Of Kiosks and Campuses
by DR. DAVID N. SILK, Technology Director and ROBERT A. HODGSON, Technology Coordinator Indiana University, Purdue University at Indianapolis School of Education Indianapolis, Ind. A paramount characteristic of contemporary society is the staggering range and volume of information that is available electronically. In seconds, information and data can be retrieved from or sent to virtually any country in the world. Educators at every level are working to interpret the educational significance of this revolution and to assimilate it into educational programs. The potential seems almost unlimited, from the electronic networking of classrooms, buildings and entire school districts, to wide-area networks connecting university campuses statewide, to the Internet's connecting of educational, governmental, commercial and other institutions worldwide. In this article we explore the educational significance of an application of information technology growing in popularity very rapidly: the information kiosk. By "kiosk" we mean a station or stand, usually in a public setting, where information is made available to anyone. Modern electronics have given kiosks new potential. They are being deployed in a wide range of settings, from tourist hotels in Europe, where guests can quickly and efficiently obtain information about dining, sightseeing or recreation, to South Africa, where kiosks were used in the recent national election to inform voters about candidates and issues in areas where the majority of voters have little access to outside information. Our approach discusses the general significance and impact of kiosks on campuses in the context of an account about the development of our own kiosk for the Indiana University School of Education at IUPUI (Indiana University, Purdue University at Indianapolis). In the process of planning and developing a kiosk, we have had to confront fundamental issues about the nature and role of information kiosks in educational settings. The Unique Nature of Educational Kiosks The first and most basic consideration we confronted was the most obvious: What should a kiosk do? We concluded that it should offer as much information as possible about the staff, faculty, programs and degrees of a school. A kiosk for example, could provide a student with information about course requirements for a particular degree, when the courses are offered, and who will teach them. Course syllabi could be made available to give students an idea whether a particular course will meet their expectations and needs. With the multimedia capabilities of today's computers virtually any information-from photos of students, faculty and staff, to textual data about programs and degrees, to motion-video sequences with voice explanations-can be presented by a kiosk. A network of kiosks on campus can run as clients of a remote server, or even extend to off-campus sites. Kiosks may be placed in shopping centers to offer information about a school or academic program. With an Internet connection kiosks could be accessible to virtually any country in the world, although they are not typically given such a connection. This was the range of possibilities confronting us. Our decision, based on development time, resources, and technical problems raised by a data connection to external resources, was to develop our kiosk as a stand-alone unit. There are good reasons for networking kiosks, but for two individuals working on the project part-time, a stand-alone seemed ambitious enough! We decided to organize and display the information about our school in nine categories, each with its own button on the opening screen. Five were grouped as "Resources" and included: Indiana Clearinghouse for Educational Technology, Computer Labs, Distance Learning Classrooms, Curriculum Resource Center and Professional Development Schools. The remaining four were: Degree Programs, Faculty, Staff and Administration, Education Offices and Facilities Map and IUPUI Campus Map. One constraint was the need to keep the number of options on the opening menu brief, so that the screen would not be confusing or intimidating. Throughout the project we gave a high priority to the criterion that the user interface should not be intimidating or require any special expertise. A basic characteristic of kiosks on campuses is that they are public in the sense that anyone seeking information should be able to access and use them. Several things follow from this criterion of public access. Above all a kiosk should be located where it is accessible for long and convenient hours. In our case the options were the "Commons," the open area common to all offices in the School office complex, or an entrance to the building itself. A location that affords public access raises security issues. Is it possible to make a kiosk both accessible to the public and secure from vandalism and theft? For outdoor kiosks, the need for protection from vandalism is even greater. The ease-of-use criterion requires that a kiosk