COVID-19 & Tech: VR/AR

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.


Despite the lockdowns, quarantines, and closures, the technologies of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) (previously highlighted in my HHH blog post series) have not been placed on the backburner during the pandemic.

Three areas where we use VR/AR more are to help us with our shopping, to encourage social distancing (while alleviating us of boredom), and to attend live concerts socially.


RETAIL & AR

When brick-and-mortar retail locations were closed and completely inaccessible, it meant browsing and shopping had to be done online. Retailers who deployed AR to assist shoppers benefitted from a 19% spike in customer engagement with customers becoming 90% more likely to buy when engaging with AR versus those that didn’t.  (Source: Vertebrae). 

Why this sudden love for AR? There are a few reasons. Shoppers need to make more considerations before making purchases, and as they can’t go to the store and actually check out the merchandise themselves in person, they are more amenable to things like 3D & AR to answer their questions and give them the info and confidence they need to buy. It helps that most are using their mobile devices to shop, rather than their workplace computers as they would have before, as AR is designed for mobile; for example, you move your smartphone camera around and see products superimposed within your home – something impossible to do with your computer at work.  When you’re already stuck at home while shopping, you might as well directly use your immediate living space to help you make the decision. And retailers have begun to notice. Recently, Etsy launched an AR app for iOS for the first time, allowing shoppers to preview potential art on the walls of their home.

Photo of a smartphone  pointing at a blank wall; the screen shows a work of art from Etsy appearing as if on the wall

SOCIAL DISTANCING & AR

Existing AR games like the massively popular Pokemon Go pivoted completely as soon as the pandemic arrived in the U.S. They changed their game mechanics to support and encourage social distancing. For example, more monsters were programmed to show up near the player’s house, competitions that used to require being near other players could now be played remotely, and anything in the game that pushed the player to travel out in the world and engage with other places (normally one of the mainstays of the game) was removed.  

Promotional image of "Pokémon Go Fest 2020" showing a photo of someone's backyard and cartoon Pokémon characters appearing. I have added a bunch of silly speech bubbles to make the charcaters ay, "Wash your hands!", "Avoid other humans", "Please don't leave your backyard!" and "Stay safe!"

As a piece of entertainment, Pokemon Go is designed as a diversion for its players, a way of gamifying the real world. As part of the fun, it encouraged players to interact with the environments around them in new ways (spotting, battling, and collecting monsters). So it’s interesting that the game adapted to the real world circumstances that prohibited people from interacting with their spaces in the same way as before. In fact, they actively performed the positive role of encouraging the same environmental interactions towards safety.


LIVE CONCERTS & VR

As a result of COVID-19, any kind of location-based entertainment had to be shuttered, and it’s taking time for many to reopen for attendees to visit again.  Live concerts are one thing that’s been able to continue in a new form via Virtual Reality.

One popular social VR venue, The Wave, recently announced partnerships with Warner Music Group and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to produce concerts with their rosters of talent—a clear sign the music industry has embraced this technology. Virtual, live-streamed entertainment have actually become a new source of income for musicians and their labels. It’s cheap for the audience to attend, and the artist stands to make a lot more money than the traditional, in-person shows.

Animation showing a violinist in a motion capture suit performing live as a virtual avatar performs for a audience during a VR concert.

Besides the three examples above, AR/VR technology can help us in other ways during this time. As XR researcher and author Helen Papagiannis recently described:

  • It brings the outside world in (for example, take a virtual vacation tour of a famous landmark or distant location).
  • It helps us transform our immediate surroundings into totally new spaces that help us with learning, work and entertainment. You can use AR to make your living room function as your office.
  • It helps people feel less isolated in their homes – either with actual people via social chat and meeting programs, or by interacting with virtual humans.
  • It can educate and inform about the pandemic, helping us understand how it works and its impact. We’ve seen VR/AR projects that help people visualize the effects of climate change and air pollution (link forthcoming). Imagine experiences that show us how the virus spread and was contained, or the impact of nationwide lockdowns on the environment, for example.

THE FUTURE:

Here are three things to look forward to with regard to AR/VR:

Photo showing a man wearing Facebook's proof-of-concept AR glasses that resemble sunglasses.

1) We’re not done yet with innovations in this area. Just last week, Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) showed off a proof-of-concept pair of AR goggles that look like a compact sunglasses. No more big, blocky boxes strapped to the front of our faces. The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.

Animation of a man pointing to his sunglasses while singing. The lyrics "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades" are superimposed.

2) If you’re getting tired of working at home, staring at your flat computer screen for hours on end, and attending all those work meetings on Zoom, you can look forward to VR providing you your collaborative workplace some day soon. Products like Rumii give us a chance to ditch our webcams and escape our distracting home environments. The idea is we’ll feel like we’re immersively inhabiting an office space with our co-workers. Plus, it will facilitate social distance and safety if necessary.

3) And lastly, coming soon, XR Libraries has used their recent experience of running an Emergency Workers POP-UP Childcare Center to develop socially distanced protocols for cleaning and use of XR. These new safety guidelines will allow libraries to continue providing XR (Extended Reality) experiences for their patrons.

Image showing an senior citizen using VR to view the pyramids. She's wearing a face mask and gloves.

