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October 1, 2009
By Skyler Dillon
Imagine: a giant, table-sized iPhone with applications to help you study, find your way around and edit photos. The Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center has just that. The Knowledge Center, located on the University of Nevada, Reno campus, is developing a new study tool known as the Microsoft Surface for students. The Surfaces, coffee-table-sized computerized devices that respond not to a mouse, but to fingertips, are in two locations throughout the library for student use. One is in the @One area and one is on the entry-level second floor. Since their introduction to the library at the beginning of 2009, they have been employed as study tables and even as lunch tables, a use encouraged by Applications Development Librarian Will Kurt.
“The idea is to treat the Surfaces as regular tables,” he said. “We want to add computing to everyday tasks to make them easier—to think about what our regular tables can’t do that we wish they could, and then make them do it.”
In the first few months of the Surfaces’ use, the applications included picture storage and manipulation, a global map system, and games such as chess. Users can manipulate the size of pictures, watch news videos, zoom in on a map of campus and leave comments, all with a few fingertip touches.
“Our original intention was just to get it out there and to expose students to new technologies and new ways of interacting,” said Kurt.
This semester, however, a new application has been added that should make study hours for some students much easier. Anatomy students are now given a computerized tag as part of their lab assignments that, when laid on a Surface, will bring up images of the lab diagrams, worksheets and models that the students need to study. Students, with the touch of a fingertip, can flip through pages and turn them as though they were physically there on the table. The Surface can even erase the labels from certain diagrams so students can quiz themselves and then return the labels when they are ready to check their answers—a sort of digital flashcard.
“We want to show that this Surface is not just a novelty,” said Kurt. “It isn’t something that’s simply cool because it’s a touch screen. It is a uniquely useful tool.”
The anatomy application was inspired by watching groups of students working in the Knowledge Center with clumsy models and sheaves of disorganized notes for various labs. Librarians wanted to create an easier way for them to study. This, Kurt says, is what the Surface is all about: not modifying human behavior to fit around a computer, but modifying computing to make human tasks easier and simpler.
“With desktop computers, we have this very specific ‘plug-in’ time,” he said. “We turn on our computers and we’re doing nothing else for however long we’re there. With the Surfaces, computing becomes a part of whatever we’re already doing, so we can treat it as simply another tool.”
The Surfaces seem to be in high demand from students. In the first week of the semester, they were used for 70 hours over just seven days. According to Kurt, part of their strong appeal lies in their multi-user capabilities. Several students can work together on one of them simultaneously.
“It allows for a lot of collaboration,” Kurt said. “And that’s what’s being encouraged in a lot of classes.”
The Surfaces are currently only available to corporations and institutions, and not to individual consumers. The Knowledge Center is one of very few academic libraries to be using and developing the product, making strides in the new trend of what Kurt calls “ubiquitous computing.”
“We’d next like to come up with an easy way for users to browse the library’s media collections,” Kurt said. “There is just so much potential with this.”
For more on the IGT-Mathewson Knowledge Center, visit the Knowledge Center website.