provide an intuitive and non-intimidating interface between the user and the information so that no one is excluded or discouraged by a lack of experience with electronic information retrieval. Different ways of accomplishing this are: keeping the number of buttons on each screen to a minimum, choosing clear and unambiguous subject headings, creating screen backgrounds that are pleasing to the eye, and establishing consistency from screen to screen with respect to the appearance and location of buttons. Choosing an Appropriate User Interface Another issue based on our ease-of-use criterion involved whether the user-interface should be a keyboard, mouse, trackball, touchscreen or voice-activation. A keyboard was quickly eliminated, since it cannot be secured inside a cabinet and still be usable, and hence too easily damaged or stolen. Plus many people do not have keyboard skills. The mouse was eliminated because it is too easily vandalized or stolen. The main argument for a trackball seemed to be ease of installation and low cost. The main argument against it was that many people are unaccustomed to the "point and click" feature of modern GUIs (graphic user interfaces). The main argument for a touchscreen was that it requires no special expertise or understanding. The main argument against it was expense, as it was nearly three times the cost of a standard monitor. Lastly, the main argument for voice-activation was fairness to physically handicapped persons. The main arguments against voice-activation included unfairness to users with strong accents, vocal impairment, or poor grammar and enunciation; the relatively primitive state of voice-recognition technology; and the fact that many users would feel uncomfortable talking to a video monitor in a public setting. We decided on a touchscreen, selecting a Mitsubishi 17" color monitor marketed by MicroTouch. The touchscreen works well and we are content with our decision. The only compromise is a slight degradation of image quality owing to the touchscreen surface overlay. Colors are muted and there is a slight loss of resolution. However, this effect is not serious and should cause no problem for users. It was easy to install, and comes with software to calibrate the touchscreen so that the coordinates of the point touched are in alignment with the screen's video image. Platform & Data Storage Decisions Since we chose to make our kiosk a stand-alone unit, all of the software resources and information must be stored on either the local hard drive, or a CD or videodisc that we would have to master ourselves. Storing resource files on a local hard drive is far easier and faster than authoring our own CD or videodisc, so we ordered our computer with a 1.2 gigabyte (GB) drive. For the present this is sufficient, but the need to master our own CDs and/or videodiscs is easily foreseeable. CDs, however, have two major shortcomings: they are read-only data storage devices, making it very difficult to update information, and they access data at a slower rate than hard drives. One solution would be to keep kiosk screen backgrounds, buttons, sounds and other resources that do not need to be updated on CDs, while information that is constantly changing, e.g., about faculty, staff and academic programs, sits on the local hard drive. Another decision was whether to develop the kiosk on a DOS/Windows or a Macintosh platform. We are familiar with both operating systems, and both are in wide use, with software and hardware readily available at reasonable prices. We selected Macintosh mainly due to our positive experiences with setting up Mac multimedia workstations, though a DOS/Windows platform would have worked as well. Primary considerations for the kiosk's computer involved memory, speed and data-storage capacity. We selected a Power Macintosh 7100/66 AV, which uses the PowerPC chip, a RISC-based processor. The machine is outfitted with 16MB RAM, a CD-ROM drive, a 1.2GB hard drive and two external speakers. This configuration has met all of our requirements, and has the added advantage of allowing us to upgrade to software optimized to run in "native mode" on the PowerMac, boosting the kiosk's performance. Motion videos, where processor speed is most crucial, especially benefit from the PowerMac's speed, since as we used a version of QuickTime developed to run in native mode. Authoring Software & the HTML Dilemma We considered several multimedia authoring programs, giving most serious thought to HyperCard, Macromedia's Director and Media Tool. We chose Media Tool because it is powerful and easy to use. It comes with a clear and effective tutorial, and allows the developer easy access to a wide range of utilities by means of icons and pull-down menus. It also has a mini-compiler that compiles the finished program into a run-time version that will run at accelerated speed. A scripting language is available to give the developer even more control, but so far we have not needed it. One option that we explored but did not, in the