Thursday, 20 May 2010

Space balloons, mash and bubble blowers

It's pretty cool making interfaces and web-gizmos - but there's no denying that it's much cooler to build actual physical stuff that works. Last week a few of us from the UL went up to Liver and Mash, a Mashed Libraries event at Parr Street Studios in Liverpool. The first thing that caught my eye was a little machine in the corner which intermittently blew clouds of bubbles into the room. It transpired that the bubble blowing was triggered by people tweeting about the event, and the contraption was powered by something called Arduino.

Back in Cambridge, I read this O'Reilly Radar post by Dale Dougherty about people who send balloons into space, build strange robots, make machines which let you examine your own dna (and so on) using lollipop sticks and rubber bands. Well not quite, but the main thread of the post is that innovation is driven by imagination as well as money (indeed lack of money can be a driver of innovation), and that there are emerging technologies which allow you to achieve a great deal at minimal cost.

Mashed Libraries events are all about innovation. Part of a packed and inspiring programme (including a great talk by Arcadia Fellow Tony Hirst) was a presentation by Adrian McEwen on Arduino (part of the technology behind the space balloon project). Arduino is "an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software ... intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments". Essentially an easy, open and cheap way of communicating between software and hardware.

Academic libraries have a big investment in the virtual and the physical. Users discover physical resources on the web, discover virtual resources by asking librarians and colleagues, order up books online and read them in the bath, and sit in the library reading ebooks and ejournals.

For all our (valuable) work on the connections between web interfaces and databases, it's easy to forget that libraries are full of hardware - catalogue machines, self-issue terminals, photocopiers, entrance and exit gates, informations screens, lifts, lights, coffee machines. And increasingly our users carry a powerful arsenal of personal hardware around with them -smartphones being just one example. Could technologies like Arduino and standards such as HTML5 join up the physical and the virtual for our users in new and exciting ways?

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