HHH: Humanitronics

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In early February 2020, I had the privilege of attending the TCEA Convention in Austin. This is a conference put on by Texas educational professionals, teachers, trainers, media specialists, and school librarians all of whom love to employ technology in fun and innovative ways for their students. You can really feel the love there. TCEA presenters and attendees don’t employ tech because their boss or school district said they should, but rather because they unabashedly enjoy new technology and want to share their enthusiasm with their students, knowing that modelling that joy and getting it into young people’s hands are the keys to their future success. These are my kinds of folks.

At TCEA, there were a lot of great presentations from these tech-savvy teaching superstars, ones that showcased the newest, most buzzworthy educational tools, tips, and tricks. I think my favorite program of the whole conference though wasn’t about a new piece of software or fancy gadget. It didn’t talk about VR, AR, AI, or any other two-letter acronym. It was held in a small room, not heavily attended, on one of the first days of the conference and first thing in the morning. It described an idea out of Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas called Humanitronics, and I think it’s one of the most clever ideas for STEAM programing I’ve ever heard of. One day soon I hope we can be at a place where more schools and libraries can duplicate or draw inspiration from it.

Today’s highlight: Humanitronics


When I walked into the conference room that morning at TCEA, this is what I saw at the front:

Two puppets of a bull and a lion propped up in a small decorated set, with labels in front of them showing famous names from history.
???

Puppets. Propped up within a tiny decorated stage. Then a switch was flicked, and they were turned on.

Animated gif of the bull and lion puppets talking on their own (no puppeteers)

The puppets began to move on their own, their mouths opening and closing in sync to the recorded voices of middle school kids acting out a skit featuring famous historical persons they’d researched in their seventh grade Humanities class. The students weren’t even there. They basically made robots perform their school assignment for them. Definitely a cool trick, but it’s what went into its creation that is, as I would soon learn, where the real magic resides.

And this magic has been dubbed, “Humanitronics”. As presenter Abbie Cornelius, computer science teacher and STEAM specialist at Trinity Valley School, explained:

Humanitronics = Humanities + Animation + Electronics

This is, of course, a bit of word play referring to animatronics. If you’re not familiar with the term, perhaps you recognize this little guy, who happened to have captured many folks’ hearts right at the time I attended TCEA:

An animated gif showing Baby Yoda waving.

It’s Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian tv series. This immensely popular creature was created and performed using mostly animatronics puppetry. Although modern special effects in television and film rely heavily these days on computer generated imagery and less on practical effects, the art of animatronics is far from dead – as Baby Yoda’s adorable charms can attest. You can also find animatronics at theme parks such as Disneyland with their ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride, for example. And there are animatronics programs in higher ed., as well as classes taught in K-12 schools.

But Humanitronics is something special. The original visionary for the project was Dr. Paul Dietz, a former Disney Imagineer and Microsoft Researcher.  He brought the project to Trinity Valley School in 2014, conducting a hands-on summer workshop for high school students. In collaboration with computer science teacher, Dr. Ginger Alford, the high school team traveled to Maker Faires in both Seattle and New York presenting their first animatronics project. The project continued to develop in other forms, but the original animatronics kits sat idle and unused, collecting dust in a closet at the school. This is when Middle School STEAM teacher Abbie Cornelius noticed something.

For the last several years, the seventh grade humanities teachers, Dan Betsill and Tina Harper, were teaching literature and history through a final class project where their students would script conversations between the characters they learned about. They’d then perform the skits as a puppet show using miniature sets they designed and decorated themselves. It was a great idea, giving students a chance to be creative and combine several humanities disciplines, such as playwriting, performance, and art.

Cornelius saw she could take it to the next level. She could leverage this existing humanities project and combine it with the animatronics kits. And thus, Humanitronics was born!

Teaming up with the humanities teachers, as well as Dr. Ginger Alford, SMU professor of computer science, Cornelius crafted a year-long program for seventh graders to continue their humanities puppet show project but now with integrated STEM skills.


(Normally, we see folks finding ways to put the A (Art) into the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) to make STEAM – but this is the reverse: adding the STEM to the Art.)


Besides what they are already getting in their humanities classes studying history and literature, in Humanitronics, they learn script writing and voice acting. They next learn how to use audio recording equipment and editing software, then metalwork and basic engineering and design skills while they fashion their puppet frames.

Animated gif showing students building the puppet frame.

They learn about wiring and circuitry (electrical engineering) to control the servo motors in their animatronics.

Animated gif of a student setting up the wiring to a circuit, with the chyron below: "Power and control your motors by wiring circuits."

They design, build, and decorate their sets, learning woodworking and interior design

Animated gif showing students working on their sets using scissors on fabric and a power drill on wood.

.

They get experience with coding and robotics as they record their lip-synced puppetry performance within their set.

Animated gif showing a zebra puppet with the animatronic puppet frame inside being controlled by a student at a computer.

Among many roles, they get to be performers, engineers, and writers. Every student tries all of the skills, with the chance to engage deeper with the ones that most interest them.

Animated gif showing class gathered with their projects with the chyron below: "Every job is needed to create the show"

Fun Fact: They took the students to the local Benbrook Public Library to use their laser cutters – I love that!


