BigShot: A little camera with a Big potential — inspired by a film!

BigShot: Inspiration with every click?

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” This remark is attributed to one of my favourite essayists and philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

That was probably true for the 19th century in which he lived and died, but it takes a bit more than a mousetrap to generate a buzz these days. But simple and elegant inventions are still the best. BigShot is one of these.

It’s still in testing stage, but already being hailed as “a camera that could improve the way children learn about science and one another”.

BigShot is an innovation by Indian-born Shree K. Nayar, now the T. C. Chang Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University in New York, USA.

As his university’s newspaper reports: “He came up with a prototype as sleek as an iPod and as tactile as a Lego set: the Bigshot digital camera. It comes as a kit, allowing children as young as eight to assemble a device as sophisticated as the kind grown-ups use—complete with a flash and standard, 3-D and panoramic lenses—only cooler. Its color palette is inspired by M&Ms, a hand crank provides power even when there are no batteries and a transparent back panel shows the camera’s inner workings.”

With the BigShot, Nayar wants to not only empower children and encourage their creative vision, but also get them excited about science. Each building block of the camera is designed to teach a basic concept of physics: why light bends when it passes through a transparent object, how mechanical energy is converted into electrical energy, how a gear train works.

Watch Professor Shree Nayar talk about the purpose and development of the Bigshot camera project.

Nayar would like to roll out the camera, now in prototype form, along the lines of the One Laptop Per Child campaign: For each one sold at the full price of around $100, several would be donated to underprivileged schools in the United States and abroad. He will soon begin looking for a partner—a company or nonprofit—to help put Bigshot into production.

Life inspires innovation...

Wired magazine wrote in a recent review: “(It) is a super-simple digicam from the Computer Vision Lab at Columbia University. It comes in parts, ready to be assembled (by kids, but I can’t wait to get my hands on one), and teaches you along the way how these things work. It’s not quite the transparent view you get from making an old analog camera, where you can see how everything works, but it’s as close as you can get from a machine that uses circuit boards.”

Interestingly, the initial inspiration for BigShot came from a documentary: Born into Brothels (85 mins, 2004), a film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Kolkata’s red light district. The widely acclaimed film, written and directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, won a string of accolades including the Academy Award for Documentary Feature made in 2004.

I saw that film during the AIDS Film Festival I helped organise in Bangkok in July 2004. In this film, the film maker, British photographer Zana Briski, gave 35 mm film cameras to eight children and watched as those cameras transformed their lives.

“The film reaffirmed something I’ve believed for a long time, which is that the camera, as a piece of technology, has a very special place in society,” says Nayar. “It allows us to express ourselves and to communicate with each other in a very powerful way.”

Watch an overview of Born into Brothels, featuring the film makers:

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Michael Crichton (1942-2008): Foresaw the fate of ‘Mediasaurus’

Death has no sense of timing, but it sometimes leaves traces of irony. The day Americans were electing an energetic and articulate senator from Chicago as their next president, one of Chicago’s most celebrated citizens lost his battle with cancer.

Michael Crichton
, who died on 4 November 2008, was trained as a medical doctor but played several roles in the creative arts world. He was a prolific author of science fiction and medical fiction, whose books have sold over 150 million copies worldwide. He also produced and directed techno-thriller movies, and was the creator of the highly successful medical drama series on television, ER (Emergency Room), now in its 15th season.

In the domain of popular culture, Crichton was best known for writing Jurassic Park (1990). This cautionary tale on unrestrained biological tinkering was turned into a blockbuster movie by Steven Spielberg in 1993. It became the highest earning film up until that time.

Before and since, Crichton used his technical training, vivid imagination and mastery of English to spin some of the most enjoyable – and scary – stories that often depicted scientific advancements going awry, resulting in the worst-case scenarios. A notable recurring theme in Crichton’s plots is the pathological failure of complex systems and their safeguards, whether biological (Jurassic Park), military/organizational (The Andromeda Strain), technical (Airframe) or cybernetic (Westworld).

Crichton was also a talented essayist who wrote perceptive pieces of non-fiction about science, society and culture – including the role of media. It is one such essay that I would like to recall in his memory.

The media world was very different when, in 1993, Crichton riled the news business with an essay titled “Mediasaurus“. In this essay, written for the newly launched Wired magazine, he prophesied the death of the mass media — specifically the New York Times and the American commercial TV networks.

“To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years. Vanished, without a trace,” he wrote.

Building on his credentials as the author of a best-seller on dinosaurs, Crichton called this endangered beast ‘mediasaurus’.

Mediasaurus - courtesy Slate

Mediasaurus - courtesy Slate

He added: “There has been evidence of impending extinction for a long time. We all know statistics about the decline in newspaper readers and network television viewers. The polls show increasingly negative public attitudes toward the press – and with good reason.”

He talked about technological advances — “artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases, downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page” — that would drive the mediasaurus to their inevitable doom.

