Or it could be broken down more. I'll attach the list as I am presenting it to the downlink sites on Nov. 17.
The other levels involve communication over the network outside the broadcast. But that is largely outside my area of concern right now. I am focusing on the other three levels, while others develop the larger envelope of activities. Sometimes we overlap some; we expect to use data in the broadcast which students have gathered ahead of time, and have entered into the Jason network either from school or at the downlink site just before the show. But let me tell you a bit about the three areas I am currently wrestling with
Q & A poses software development questions. Simple questions like what data do we want to capture about the students who are asking turn out to be harder to answer than one might think. The more you ask, the longer the kids have to sit at the keyboard, and the fewer get to ask something. Since we hope to be spontaneous and in sync with the show, we want that time minimized; also it is only fair to the rest of the kids. Questioners ask their question in type, plus aloud, plus we capture an image of them. The whole file is then transmitted via a server in Tulsa to the Hawaii control center. We download it and check for visual and audio quality and try to figure out how to fit it into the program as quickly as possible. Sounds easy, but the software is unique. Making things happen fast enough is one challenge; it is a lot of data to send through several gateways, the narrowest of which will determine the speed with which the question gets on the air. Actually, the accumulation of them will play a part. Last year things moved a lot slower than we wanted, and the whole team working on this is determined to have it zoom in Hawaii.
Making it look good is another issue. We trust the downlink sites to provide good audio and video, and mostly they do. There is better technology now than a year ago for converting the digital files to TV signals, and we expect the pictures will be more highly resolved. We only use a portion of the screen on air, which includes the picture and, if it goes according to plan, the text of the student's name, age and site. We keep the picture small to speed up transmission and rendering, and to allow room on the broadcast screen for whatever needs to be shown to answer the question. It wouldn't surprise me if we changed this design yet again before the broadcast. There are unusual constraints of legibility, data economy, inputting efficiency -- all these great concepts no one watching should ever have to think about. I suppose after this has been done a few times it will seem obvious how these things should be done. Inventing without a lot of precedence is another matter. That seems to be emerging as the theme of this diary.
Driving (I'll return to the exercises in a future entry) raises all the questions that Q & A does, plus a lot more. The equipment itself has a digital interface with which our computers have to link up. On Star Trek this is no big deal. For us, it's more interesting, if you like that sort of thing. We plan two kinds of driving: a vehicle and a crane. Did I talk about this already? The crane will scoop out some gooey hot lava for analysis, and take the volcano's temperature. The vehicle will move over the lava field and demonstrate the difficulties of doing research by remote control, which is the way it has to be done on other planets most of the time. IF we assume the software for these devices works as it should, and IF we can link it to our system, then driving should be no great challenge. Relatively speaking, of course. I am speaking as the scriptwriter, you understand. There is only about a half-dozen people who are working long hours to justify my confidence.
What are they doing? well, some are concerned with the engineering of the devices, whether they will hold up in the conditions where we will be, if they will be buildable in the time we have available, if they will do what we want them to do and not break down. Like I said, no big deal. Others are worrying about those computer interfaces. I would not know why, it seems perfectly simple to me. Speaking as a scriptwriter. Others are dealing with the remote-control aspects of the communications, detailing what kinds of signals have to reach what destinations via what route. Hey, what could be the trouble there?
Myself, I'm concerned about how the kids are going to feel operating these things. Just for fun, we put a camera on a toy radio-controlled car and used only the monitor to find our way around the office with it. It was HARD! We tried to see what it would be like lowering a hook using only a camera signal to go by. It was REALLY hard. The students who accept these challenges are going to have sobering experience. I just want to make sure they are as prepared as they can be, and know that there is a pilot standing by in Hawaii to get them out of a jam if they have difficulties. Even if the audience is overwhelmingly hoping something unbelievably expensive is going to happen.
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Todd Carlo Viola, JASON Foundation for Education (firstname.lastname@example.org)