One coda to the successful program: After the recorded robot puppet shows were finished during the 2018 year, Cornelius and the team took the project out to the larger community. At the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, the students played live performances, explained the process, and answered questions from museum guests. They even gave hands-on demos with the puppets, circuitry and servo motor programming.

Honestly, I can’t think of a more well-rounded STEAM project that exposes the students to so many practical disciplines. Humanitronics for the win!


Special thanks to Abbie Cornelius, who shared with me a promotional video of the project. It’s the source of the animated gifs included in this post.

COVID-19 & Tech: Wearables

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.


A bevy of wearables are being developed to help curb the effects of the disease. Here are a few examples and their intended uses:

To support social distancing

Collage of various safety devices that help enforce social distancing.

In many places, social distancing guidelines must be followed or COVID-19 will spread more quickly. Companies are releasing safety devices, usually worn around the wrist like a bracelet, that alert the wearer when another person comes within six feet, usually with a vibration or buzzing.


To conduct contract tracing in the workplace

Some of the devices have more robust features and come with a whole suite for an organization to deploy among their staff. They not only buzz employees to support social distancing, they maintain a record of those interactions. They also enable employees to self-report when symptoms develop. This allows HR to quickly and efficiently set up any necessary quarantines.

Furthermore, these wearables connect to special software, a contract tracing dashboard, that allows employers to locate and support those at risk and protect the whole workforce.


To emit UVC light to destroy pathogens

Here’s a wearable that fights back. A collar is being developed that emits UVC light, destroying the virus around a person before they can breathe it in.


To continuously measure vital signs to predict and track disease

Researchers at Northwestern University and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago are developing a flexible skin-mounted device that sits at one’s throat to continuously measure vital signs to catch the disease and monitor its course. These are being specifically designed for frontline healthcare workers, the elderly, and other higher risk individuals.


All of the above are new devices… but what about the wearables people might already own, such as smartwatches?

It looks likely that smartwatches will be making a big come-back.

I wrote about persistent recognition systems last year for my ‘Henry’s High-Tech Highlights’ series. The pairing of that technology with wearables is poised to have a powerful impact on our personal and public health. When you have sensors on you that measure you all the time – and they are connected to artificial intelligence and Big Data, there’s an opportunity to tie decision-making to your own individual metrics and this results in personalized medicine. It means we will have an all new and far more effective way to predict and treat health issues early.

A wearable like a smartwatch allows for constant tracking at the personalized level to determine the actual baselines for individuals, rather than having to compare to an average or standard. Take heart rate, for example. A new study out of Stanford University is working on employing wearable devices to help curb the spread of the viral COVID-19. Noticing that elevated heartrates have been measured from those about to contract the COVID-19 disease, the Stanford team began focusing on ways to harness smartwatches and other wearables to figure out how to detect the disease before symptoms even occur (or never occur, as is the case with those who are asymptomatic).

They’ve begun training their algorithms to notice the unusual, but tell-tale, signatures of heart rate and other factors – all with baselines unique to each individual – that mean the immune system is acting up in that person’s specific instance. The algorithm will know its specifically tracked person is about to get sick, even if they are asymptomatic and wouldn’t otherwise show signs. The smartwatch knows, however, and can give alerts to stay home that day.

I always thought digital watches were a cool invention. I even thought in the future we’d have the Dick Tracy-style ones with the video screens to talk to one another, but who knew watches would grow up one day to save humanity from pandemics?


Further reading:

HHH: Discord and Twitch

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Even before the pandemic closed our buildings, necessitated social distancing, and gave sudden prominence to our online offerings and services, many libraries had already ventured into less familiar digital territories to explore new ways to connect with and build their communities. They did so to reach the underserved, those in the community who were either unable or disinclined to physically visit the library building and engage with the services there.

Take teens, for example. Two popular online platforms that teenagers frequent are Discord and Twitch. Some libraries, trying to meet this age group where they are, have pioneered the use of these services before and during the current crisis. Now, more than ever, such virtual online spaces are worth boldly engaging with to conduct library programming and outreach.

Allow me to dig out my trusty highlighter, and let’s begin…

Clip art of a highlighter pen,

Today’s highlights: Discord and Twitch


What is Discord?

It’s a digital community gathering space, an app described as “Slack for gamers”. Picture a customizable chat channel with the integration of text, images, audio, and video.

Discord was created by gamers for that specific community: a shared space online to socialize, chat, share content, discuss strategy, and keep up with their games remotely and asynchronously.

Despite its gamer origins, Discord has many versitile applications including education and business. Any organization can use it to conduct outreach, communication, and facilitate community building.

So it’s a perfect fit for libraries!

How are libraries using Discord?

Here are a few ways the platform is being used in libraries today:

  • Book clubs
  • Dungeons & Dragons games
  • Genealogy workshops
  • Internal staff communication
  • Professional discussions

What is Twitch?

Twitch is the world’s most popular social live streaming site. Like Discord, it came out of the world of gamers. Besides being where most eSports competitions are broadcast, Twitch is the place to watch game-based talk shows or individual streamers playing their favorite video games while giving their own self-commentary. Participants watching the live stream can interact with the streamer directly or access the archived recordings on-demand. Unlike YouTube, where watching videos is usually free, and content creators are paid solely via advertising revenue, Twitch employs a subscription service and popular streamers receive payment from their subscribers.

