[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 2 July, 2004, 13:31 GMT 14:31 UK
Weaving the net into your world
We are starting to see what pervasive networks and wireless access can really do, suggests Bill Thompson

Cup of coffee, Eyewire
Get a coffee and a net connection in Cambridge
I'm lucky enough to live in Cambridge, a beautiful city with a great architecture, a meandering river and, largely thanks to the University, a wealth of wonderful museums and galleries.

It is a lovely place to live, and I cannot think of a better city for my children to grow up in.

It also has a thriving high-technology industry which has given me somewhere to work and something to write about for many years.

Yet although there are lots of cafes offering wireless internet access, if you stand in the market square you wouldn't think that you were in the middle of the UK's largest technology cluster.

That is because the hi-tech aspects of the city are largely limited to university departments like the Computer Lab and the science and technology parks which you pass as you drive in on any of the main roads.

But sometimes technology and culture come together in ways which illuminate both, as I found out earlier this week when I visited the newly reopened Fitzwilliam Museum for the first time.

Good guides

The Fitz has one of the best collections of antiquities, armour, coins and artworks outside London.

It was closed for a year while an old courtyard was converted into a delightfully airy atrium and new galleries and education rooms were added, and they took the opportunity to get the virtual builders in too.

So now their website has a new education section, named Pharos after the ancient lighthouse of Alexandria. And if you decide to visit you can grab yourself an 'eGuide' - a handheld computer and an earpiece - to carry around the galleries as you go.

Bill Thompson
We don't yet understand the wider implications of going mobile or have any clear idea how our daily lives will change when the network really is available everywhere.
I liked the eGuides, even if the name is rather irritating, because they don't make you enter a code to find out about the thing you're looking at. Instead, there are infrared tags beside the featured exhibits, and you simply point at the tag and click just like you would use a TV remote.

It is a clever system, and it will soon be getting even cleverer.

At the moment the information on the handheld computers is stored locally, but the goal is to have it sent over a wireless network as needed and they are already installing the wi-fi kit needed to make this work.

This will make it simple to add new tags for new objects, and to update information on existing objects without actually having to reload each PDA.

Once it is in place it opens up the possibility of visitors using their own phones, PDAs or even laptops as they wander around the museum instead of having to borrow an eGuide.

The same technology, called Magus Guide, is also being tried out at the National Space Museum in Leicester and in the At-Bristol science and discovery centre, and it could well become standard at museums and galleries around the UK.

Warp and weft

There is an obvious but as yet unmade connection between the eGuides and a research project taking place in London at the moment called Urban Tapestries.

Cutlery, BBC
Restaurant reviews could hang in mid-air
The team behind it, Alice Angus and Giles Lane from a company called Proboscis, want to explore the ways we link virtual and physical spaces and how mobile technologies allow us to create what they call 'place-based content'.

In practice this means giving people a specially-equipped mobile phone that allows them to wander around central London and leave virtual notes for other people to read by writing them on the phone and then 'sticking' them to a building.

It works because the position of each phone is constantly tracked so when a note is written the place can be noted - when someone else goes to the same place, they can read the note.

Imagine the potential for gluing these two different approaches together.

Painting pointers

In a world of weblogs and personal websites, what could be more useful than wandering around a museum or gallery and being able to find out what other visitors think of the painting you are looking at?

Or perhaps being told that the picture behind you is actually more interesting?

Lens of camera phone, Nokia
Your snaps could be shared with passers by
We don't yet understand the wider implications of going mobile or have any clear idea how our daily lives will change when the network really is available everywhere.

But wandering around a museum with a handheld computer, tagging a favourite building as you walk by it, or simply sending photos to your weblog from a digital camera are the precursors of the next stage in the digital revolution that started ten years ago when net access began to be commonplace.

Finally, we shouldn't forget that the Fitzwilliam's eGuides and Urban Tapestries both rely on public funding - from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, Arts Council England and the Department of Trade and Industry - as well as industrial sponsorship and support.

Just as the internet was funded with public money in its early days, before it was clear that it was a commercially-exploitable technology, this sort of investment in innovation often relies on government support.

It's too easy for those who object to government interference in the net to forget how vital this can be.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific