Are you brightdancing? How about bright learning?

It may sound harsh to say that the best thing about X Factor is the ad breaks, but that’s the conclusion I’ve started to reach recently. To be fair, it hasn’t just been Jedward’s tuneless pogoing or the stress of Deadlock that has me urging on the commercials, but rather the innovative ‘brightdancing’ spots for TalkTalk which bookend the ad breaks.

If somehow you’ve avoided X Factor this year or to your dubious delight were gifted tickets to see X Factor live and haven’t seen these spots, they’re short, (mostly) viewer-made videos in which people make colourful neon shapes in the air by dancing around with their mobiles. You can see them here. All you need to make one of these videos is a PC with a webcam, a darkened room, and a small light source such as the screen of a mobile phone or a torch. When linked to the site, the webcam will record a video of you moving about with the light, and will add glowing neon trails to the path of the movement. This allows you to effectively use the light as a pen, tracing shapes that on the webcam video seem to magically hang in the air around you. When you’ve created a video you can upload it to the site, and wait with baited breath to see if it appears in the adverts next weekend!

This is a great advertising gimmick, and also highlights the power of user generated content. Apart from that, however, this promo also showcases a great new piece of technology that could have interesting implications for interactive design and maybe e-learning in particular. The brightdancing effect can be achieved using the latest versions of Flash and its 3D rendering add-on Papervision. Flash can now take a webcam feed and recognise specific shapes or colours within the image. It can then track those points as they move around. It’s clever stuff, and has at least two big areas of potential that I can see:

  • Gestural control – Using webcams to pick up body movements could well be the next step in gestural control interfaces (http://www.saffroninteractive.com/2009/blog/show-your-mouse-the-finger/). This is the idea behind Microsoft’s ‘Project Natal’ – an extension of the Xbox which dispenses with controllers entirely.
  • Augmented reality – While virtual reality sought to replace the real world with a fully immersive computer generated world, augmented reality seeks to enhance the real world by augmenting it with virtual elements. For example, imagine arriving at an unfamiliar street and holding up your camera phone as if to take a picture of it, with the phone’s screen acting as a viewfinder. Now imagine if that view of the street was overlaid with virtual markers and arrows showing you information about what’s on the street, such as the nearest cash machine or tube station, the bar where you’ve agreed to meet your friends, or shops that currently have sales on. Any virtual information that exists about a place can be melded with the real world space. This could apply to objects too: imagine being in a supermarket, pointing your phone at a box of cereal on the shelf and immediately seeing a warning that you’re allergic to one of its ingredients, that it can be bought 50p cheaper at the shop round the corner, or even that you already bought a box last week so you probably don’t need it.

From a training point of view this type of technology has enormous potential for on-the-spot learning. Let’s say you’re an engineer who services boilers. You get to a house one day to find a very old and unusual type of boiler that you don’t know much about. Instead of having to remember training you did 15 years ago, or calling back to the office for more information, imagine if you could hold up your mobile device to the boiler and instantly bring up its specification, a safety checklist to follow for that model, indicators showing which screws you need to loosen to get access, and which parts most commonly need replacing (along with their order number and stock availability). You could have the thing fixed before you’d even finished your first cup of tea!

At the moment these scenarios are all imagined, but the truth is it won’t be long before you start seeing this kind of thing for real. This technology may be in its infancy, but it does exist and it’s just waiting for developers to start finding uses for it. Those TalkTalk ads are just the glowing neon tip of the iceberg.

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Angus Main - Developer

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