Animated gif of someone Twitch-streaming Fortnite on Twitch.
Source: NY Times

Twitch isn’t just for games. There are a number of creative artists on Twitch – anything from sculptors to musicians – streaming the live creation of their work for an audience willing to give them immediate (and I mean immediate) feedback.

Animation showing a drummer playing his drums on Twitch while people respond over chat.

How are libraries using Twitch?

Digital literacy: To stream one’s one content, Twitch can be particularly complex to set up and use effectively with regard to its hefty hardware, software, and network requirements. This makes it a fantastic tool to introduce teens to crucial (and lucrative) digital literacy skills. Considering the growing rise in the number of female gamers, there’s an opportunity here to engage teen girls with the platform and encourage them to develop skills in this area and potentially pursue STEAM careers.

Despite its popularity with teens, over half of Twitch’s users are between 18-34 so libraries may want to consider using it to provide adult services as well.

Here are some ideas for how libraries could use Twitch:

  • Support an eSports program
  • Stream programs, workshops, and presentations for homebound patrons or ones outside of geographical area
  • Engage guest speakers for programming without requiring travel.and including special interactive component
  • Teach resume classes
  • Play bad movies and host a community heckle

If you’d like to learn more about these two popular platforms, I highly recommend this introductory presentation for last year’s Library 2.0 conference by Michael Dunbar-Rodney and Lorin Flores from San Antonio Public Library. Besides giving a great overview, it covers many of the emerging best practices for those libraries wishing to use Discord and Twitch themselves.

> Presentation recording (MP4, 30 mins): Twitch & Discord in Public Libraries: New Opportunities for Adult Services


Has your library done anything with Twitch or Discord, especially during the pandemic? Let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

A big thanks to LDN Office Assistant Tomas Mendez for his help developing the content for this month’s highlight!

COVID-19 & Tech: Artificial Intelligence

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.


Today I’d like to point out nine ways that ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) is getting deployed to assist with the current crisis.

(For more general info about AI with a focus on libraries, check out my post for Henry’s High-Tech Highlights from last year.)


1. AI TO SNIFF OUT OUTBREAKS

Illustration that shows an AI identifying the COVID-19 disease after scanning various outside information sources looking for signs.
AI scans social media, news reports, search queries, etc. for signs of disease outbreaks

Apparently, it was an AI that sniffed out COVID-19 and sounded the alarm before any humans did at the end of December.

Science Magazine (5/12/2020): “Artificial intelligence systems aim to sniff out signs of COVID-19 outbreaks

“The international alarm about the COVID-19 pandemic was sounded first not by a human, but by a computer. HealthMap, a website run by Boston Children’s Hospital, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to scan social media, news reports, internet search queries, and other information streams for signs of disease outbreaks. On 30 December 2019, the data-mining program spotted a news report of a new type of pneumonia in Wuhan, China. The one-line email bulletin noted that seven people were in critical condition and rated the urgency at three on a scale of five.”


2. AI TO SEARCH FOR A CURE

Illustration that shows an AI identifying a potential drug treatment after scanning drug industry dat and scientific research papers.
AI scans scientific research papers to identify potential drug treatments.

Wired (4/17/2020): “AI Uncovers a Potential Treatment for Covid-19 Patients

“The company has created a kind of search engine on steroids that combines drug industry data with nuggets gleaned from scientific research papers. Using the software, Richardson had identified a rheumatoid arthritis drug that might dampen some of the most severe effects of the new virus, an illness now known as Covid-19.”

Google’s DeepMind is also working on understanding the structure of the virus’s associated proteins to learn how it functions, and this could lead to the development of a vaccine or cure.


3. AI TO TRACK HOW INFECTION SPREADS

Illustration that shows an AI tracking how the infection is spreading in a region to assist in halting or containing it.
AI can track how the infection is spreading in a region to help in real-time efforts to halt or contain it.

Bruegel (3/23/2020): “Artificial intelligence in the fight against COVID-19

“…In Belgium, datasets from telecoms operators are combined with health data under the supervision of the Belgian Data Protection Authority in order to generate aggregate and anonymised regional-level datasets that can be used to assess how the virus spreads and which areas are high risk. Similar initiatives are underway in other countries. The real value of these efforts is that digital technologies can offer monitoring in real-time, enabling authorities to be more proactive.”


4. AI TO SCREEN POPULATIONS

Illustration showing an AI remotely testing a population of people for fever and potential signs of the disease.
An AI can test hundreds of people at a time for fever.

Bruegel (3/23/2020): “Artificial intelligence in the fight against COVID-19

“Screening the population to identify who is potentially ill is crucial for containing COVID-19. In China, which was hit first, traditional infrared imaging scanners and handheld thermometers were introduced in multiple public locations, especially in Beijing. Chinese AI champion firms have now introduced more advanced AI-powered temperature screening systems in places including subway and railway stations. The advantage of these systems is that they can screen people from a distance and within minutes can test hundreds of individuals for fever.”


