FROM ASTC Dimensions, November/December 2001

JUST-IN-TIME LEARNING-The Exploratorium and Hewlett-Packard Labs have teamed up to develop a new handheld electronic guidebook that extends the learning experience for science museum visitors.

Visitors carry the guidebooks with them as they walk through the museum floor. As a visitor walks up to a particular exhibit, the guidebook provides new forms of interaction, information, and ideas about the exhibit. When approaching the Exploratorium's Echo Tube exhibit, for example, visitors see a small Web page on their handheld guidebook, suggesting ways of interacting with the tube, such as clapping and counting to measure the speed of sound. The guidebook also provides visitors with intriguing questions to consider (such as, "What does a dog bark in the tube sound like?") and a way for them to enter their own questions and observations (which other visitors can then access). In addition, visitors can learn more about the science of echoes (with deeper explanations than available on the exhibit label), real-world connections (for example, recommended locations in the San Francisco area for hearing echoes), and the history and evolution of the exhibit itself (including stories from the exhibit developers). The system allows visitors to save items of interest to a personalized Web page which they can access after their visit at home or school.

The guidebook is being developed as part of a research project with funding from the National Science Foundation. Project staff from the Exploratorium have developed prototype content for five different exhibits, and are testing the concept with a variety of museum audiences. Researchers from HP Labs developed the wireless infrastructure for the project, in which infrared "beacons" on the exhibits send out Web page addresses to the handheld devices. They are testing out several different types of handheld devices and alternative ways to access location information (such as bar-code readers and RFID tags). Another partner in the project, Concord Consortium, is developing sensor technologies that will enable visitors to take measurements, collect and analyze data, and perform other experiments using the handheld computers.

The first phase of research will be completed by early 2002.

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