end, pursue was the use of HTML (hypertext markup language) software for publishing documents on the Internet's World Wide Web. An effective interface for the workstations in IUPUI's new electronic library was developed using HTML, under NCSA Mosaic, which at the time was the most popular Web "browser." We gave HTML serious consideration before we decided not to give the kiosk a data-connection to external sources such as the Web. The main arguments for HTML are that it is easy to learn and use, and that it is an international standard. However, to have both local and remote access, data would have to go out to a router then return to the kiosk when the information being accessed is stored on the local hard drive, which would be the most typical use of the kiosk. The adverse effect on performance would have been most pronounced when running QuickTime movies and sound files. In addition, a Web browser would give users access to the entire Internet, often resulting in frustrating and unexplained delays while waiting for connections to remote hosts. Most users would not understand these tie-ups and lose patience quickly. Also, HTML offers less flexibility and control in developing background screens and placing images than d'es Media Tool. Finally, with Web access a user could leave obscene or inappropriate material on the screen, either intentionally or inadvertently. For all of these reasons we decided not to use HTML or to give the kiosk a data-connection to external resources. We recognize, however, that in many cases there may be sound reasons for both and do not mean to suggest that in all cases it is inadvisable. "Programming" the Kiosk Our first task was to become proficient with Media Tool since it was the basic software with which we developed the kiosk. Media Tool comes with an excellent tutorial that we worked our way through. The multimedia resources for the tutorial are included on a CD-ROM, along with an instruction booklet. Multimedia resources are developed with other software; Media Tool then becomes a means of importing these resources into one interactive presentation. Resources are added to a media list and then "dragged" to each screen and activated or made inactive on pre-defined "events." For example, "mouse down" would be an event when the mouse button is pushed and the cursor is over an area of the screen, which becomes a "button." Once screens are developed they can be linked to one another. The program includes a function where all screens and their links can be viewed schematically on a single screen. As our screens and their links multiplied, this function became very helpful for keeping track of the relationships between different screens. We developed all background screens and graphics with Aldus' SuperPaint 3.0, a graphics editing program for the Mac. We found that SuperPaint gave us the capability we needed to do shading, draw and manipulate objects, and merge graphics and text. It has both "draw" (object) and "paint" (bitmapped) layers. Objects can be moved from the draw layer to the paint layer for editing and special effects. Using SuperPaint we developed unique background screens for each of the nine options on the Main Menu. Once an option is selected from opening screen, subsequent screens all have the same background, providing an intuitive color-coded means of navigating the hierarchy of menus. For example, if the Faculty and Staff option is selected from the Main Menu, subsequent screens leading eventually to information and pictures of individual faculty and staff all have the same background. This also held the number of different background screens to nine, rather than the large number needed to give each screen a unique background. Adding Photos, Video and Sound For photos we used an Apple QuickTake 100 digital camera. The camera stores up to eight color images at a resolution of 640x480 that can be loaded directly into the Mac, previewed and saved in one of several graphics file formats, and then imported into a graphics program. This worked well to import color snapshots. We used this method for pictures of faculty and staff, of our seven Professional Development Schools where our students do their field-work, of our School of Education's Computing Labs and of our Distance Learning Classrooms. For motion videos we used a VHS camcorder to film the sequences, then imported them from a VCR into a Macintosh equipped with a video-digitizing board and converted them to QuickTime movies. These movies are then opened by means of on-screen buttons. We added voice to the film-clips by recording narratives with an external mike connected to the Macintosh while importing the film clips from the VCR. We then added a "Stop" button to stop a film clip and narrative if the user chooses to stop it. One issue that arose concerned when sound and video are helpful and when they are superfluous or even a nuisance. We decided on the following criteria: keep them brief, provide a stop button, and use them sparingly. In most cases the same information