5. AI TO IDENTIFY AND REMOVE CONTENT WITH PSEUDO-SCIENTIFIC AND DANGEROUS MISINFORMATION

Illustration of AI recognizing a dangerous hoax being perpetuated online and removing it from the view of a susceptible consumer.
Besides the virus itself, another kind of infection spread in society are the

Besides the virus itself, another form of infection spread in society are the harmful scams and life-threatening “snake oils” being pushed by the unscrupulous onto the vulnerable. Companies like YouTube and Twitter routinely remove content that violates their policies in this regard, but with staff out of their offices and social distancing, AI is being relied on to perform this task (and far less accurately than real humans). In the future, we will likely see more and more sophisticated AI taking over this job.

Broadband Breakfast (3/17/2020):

“YouTube will be relying on AI to take down content policy violations as the coronavirus spreads… Google, which owns YouTube and typically relies on humans to identify violating content, is now transitioning to less accurate automated tools as of Monday in an attempt to reduce the need for people to come into its offices. Some of the content that YouTube employees remove are videos that offer pseudo-scientific and dangerous misinformation regarding the spread and treatment of coronavirus. Twitter on Monday announced a similar policy that will use AI content moderators, but that it would not ban any users based solely on that enforcement scheme.”


6. AI TO DETECT THE DISEASE FROM YOUR VOICE

Illustration of an AI hearing a person speaking and determining the person has COVID-19.
An AI diagnosing COVID-19 after listening to a person’s voice.

In my post highlighting persistent recognition systems, I described how these listening AI systems could diagnose conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cardiac arrest – all based on voice dat. Now the same technology is being applied to COVID-19.

Business Insider (4/30/2020): “Do I sound sick to you? Researchers are building AI that would diagnose COVID-19 by listening to people talk”


7. AI TO ALERT YOU TO SEEK MEDICAL HELP

Illustration of an AI alerting someone to seek medical help.
After an AI knows you’ve contracted the virus, it can alert you to seek medical help.

Currently, we rely on people themselves to understand the signs of the disease and determine if they personally should seek help. This helpful tool could potentially save many lives.


8. AI TO GET YOU TO TREATMENT FASTER (ESPECIALLY IN RURAL AREAS)

Illustration showing an AI acting as an assistant to guide COVID-19 patients to the nearest treatment they require.
An AI streamlines the process by connecting patients to the nearest treatment in their area.

Mashable (4/21/2020):

“Clearstep’s app is meant to streamline the healthcare process by giving rural areas quicker access to COVID-19 treatment.”

With so much information need out there regarding the pandemic, there aren’t enough customer support staff out there to handle all the questions. AI can step in and take on this role to supplement providing this crucial information service.

For example, Google’s created AI virtual agents for businesses to utilize.

From Google Cloud blog (5/6/2020): “How Cloud AI is helping during COVID-19

“In early April, we launched the Rapid Response Virtual Agents program to help organizations that have been inundated with customer questions about the pandemic. The program helps businesses quickly build and implement a customized Contact Center AI virtual agent to respond to customer questions via chat or voice allowing customers to get 24/7 support.”


9. AI TO SPEED UP LOAN DISPERSALS TO PEOPLE WHO NEED THEM

Illustration showing an AI making the process to disperse loans much faster for a financial institution.
An AI makes the process to disperse loans much faster for a financial institution.

From Google Cloud blog (5/1/2020): “Business continuity planning and resilience in financial services during COVID-19 and beyond

“Leveraging artificial intelligence, we’ve created an end-to-end solution that speeds up the time-to-decision on loans and helps inform lenders’ liquidity analysis—from the initial application submission to the underwriting process and SBA validation.”

COVID-19 & Tech: Robots

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.

ROBOTS: They’re perfect for doing jobs that are too dangerous for humans to do. So now is the perfect time to deploy them for a variety of helpful tasks and potentially save lives.

Illustration of a robot with the phrase "Onward Robots!" above.
T-shirt design by Chris Ware (Yes, I own this shirt and still wear it.)

Here are some key ways that robots have been, and will continue to be, used during the COVID-19 pandemic.


DELIVERY

To send out groceries and supplies.

Photos of neighborhood delivery robots
Source: ArsTechnica “The pandemic is bringing us closer to our robot takeout future

TELEPRESENCE

To attend virtual graduations:

To conduct live virtual tours of museums

To conduct telehealth visits

A quadrupedal telepresence robot with a tablet for a head, with screen showing a person's face during a virtual telehealth visit.
Source: NPR, “Meet ‘Spot’: The Robot That Could Help Doctors Remotely Treat COVID-19 Patients

ENFORCE SOCIAL DISTANCING

If a drone wasn’t scary enough, how about a creepy headless robot dog shouting at you to go home?

A quadrupedal robot attached with a speaker in a Singapore park; masked people siting on a park bench nearby, listening.
Source: Gizmodo “Pandemic Robots Deployed in Singapore Parks to Remind Humans of Their Own Mortality

SOCIAL ROBOTS

On the much friendlier side of socializing, robots are being used to staff hospitals to entertain, improve morale, and provide information to those recovering.

Photos showing staff robots at a hospital in China.
Source: CNBC “What America can learn from China’s use of robots and telemedicine to combat the coronavirus”

To connect to loved ones in nursing homes:


DISINFECTING

To emit powerful ultraviolet light in hospital rooms:

Robot in hospital emitting ultraviolet light to disinfect the room..
Source: CNBC “What America can learn from China’s use of robots and telemedicine to combat the coronavirus

To spray quarantined and infected areas outside:

Photos of robots capable of spraying outside areas to disinfect them.

