, used as alternative routes routinely. I think all Twin Citians can claim a little less stress and time to commute cross-town now.

While not every last piece is completed, the builders, Flatiron Constructors Corp., say that substantial work has been done, with only the trimmings remaining. This will be carefully measured as the company’s $234 million contract included a $200,000-a-day incentive for each day the bridge was finished before December 24, 2008.

But back to the technology piece; some boast that the cutting-edge technology will make this new 35W bridge a model for future bridges, as well as a model for bridge inspection and maintenance. Here is an excerpt from a recently published Minnesota Public Radio article by Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio, September 16 (includes audio file):

The key to the new design is redundancy, that means it’s designed to transfer load between different parts of the bridge. If one section fails, the others will pick up the slack and prevent a collapse. But it’s the so-called Smart Bridge technology that really sets it apart. The new span is fitted with 323 sensors that will take regular readings on the bridge’s condition. Each one will monitor things like deck movement, stress and temperature. The data will be collected and analyzed by a team from the University of Minnesota. MnDot officials said the information will make bridge inspection and maintenance much easier over the life of the bridge.”

This may help skittish bridge goers feel a bit less apprehensive about traversing the Mississippi River over by the U of M, but I’m wondering where the funds will come from to repair the myriad other bridges in urgent need of repair. All eyes were on this one due to shocking nature of a very large section of a bridge going down in one huge hunk and the devastation it caused (or the potential fear it generated in wondering which bridge is next).

It’s always a catch-up game in the U.S., with domestic issues (let’s count them) being terribly underfunded. I am always hopeful that some day we can jettison our quick-fix mentality for a long term preventive strategy, but that takes a willingness to fund these necessary projects and yes, might just require an increase in taxes or a re-prioritization of our revenues.

Well, until we can stay ahead of the game, it’s back to whack-a-mole.

For additional information on the I-35W bridge collapse and reconstruction, here are some links.


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Second Life may be the only virtual reality product we’re seeing being used by some early adoptors in higher education, but from where I sit, it won’t be too long before other virtual world (game) engines become more ubiquitous. I can’t imagine that the current developers, Open Source or otherwise, won’t be leapfrogging each other within another two years. SUN Microsystems and the Croquet Project are two such serious contenders. And as of today, “Rumors abound that Google is developing online ‘virtual world’,” per the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gaming engines are intended to more easily put in the hands of experimenting faculty, the ability to create their own scenarios, virtual spaces, and collaborative communities without being gaming programmers. Before the appearance of Second Life, these imagineers had to contract with game developers to create MUVEs (multi-player virtual environments). As facts, figures, or assumptions change, the MUVEs risk being outdated or placed the chopping block for an infusion of current data. Harvard University’s River City or Indiana University’s QuestAtlantis are two such examples of excellently created MUVEs, but created at the hands of expert gaming developers. 

With game engine software licenses, faculty may have to spend a goodly amount of time (presently, anyway) learning how to create an Avatar, building objects or assets, or learning how to teleport, but the control is in the hands of those instructors excited to see how well these worlds meaningfully engage their learners. 

What follows are my bookmarked YouTube videos showing various uses of virtual realities. I want to stay vendor-agnostic, so please do not consider these plugs for any particular software.

If you have other examples of good videos on 3D immerisive learning environments for education, please submit a comment to this post (instructors, teachers, campus or school administrators only, please). 


This video (Octboer 2006) is a fascinating virtual press conference held by SUN Microsystems within Second Life. 3 1/2 minutes


The second video from SUN Microsystems, provides some first looks at their virtual world application, Project Wonderland, where distributed teams can create spaces to solve real-world problems, share documents, and collaborate as needed. Open Source, based on Darkstar game server, uses JAVA code  ~10 minutes


This is a very popular video that came out 2/15/07 on Ohio University’s Second Life Campus. 2 1/2 minutes


A Croquet software demo (August 2007) 5 minutes

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I live in the Twin Cities and I started this blog just weeks after the Minneapolis I-35W bridge collapse. So it seemed only fitting to me to post something about how technology was deployed urgently and creatively, right during the peak of the crisis. The main communication problem that night was with the cellular network coming to its knees within 30 minutes of the collapse. Those keeping their eyes on technological solutions immediately wanted to unclog the network so it could be used for first responders.

From some very brief Internet research, it appears that the use of municipal Wi-fi networks for emergencies and disasters had been discussed and scenario-planned but had not really gone prime time, until this. Here’s what happened that night.

A recently but partially completed Wi-fi network in Minneapolis was opened up the night of the disaster so anyone could use it. Stats showed the number of concurrent users grew quickly to 6,000. Besides immensely helping communications by moving traffic off the cell network, the opening of the wireless network allowed movement of large GIS mapping files right to the recovery site and supported webcams for rescue workers.

The man who co-founded US Internet, the municipal Wi-fi network for Minneapolis, Joe Caldwell, tried to use his cell phone to contact city officials within minutes of learning about the disaster, but to no avail. But he had a solution; US Internet could open the Wi-fi network and people with Wi-fi enabled laptops or other devices could send instant messages, video, photos and email. And those with Wi-fi enabled phones could make voice calls. And so it happened.

GIS software was used to help the responders set up staging areas for families and the media as well as to identify where to put debris. It was also used to identify secure areas for the President and Secret Service when they arrived a few days later.

So what does community media and technology infrastructure have to do with teaching and learning? The skills needed for many future jobs have very much to do with knowing how to use spatial and virtual technologies. When faculty teach courses that utilize imaging and 3D modeling solutions, GIS mapping software, or interactive virtual environments, they are firstly teaching students how to use those technologies for later employment. But they are also in the process fostering inquiry and problem-based learning , scaffolded learning, and constructivism, allowing for very rich learning experiences.

I am proud to be a part of a system of colleges and universities where creative faculty are thinking up new ways to use these technologies in everything from automation and motion control to emergency preparedness and law enforcement. I’ve come across outstanding innovation occurring throughout our system of campuses and look forward to seeing what other ideas emerge.

 (Sources: Computerworld, Aug 2007, Government Computer News, Sept 8, 2007)

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