can be presented as effectively with text, but for many users multimedia adds another dimension of interest. Sound is also a means of keeping a screen from becoming cluttered with too much text. Adding Final Touches; Building Its Cabinet We then developed "Back" and "Main Menu" buttons to take the user back either one screen or to the opening screen. Buttons are defined in Media Tool by dragging a graphic image to the screen and then defining the "event" or action that clicking on that image will initiate. For example, the event in this case is "mouse-down," meaning the mouse button is clicked when the arrow-cursor is over the button. Since we use a touchscreen, touching this portion of the screen is the equivalent of "mouse-down." For the sake of consistency, and to meet our user-friendly standard for the kiosk, we used the same buttons on all screens whenever possible. Since a kiosk will run very long hours, or in some cases all the time, a screen saver becomes crucial so that an image d'es not burn on the screen when the kiosk g'es unused for long periods of time. However, a screen-saver display also has to indicate that the unit is an information kiosk. We accomplished this with the program After Dark, which allows the screen-saver's moving image to be a message. Ours reads: WELCOME TO THE IUPUI SCHOOL OF EDUCATION INFORMATION KIOSK TOUCH SCREEN ANYWHERE TO BEGIN Another problem was the likelihood that most users would not return the kiosk to its opening menu. Media Tool allowed us to program a timed return to the opening menu after five minutes. We then set the screen-saver software to activate after a longer period of time; it would only run after the Main Menu had displayed continuously for 20 minutes. Once the software for the kiosk was finished and all of the screens and data entered, our final task was to house the kiosk in a suitable cabinet. We looked at brochures for several kiosk cabinets already on the market, but decided to have one manufactured to our own specifications. We worked with an engineer and designer from General Devices Co., a local manufacturing firm specializing in cabinets and enclosures for electronic equipment. Several considerations arose regarding the cabinet. A kiosk cabinet needs to provide protection from vandalism and theft, a controlled inside temperature, portability, and access for maintenance purposes. General Devices' design supplied all of this. Our cabinet features a lockable pull-out tray for the keyboard for updating information, a drop-box for students to leave completed forms, a removable panel in the back for maintenance, a thermostatically controlled cooling fan, and adjustable internal mountings for all components. The speakers are mounted so that sound is directed downward toward the user, rather than horizontally outward beyond the user, thus the volume can be kept lower. Lockable casters allow the kiosk to be moved from its site for updating and backing up software. At the time of this writing, General Devices is in the process of completing the cabinet. Last Words Our greatest miscalculation at the outset of this project was how much time it would take to enter the data and pictures for all of the school's faculty, staff and academic programs. With nine options on the Main Menu, each leading to subsequent screens that in turn lead to still more screens, the number of screens and amount of data multiplies exponentially. An unanticipated bonus for us has been how much we have learned about multimedia programming and the dissemination of information electronically. Once the potential of information kiosks in educational settings becomes more widely recognized, it seems likely that networks will evolve on a broad scale offering information about educational institutions at all levels. Though our experience has been at only the modest level of developing a single stand-alone kiosk, we are finding it challenging and stimulating to be a part of a new means of disseminating information about education. David Silk is an Associate Professor and Technology Director for the Indiana University School of Education at IUPUI (Indiana University, Purdue University at Indianapolis). He holds a doctorate from the University of Maryland. E-mail: [email protected]
Bob Hodgson is Technology Coordinator for the School of Education at IUPUI. He has a degree in engineering from Purdue University and is a licensed high school mathematics teacher. E-mail: [email protected]
Products or companies mentioned: After Dark software; Berkeley Systems, Berkeley, Calif., (510) 540-5535 General Devices Co., Indianapolis, Ind., (317) 897-7000 Media Tool software; QuickTake 100 digital camera; Apple Computer, Inc. Cupertino, Calif., (408) 996-1010 Mitsubishi 17" color monitor/touchscreen; MicroTouch Systems, Inc., Methuen, Mass., (508) 659-9000 SuperPaint 3.0 software; Aldus was acquired by Adobe Systems, Inc., Mountain View, Calif., (800) 642-3623
This article originally appeared in the 08/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.