CONTINUITY OF WORK

To power people’s mass buying of supplies:

To help workers perform remote operation requiring dexterous manipulation:


ONWARD, ROBOTS!

HHH: Drones

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Back in late summer of 2019 (remember those halcyon days?), I noticed that May 2, 2020 was ‘International Drone Day’. So I planned a Henry’s High-tech Highlight post for this week on that topic. 


The world is in a different place now than when I penciled that into my calendar. But as the week of May 2 approached, it struck me as still being an interesting highlight for this time.

You may recall that in 2013, Amazon announced plans to start a drone delivery service. I recollect feeling wonder-struck at this futuristic concept becoming real, imagining that our lives would soon become even more like science fiction. I thought the sight of autonomous flying robots zipping about their business above us as we conducted our lives down on the ground would soon become commonplace. Drones weren’t new in 2013; they had become a popular item for consumers a few years before. Once they had cameras attached and could be controlled by our smartphones, people wanted to give them a spin. Many libraries were quick to embrace this exciting new technology and began offering programming to showcase how it worked, as well as checking them out to patrons to try out at home.

Fast forward to today. It’s been seven years and Amazon’s drone delivery service has yet to take flight. Doesn’t it sure sound nice right about now? Many of us are social distancing and having varying degrees of difficulty in receiving even basic supplies like toiletries, pharmaceuticals, and groceries. Although items can be delivered directly to our homes, we rely on human drivers who may be putting themselves at risk. A remote-controlled robot that descends from the sky to drop toilet paper on my doorstep? Yes, please.

To some, drones may seem like they’re passe, a passing fad, part of a hypothetical future that never came to be. But despite the lack of an Amazon delivery highway in the skies above our neighborhoods, we’ve come a long way in the last ten years.  There are a lot of really exciting things going on that I’d love to highlight for you. Drones are still worth buzzing about.

Today’s highlight: Drones


COVID-19 and Drones

It’s been interesting to see how emerging technologies can, well, emerge during times of crises such as what we’re going through now.  Before we get to more general uses for drones, here are some instances when drones have been deployed in the pandemic:

  • To deliver supplies to residents: If you are a resident of Christiansburg, Virginia, you can already experience what it would be like to get your supplies via drone at this time. Google has a pilot project there called Wing launched in September 2019 with little idea they would be testing things out during a pandemic six months later.
Photo of family on doorstep looking up at drone delivering supplies.
Source: Wing via Forbes
Photo of a drone with sprayers attached.


Outside of COVID-19, drones are still taking off. An article in the Wall Street Journal from last October outlined a lot of their upward momentum (sorry, I can’t not make drone puns).

Here’s a rundown of uses for drones you may not be aware of:

Medical

  • Blood
    • In Rwanda, they can cut a treacherous 4-hour road journey to just 30 minutes. Drones delivered 5,500 units of blood to Rwandan regional hospitals over a12-month period, leading to a reduction in maternal deaths and fewer cases of malaria-induced anemia! Source: beautifulnews.daily
  • Medicine

Farming and pest control

  • Drones with crop sensors significantly improve the efficiency of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and water, and improve environmental impact. It saves the farmers thousands of dollars every year. Though primarily used for grains, a recent study is exploring how drones can even help fruit growers by:
    • taking inventory of tree height and canopy volume
    • monitoring tree health and quality;
    • managing water, nutrients, pests and disease in-season;
    • estimating fruit/nut production and yield; and,
    • creating marketing tools (videos for promotion of the orchard, or sale of trees and fruit).
  • Pesticide-spraying to accelerate sustainable farming
  • Eradicate locust swarms ravaging crops to curb hunger crises
  • Planting trees by firing “seed missiles” to restore the world’s forests
  • Dropping baits to poison invasive wilderness pests to support indigenous wildlife and with enough accuracy to avoid endangered species

Drone photos to 3D Print

Here’s a cool idea: Use your drone to take photos of of a subject (like a building), and then make it with a 3D printer.



Other compelling applications

Speaking of swarms and insects…

Check out this recent video from PBS of a camera drone disguised as a hummingbird which was able to capture never before seen footage of monarch swarms:

Source


Libraries and Drones

Anything new going on?


Thanks for asking. Here are a few I found:

  • Scanning shelves to conduct inventories (happening in Japan)


    Source: A librarian monitors a flying drone to scan bookshelves at a library in the Nishifuna 1-chome district of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, on March 12. (Shigeo Hirai)

And finally, as suggested by our Inclusive Services Consultant Laura Tadena, you can do something right now, even if your library building is closed:

Suggest a drone simulation video game to teens currently at home. They can get started playing with this emerging technology and practice flying one until they get the real thing. Here’s a free one.

Screenshot of a drone simulation video game

What about you? Anything I missed about drones? Send any further ideas, even flights of fancy (sorry), to ld@tsl.texas.gov care-of Henry Stokes.


A big thanks to LDN Office Assistant Tomas Mendez for his help researching links for this month’s highlight!

