Despite the much-publicized grumblings about CES being less relevant this year due to the direct absence of big players like Microsoft, Apple, and Google, there were clear trends and several standout products at the January Consumer Electronics Show, which will likely impact K–12 education. Here’s a short list of highlights from CES, starting with an overarching trend that’s bound to affect a wide range of devices in coming years.
The future of display technology, foretold. Just the other day, I eyed a ceiling-mounted projector in my library that cost over $5,000 back in 2000 and still works, but just can’t cut it in today’s wide-screen, HD world. Considering the prospect of replacing it, I wonder, where will it end? Well, thanks to CES, I think I know: Ultra HD. It’s the display standard that’ll set the new bar for virtually all screens in the future.
Also known as 4K or Quad HD, Ultra HD was originally driven by digital cinema’s requirement for a high-def display dense enough to look good on really huge screens. Ultra HD displays, those boasting a horizontal resolution on the order of 4,000 pixels (a common one is 3,840 x 2,160), are definitely headed for a living room TV near you. At about 8.3 megapixels, Ultra HD has four times the pixels of HDTV. It’s not just about TV, though: Panasonic debuted a 20-inch Windows 8 tablet at CES with 4K resolution, and Qualcomm announced that its newest Snapdragon 600 and 800 mobile processors are now engineered to handle Ultra HD, too, so expect Ultra HD to make its way onto the screens of even the smallest personal devices. We’ll also see more OLED screens in the marketplace, with their richer colors and higher contrasts. Samsung has introduced super-thin, bendable, nearly unbreakable OLED displays. The technology, called Youm, could make curved screens and other yummy new display form factors commercially possible. Plus, Youm mojo could prove valuable in school settings where only the toughest screens survive. Some think Ultra HD could be the ultimate display resolution, the finest display we’ll ever need… or want. Do I believe that? No. But it should satisfy us for a while.
Adaptive ebooks and courseware. Imagine textbooks that actually revise themselves on-the-fly to adjust to an individual reader’s comprehension. That’s the idea behind SmartBooks from McGraw Hill Education. They’re multi-platform etextbooks, readable online or off, that adapt to how students respond to periodic review questions, reinforcing material that needs more attention. The company uses student behavior models to create the most efficient path toward subject area mastery. McGraw Hill Education is yet to set SmartBook prices, but expects them to be comparable to standard
ebooks. Pearson was also reportedly at CES promoting similar adaptive products.
Gaming pioneer Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese, also believes that software that adapts to learners—keeping them on the optimum edge of their ability—maximizes academic achievement and learning enjoyment. That’s the idea behind his company, BrainRush. See how it works yourself: I challenge you to visit www.brainrush.com and take one of their sample lessons. Unless you immediately nail the drill, you’ll feel the software adjusting to your mistakes. I took the lesson on South American countries and could sense the software repeatedly trying different ways to get me to stop confusing Guyana with nearby French Guiana. Eventually, I caught on. And Paraguay is north of Uruguay… duh.
Robotics for students of all ages. Fans of Lego Mindstorms robotics kits, popular in classrooms and homes for well over a decade, will be happy to hear that a new set, Lego Mindstorms EV3, is scheduled for release this spring. The $350 kit reportedly includes 17 different bot designs. Builders can follow plans on paper or tablets, or they can invent new robots freestyle. The kit includes a variety of new and improved sensors and capabilities, has a Linux-based, programmable brick that aspiring hackers can mess with, and is compatible with Mindstorms NXT components. Students can remotely control their robotic creations with apps for iOS and Android, and curricular support is available at www.legoeducation.us.
While the Mindstorms kit is recommended for ages 10 and up, younger kids can have hi-tech fun with Cubelets from Modular Robotics. Cubelets are blocks that simply snap together; no wiring or programming is needed. Each block has either a sensor, logic, or action function. Put them together in different ways and they do different things. Kits start at $159.95.
The XO Learning Tablet. Remember the One Laptop Per Child initiative and the so-called $100 laptop from back in 2005? Well, the One Laptop Per Child nonprofit has now unveiled a commercial product, the XO Learning Tablet. Manufactured by Vivitar, it will be available in the U.S. through retailers, including WalMart, sometime next fall for a price rumored to be around $149. The 7″ tablet will feature front-and rear-facing cameras and can function as a standard Android tablet in parent mode, or a heavily skinned, child-centered, and career-focused Android tablet for kids as young as three. When it’s in child mode, young users choose a professional aspiration—say scientist, for example—and then get access to a vetted set of apps relevant to scientific pursuits. (Alas, school librarian is not currently a career choice.) A robust parental dashboard gives adults full control over their child’s access and provides detailed reports on how the tablet is being used.
And who knows what else? One of the great things about CES is that, warts and all—and no matter how cringe-worthy its keynote address might happen to be—the annual trade show retains its spirit of playful innovation. That was demonstrated this year by the number of creative products at CES that were funded through the grassroots online platform Kickstarter. Who can foresee how these products, no matter how whimsical they seem now, might wind up touching the future? Consider the Puzzlebox Orbit Brain Controlled Helicopter. While it may seem like nothing more than an impractical plaything today, the company is encouraging the development of the open-source BCI (brain-computer-interface) that controls the toy copter. BCI technology is already impacting “serious” fields like vision science and prosthetics, and—who knows?—it could even wind up affecting the most serious profession of all, education.