Open Eye: Virtual crystals to dazzle millions

Scientists, artists and new media specialists from the OU's Knowledge Media Institute have created a dazzling new display which will be seen by millions of visitors to the Natural History Museum in London.

The Earth's Treasury display brings to life the Museum's collection of naturally-occurring crystals - using the latest in touch-screen multimedia technology to reveal intimate secrets of crystals to the naked eye.

Using computer-generated 3D models combined with images of actual gem- quality crystals makes it possible to break a crystal down to its component atoms and build it up again, in a way not possible with traditional static models.

The display was created by a small group of earth scientists, designers and electronic media specialists at the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi), an OU organisation which is committed to breaking the boundaries of technology and learning.

The institute was created in 1995 when several research teams at the Open University, working in related areas joined forces. Members of Kmi believe that our future depends on understanding and sharing knowledge, and aim to define the future of life-long learning by harnessing and shaping the technologies which underpin it.

Areas of interest, study and development include knowledge systems, multimedia enabling technologies for disabled people, advanced telematics, virtual classrooms and science labs, customisable authoring tools, intelligent agents, and training on demand.

The team's broad ambition is to gain some insights into what it means to share knowledge, and looks at a range of issues which go beyond matters of technical development:

how knowledge can be captured and conveyed

how to exploit new technologies to satisfy increasing demand for communication bandwidth

how to meet the needs of mobile students

what radical new methods are needed to assist disabled students;

how to work in groups with students scattered around the globe

how to harness software in the service of human understanding

The research agenda is large and exciting, says Jerzy Grzeda, KMi's Business Manager. "We are as interested in corporate knowledge management and intelligent agents as we are in the needs of students in the wired society.

"To foster life-long learning we need to evolve new media, harness them appropriately, and ensure that they are firmly rooted in a rich representation of knowledge."

He stresses that while KMi is largely about front-line research, it also places strong emphasis on the needs of the Open University's current and future student population. The nature of individuals' roles is changing: academics, editors, designers, producers and software developers are increasingly involved in one another's work, and KMi is exploring creative ways of intermingling these evolving roles.

The new displays at the Natural History Museum form part of a pounds 12 million redevelopment of the former Geological Museum, which will be seen by millions of visitors over the next 10 years. Mineralogists at the Museum study the nature and origin of minerals, meteorites and rocks, increasing our understanding of how both the Earth and the universe have evolved.

The Natural History Museum is open Monday to Saturday 10 am to 5.50pm, Sunday 11 am to 5.50pm.

Enquiries 0171 938 9123 or see: www.nhm.ac.uk

Knowledge Media Institute: www.kmi.open.ac.uk.

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