The Results are in! – 2019 TSLAC Texas Public Library Speed Test

In December 2019, TSLAC conducted its third Texas Public Library Speed Test, which provided a snapshot of public library Internet speeds across Texas. As we had done in 2016 and 2017, we provided an online network speed test tool for public libraries throughout Texas to test the Internet speed at each of their locations on a wired public access computer. The results (download and upload speed in Megabits per second, or Mbps) were automatically recorded for TSLAC to compile. For the 2019 test, 67% of accredited public libraries in Texas participated.  Network speeds from 494 locations were collected, representing 356 main libraries.  

Photo of Fort Worth Library Computer Lab
Fort Worth Public Library public access computers

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) outlined broadband targets for libraries and schools participating in the E-rate program in the recent E-rate Modernization Order. The Order adopted the following targets recommended by ALA (American Library Association):

  • 100 Mbps or greater – libraries serving fewer than 50,000 people
  • 1 Gbps (Gigabit per second) or greater – libraries serving more than 50,000 people

In a separate action, the FCC recommended a minimum speed of 25 Mbps per household in 2015.

At the conclusion of the Texas Public Library Speed Test, TSLAC cross-referenced the collected data to the FCC’s broadband targets based on respondents’ population size.

Significant findings

30% of Texas public libraries (152 of 494 respondents) that reported results met the targets set by the FCC and ALA. This is a significant increase from 2016 and 2017 tests, when this percentage was a mere 6%. 

TSLAC’s efforts the last few years to promote high speed Internet and E-rate discounts to public libraries, as well as its successful Libraries Connecting Texas (LCT) program, have had a noticeable impact. But we still have a ways to go. The test results indicate that as much as 70% of Texas public libraries are below national broadband standards for libraries. In addition, 23% of reporting Texas public libraries did not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband for individual households (25 Mbps). The 116 libraries that did not meet this minimum standard serve over 4 million Texans.  Public libraries providing patron computers and Wi-Fi access face greater demands than household networks, requiring faster speeds for patrons to efficiently access distance learning, e-government information, and employment opportunities.

Thank you to the public libraries for participating in TSLAC’s public library speed tests. We plan to conduct more in the future to measure impact and help us determine the current statewide needs for broadband. Collecting this data on regular basis benefits the entire Texas library community and will help us as we work to ensure that every Texan has the Internet access they need.

HHH: Virtual Branch

Logo for Henry's Hightech Highlights

If your library has a website, you’ve got a virtual, or digital, branch.

So what happens when all the library’s buildings are closed, the books are locked away on their shelves, the computers and printers are shut down, and the staff are sent home? Is the library gone? Is it really closed?

There may be a “virtual branch” sitting on the Web somewhere for people to find, but does that count? That’s just web pages with the library’s address and hours, maybe some text that no one really reads, right?

I don’t think so. The virtual branch is so much more. Especially right now.

Today’s highlight is the Virtual Branch.


Many might think that library closures mean that the library’s gone away. That the job is over, all the essential services have stopped, that staff will have nothing to do. That the virtual branch, the library’s online website, is merely a sad placeholder, a shuttered, boarded-up storefront, useless and defunct, with a message at the top announcing: “Sorry, we’re closed.”

I want those who think this to reconsider. Here’s what a virtual branch can be, should be, even when the buildings and physical collections are inaccessible.

Photo of a smiling woman
Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

It’s PEOPLE.

Here’s what I hope folks understand: the virtual branch is still the people.

It’s YOU. It’s your friendly, helpful staff. It’s actual living library workers still doing the work they would do in the physical location, but now virtually. Many of the crucial services the library provides continue on. Even when the library is closed, the virtual branch can be actively open. You’re still helping your community..


Here’s a little video I made explaining more about a virtual branch, albeit back in far less crisis-y times:


Right now our communities are going to need help. This is the time for action. Libraries respond.

Picture of determined looking librarian

How will you respond to the various, and sometimes dramatically different, circumstances facing your patrons? For example, in a community for a public library:

  • People will be bored and need entertainment and diversion.
  • People with kids at home will need support for home schooling and parenting.
  • People working from home will need help with remote office technology.
  • People will be learning new skills, for example: finally getting to their home improvement projects.
  • People will be out of work and need help with unemployment filing, job training, job search and applications.

It’s that last one—the area of workforce development—that I believe is the most crucial. Folks in these situations could previously go visit a public library for the needed technology, good connectivity, and digital literacy help from the staff, but now they’ll need it all virtually.

At a minimum, libraries should use their virtual branch to provide up-to-date resources and show their communities how to access the services they need. They should be active users of their existing social media—to promote their digital content but also things like reader’s advisory—or try becoming active on social media for the first time.

There’s also programming that can be shifted to digital, using Zoom, Facebook Live, and other tools . Here are some great examples I’ve seen so far:

  • virtual storytime *
  • virtual book club meetings
  • yoga classes
  • tech training
  • Q&A’s about genealogy research
  • virtual ukulele class 🙂

* Need resources on streaming storytime? Check out the third tab in Youth Services (YS) Consultant Bethany Wilson’s awesome spreadsheet, Texas YS COVID-19 Resources

Don’t forget: We can still talk to our patrons over the phone. Google Voice can provide phone numbers for staff to provide reference services from home. Also, I’ve heard from one library considering playing a recording of an audio book over the phone for patrons to call in and listen to.


