By Gregory T Huang
At Tsinghua University in Beijing,
China, all eyes are on Professor Yuanchun Shi. But itís not the
computer scientistís lecture thatís so rivetingóitís how sheís giving
it. One wall of her "smart classroom" displays photos
of students at other universities across China who have logged in.
Shi poses a question and calls on a remote student by shining a
laser pointer on his photo. "Go ahead," the teacher says.
The studentís picture switches to live video and audio as he answers.
Shi writes on a digital whiteboard that transmits her handwriting
to the studentsí computers, complementing audio and visual feeds
from cameras and microphones.
Shiís smart classroom is one of the
most advanced in the world. Wide-scale testing is under way, and
commercialization is planned, initially within China.
Until now, most smart classrooms for
distance learning have required teachers to use desktop computers
to run their classes. But this version allows Shi to lecture and
interact with remote students more naturally, using speech, gestures,
and handwriting. "They are certainly doing some interesting
things that other people have done before in isolation but not together
in an all-in-one package," says Jason Brotherton, an expert
in computer-enhanced education at University College London who
is developing his own distance-learning classroom.
Shiís classroom relies on some technological
wizardry. In the back of the room, behind a curtain, is a rack of
seven computers. Computer-vision algorithms coordinate eight video
cameras that track the teacherís movements, switching views as she
points to a page in a textbook or writes on the whiteboard. The
computers recognize the positions of her arms and zoom in on particular
gestures. The system also tracks the trajectory of the laser pointer
and responds to simple spoken commands. Remote studentsí desktop
computers are equipped with video cameras, microphones, and communication
software to allow them to send and receive multimedia data.
Last summer, 180 students took part
in a computer science course at Tsinghua, one of the countryís top
technical schools, from their dorm rooms. And since last winter,
hundreds of students in a half-dozen cities in China have joined
the class. Now, working with Beijing MoVision Technologies, a multimedia
telecom firm, Shi plans to commercialize the systemís software within
a year. Her first customer: Tsinghuaís Continuing Education School,
which could grant remote access to as many as 20,000 students.