Only those nimble, adaptable media products would survive, he said, noting that CNN and C-SPAN were steps in the right direction, giving viewers direct access to events as they happen.

But he had no sympathy for the media. “The media are an industry, and their product is information. And along with many other American industries, the American media produce a product of very poor quality. Its information is not reliable, it has too much chrome and glitz, its doors rattle, it breaks down almost immediately, and it’s sold without warranty. It’s flashy but it’s basically junk. So people have begun to stop buying it.”

Read the full essay: Mediasaurus by Michael Crichton, Wired Oct/Nov 1993

Like most people who dabble in the imperfect art of foreseeing the future, Crichton got the trend right but the timing somewhat wrong. The mainstream media (MSM) were indeed on the decline but not at the dramatic rate that he envisaged.

In February 2002, Jack Shafer wrote a piece in the online magazine Slate titled “Who You Calling Mediasaurus?” Its subtitle was: “The New York Times dodges Michael Crichton’s death sentence”. It asked and tried an answer the question: Where did Crichton go wrong?

Shafer wrote: “Fables of the near future have a way of never materializing, whether they be fevered dreams of nuclear energy too cheap to meter or fossil fuels too expensive to burn. To be fair, Crichton wasn’t the only one to get puking drunk on the new media moonshine. Many of us spent a lost weekend—sometimes months—in a stupor after reading early issues of Wired. But instead of blotting out conventional media, the emerging Infotopia seems only to have made the conventional media more ubiquitous.”

Shafer asked: “Who would have predicted in 1993 that America’s great dailies (minus the Wall Street Journal) and the news networks would dodge both extinction and irrelevance by erecting Web sites overnight and giving their content away? That they would use their Web sites to keep us informed 24-hours-a-day in a way that we take for granted today but that would have astonished us nine years ago?”

In an email interview with Shafer at the time, Crichton acknowledged his own limitations: “I don’t have a lot invested in whether my predictions are right or wrong; I assume that nobody can predict the future well. But in this particular case, I doubt I’m wrong, it’s just too early.”

In that interview, Crichton said he wished he had foreseen “the effect of big media conglomerates combined with the universal decision to make news into entertainment. It’s all headlines and chat now. Factual content is way down, accuracy has vanished (it’s not even a goal any longer), and public confidence in media is at an astonishing low. Not surprisingly, audiences are shrinking.”

Crichton admitted at the time that the personalized ‘infotopia’ he envisioned in 1993 had yet to arrive. He scoffed at the Web for being too slow. “Its page metaphor, too limiting. Design, awful. Excessive hypertexting, too distracting. Noise-to-signal ratio, too high.”

Who succeeds mediasaurus?

Who succeeds mediasaurus?

Now fast-forward to May 2008. The same Jack Shafer, once again writing in Slate, published a piece titled “Michael Crichton, Vindicated”. It was introduced as: “His 1993 prediction of mass-media extinction now looks on target”.

In this essay, Shafer wrote: “As we pass his prediction’s 15-year anniversary, I’ve got to declare advantage Crichton. Rot afflicts the newspaper industry, which is shedding staff, circulation, and revenues. It’s gotten so bad in newspaperville that some people want Google to buy the Times and run it as a charity! Evening news viewership continues to evaporate, and while the mass media aren’t going extinct tomorrow, Crichton’s original observations about the media future now ring more true than false. Ask any journalist.”

Read Jack Shafer’s full interview with Michael Crichton in Slate, May 2008

the weapon that killed Mediasaurus

Revealed: the weapon that killed Mediasaurus

By this time, Crichton was more positive about the web. He noted that the Web has “made it far easier for the inquisitive to find unmediated information, such as congressional hearings.” It’s much faster than it used to be, and more of its pages are professionally assembled.

Crichton suggested that readers and viewers could more objectively measure the quality of the news they consume by pulling themselves “out of the narcotizing flow of what passes for daily news.” Look at a newspaper from last month or a news broadcast.

“Look at how many stories are unsourced or have unnamed sources. Look at how many stories are about what ‘may’ or ‘might’ or ‘could’ happen,” he said. “Might and could means the story is speculation. Framing as I described means the story is opinion. And opinion is not factual content.”

He summed it up with something we already know: “The biggest change is that contemporary media has shifted from fact to opinion and speculation.”

It was interesting to note how mainstream media outlets paid tributes to Crichton this week. He was remembered for the entertaining story teller he truly was, and some even questioned his mixed legacy, for example being an ardent skeptic of global warming – thus batting for the fossil fuel cartels even if only inadvertently.
But I could find few references to his perceptive critique of the mass media.

Who says media likes to turn the spotlight on itself?

PS: I was intrigued to see The New York Times’ reasonably benign obit on the author who predicted their demise. Here’s a collection of Times commentary on him – and some op eds he wrote for them.