I would like to add more to the idea that the virtual branch goes beyond just the phone, website, e-resources, and social media. Now is the time for libraries to partner with other agencies and organizations, get outside the library (not necessarily physically), and join with all the forces on the front line helping your community.

Here are just a few ideas:

  • Become reference librarians for other city/county organizations
  • Find other ways to provide patrons with Internet access who have none :
    • Track down those in your community offering free hotspots and circulate a local free WiFi map
    • Share free and low cost options for home Internet
  • Help facilitate access to telehealth.
  • Reach out to hospitals and determine if you can help. Do you have a 3D printer? There’s currently a widespread effort for maker spaces of all stripes, including libraries, to either donate 3D printers so faceguards can be printed, or print the faceguards themselves.
  • One library in Kentucky has set up its computers to run folding@home to add processing power for the study of COVID-19.
  • Assist with the 2020 Census – a critical tool to help support your community and ensure your patrons get counted and are seen.
  • Use video chat to be virtually present while patrons fill out census, do their taxes, get set up for telehealth, etc. Use screenshare if they’re struggling and move their mouse for them – just as you might do if you were sitting next to them physically at a library computer.

Final thought – from David Lee King:

Your library isn’t a building. It’s not a bunch of books. It’s made up of people and content. And interacting with people and content doesn’t have to stop just because the building is closed.

You can hear from him, plus several other library luminaries, in the recording of a free ALA webinar that happened yesterday (March 26) all about virtual services during the pandemic:

The recording is now available:

Recording: AL-Live- Libraries and COVID-19: Providing Virtual Services

Length: 1 hour

Description: Your physical library may be closed, but you can still offer direct services to your patrons. With many resources available digitally, and with the ability to provide reference via phone, chat, and virtual meeting tools, your services do not have to halt at a time when they are more important than ever. Please join our expert panel on Thursday, March 26 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern as they offer practical insights on how to make your virtual tools more efficient and how to get them off the ground if they weren’t being provided previously.



I want you all to know that Henry is here. Please keep in touch, and let me know how you’re doing and whether I can be of help! We’re all in this together and we’re going to get through this. And if you are a Texas public library with a Ploud website and need anything, I’m your man.

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Service in the Time of COVID-19 (coronavirus): Suggestions from Texas Library Workers, Plus Local, Statewide, and Federal Resources

(Please note, this is not a complete list, but serves as a snapshot of what’s happening across different library environments in Texas. Services and news are changing quickly.)

Services to Consider

  • Technology
    • Keep your Library’s WiFi on 24/7 if not already. Enables safe social distance and does not put library staff at risk. Purchase repeaters or extenders. [External link for more information]
    • Promote electronic resources via social media campaigns. Consider taking out ads to boost messages. 
    • Collect and promote low-cost internet service; find offers in your area: https://www.everyoneon.org/find-offers.
    • Claim your library in Google searches and on Yelp, to keep your library hours current. Use this tutorial from WebJunction to do it. 
    • If your library has old laptops that do not currently circulate, consider checking them out either to patrons or places where the digital divide will be felt the most, such as senior centers, nursing homes, shelters, housing authorities, etc.
  • Services: 
    • Re-evaluate what is needed to obtain library cards; can patrons receive and sign-up for cards and be confirmed electronically?
    • Share (or devise) a local guide to resources (like this one), as well as pointing out national reputable sources.
    • Take this opportunity to promote the Census, since everyone is home. You can answer the Census via phone, and it’s available in 50+ languages. Visit our Census webpage to find TX resources.
  • Collections:
    • Extend due dates, suspend fines; 
      • Many ILSs are sending out specific information on how to change item records for special scenarios. Contact your ILS vendor if you need assistance.
    • Quarantine returned items per the latest medical guidelines or at least note that these items were received. 
    • Make accessible large print collections for seniors (CTLS has a circulating collection, but circulation is currently paused). Promote information on how to enlarge print on eReaders or other devices.

For library staff:

If your library is still open:

  • The State Library does not have authority to order library closures or openings. The decision to close your library remains a local one, and libraries should look for guidance from their city. However, libraries should consider Governor Abbott’s executive orders limiting person-to-person contact (and continue to check back for new orders and updates from the Office of the Governor). In addition, current research is still in its infancy about the period of time that the virus can exist on materials. Libraries should consider speaking to an attorney to discuss potential liability and risks from lending materials.  

Texas Statewide Resources

Need resources?

  • Tocker Foundation grant deadline: https://tocker.org/grant-application-process/. WiFi hotspots are eligible, though many companies are currently listing hotspots as backordered.
  • You might also consider low-cost refurbished computers and laptops from PCsForPeople and TechAnew (Texas).
  • Libraries that are considering the purchase of hotspots but are finding limited availability could consider purchasing mobile phones and using the hotspot feature.

Visit the Library Development and Networking COVID-19 page to stay up-to-date on services and programs in this quickly changing environment.

Need assistance? Staff in Library Development and Networking are still here for you! Contact us directly or email our shared email address at ld@tsl.texas.gov and your message will be connected with the right person. We’ll get through this!