Introducing the Optolabe


William Overington

The fourth story in The Eutotokens of Learning, which is a collection of stories speculating on a future infrastructure for free to the end user distance education on the internet.

Copyright 1998 William Overington.

"Optolabe? What's an optolabe?" asked David Albert.

"An optolabe" replied Henry Lambert "is a hand held computer vision input device designed to allow a user to signal three dimensional movements to a computer, including such things as pitch, roll and yaw."

David Albert looked shaken. It was quite clear that he had no idea of what Henry was talking about and was not going to say so.

'Oh no!' thought Jane Hove 'Everything was going so well!'

Jane had been feeling quite pleased with herself. She had arranged the meeting, everyone was there. David Albert, a director of International Free Distance Education Publishing PLC had agreed to attend and had actually arrived. Jane felt that her skill in getting John and Edith to the press conference had been a major personal success for her. IFDEP's share price had stabilized and was showing small signs of recovery. All had been going well. Edith and John from Encouragement of Creativity and Invention Limited were there. Henry Lambert was there. Everybody who was meant to be there was there. Edith had put forward her suggestion of the course on Old English. No one had objected. She had herself put forward the idea of a qualification for distance education learning package authorship which had been well received, but then it had been already agreed at the IFDEP internal meeting the previous day, though Edith's comments today had been pleasing. John had put forward his suggestion of the course on Bessel functions. There had been some discussion, but that was just scientific chat, nothing political; and everybody knew the unspoken truth that there was no question whatsoever of it not being accepted because it was John's suggestion as a committee member and could only be voted down by the unanimous agreement of everybody else. And everybody realized that Edith would not vote it down, so there we are. Especially Edith knew that Edith would not vote it down, for Edith had managed to get that rule agreed in the first place! Still, if that was the price to be paid to get IFDEP's share price back on course, so be it, bearing in mind, of course, that Edith could be relied upon to back academic quality. Now this. Jane sighed.

"I've not heard of an optolabe myself" said Jane "Is it well known in the computer vision field?"

"Not at present" said Henry "That's part of the idea. The course is meant to popularize the optolabe concept and hopefully lead to it being developed commercially."

Jane inwardly winced. She noticed, however, that David Albert relaxed a little, for he was not alone in not knowing what Henry was talking about.

"So, this optolabe is not a well established concept upon which to base a teaching course then" asked David Albert seizing back control of the meeting.

"No, not at all, not yet" enthused Henry "It would not be such a good choice as a topic for the research if it were already developed."

David Albert looked utterly confused!

"And if it became a big success, look at the good publicity for IFDEP."

David Albert looked intrigued. Jane felt happier. She could see that the possibility of a research project might well be worth considering. She could not herself imagine quite how it would be organized but then she did not need to be able to imagine it herself. Henry was clearly in favour of research and so he would have to put forward some starting point as to just exactly how it would be organized. All was back on course!

"The optolabe idea" continued David Albert "is it your own invention?"

"Oh no" said Henry "it was invented by the man who is the author of this story."

David Albert looked shaken and looked around him not quite knowing what to say.

"Henry, do you think that you should have said that?" said Jane.

"Alright, we're all professional story characters" she continued "You know it, I know it, we all know it. But did you really have to refer to it out loud in front of the readers!"

"Well yes" said Henry "it had to be said. As you know, this whole series of stories in The Eutotokens of Learning is designed to be a catalyst to trying to get some of the ideas that are contained in the fictional stories to be implemented in real life. The optolabe is one of the ideas. It serves two purposes in being in The Eutokens of Learning. It provides a good solid invention around which to build some stories about research and also there is also the chance that by being in the stories it will also be developed as a computer vision input device in real life."

"Yes, but could you not have kept everything within the proper dimensions of the imaginary world in which the stories are set?" asked Jane.

"Well, .... no" said Henry "The optolabe has real world copyright and real world design right and they belong to the author, I have to make that clear."

Jane glanced around the table and saw Edith gently nodding in agreement.

Jane tried to lighten the atmosphere a little.

"You'll be saying that the very sentences I am speaking are copyright next!" she quipped.

"Well, aren't ...." said Henry, stopping mid-comment as he realized that Edith was looking at him a little old fashionedly.

"Very well" said Jane "you've made the point. Can we go back into story mode please?"

"So how" asked David Albert "do you envisage the research activity being brought into our plans?"

"The first thing is that there will a number of short modules dealing with well established matters, such as three dimensional geometry and the mathematics of rotations; and also the basic technology of existing computer vision systems. That will be in the same manner as your existing distance education courses."

Henry glanced around the room and saw everyone seeming to follow.

"Then" he continued "there will be a module clearly stating the theory of the optolabe, the module clearly being marked as research work that is not as yet part of accepted theory. Then there will be research modules so that people try to work on part of the development of the optolabe."

"What does this optolabe invention look like? Is it electronic?" asked David Albert.

"Oh, it's not electronic" said Henry "it is just a solid object. It could be made of plastic or wood or whatever, as long as it is the right shape and the right colours"

"The right colours?" asked David Albert, now intrigued.

"Yes, the optolabe is of overall size of about a bit larger than a hand. It consists of six blue spheres of different sizes supported on a neutral coloured frame, maybe beige or grey, with some neutral coloured discs as well. The idea is that from whatever angle a computer vision system sees the optolabe, some of the spheres are seen as blue discs, since a sphere seen from any angle gives the appearance of a disc. The discs in the optolabe are so that the spheres that at any time are on the side of the optolabe away from the computer vision system are occluded, either in whole or in part."

"What happens if a blue sphere is only partly occluded" asked David Albert.

"Then it presents a blue shape of some sort to the computer vision system. If the blue shape that is received is not a disc, then it is ignored."

"Have you got it working?" said David Albert.

"Well no" said Henry "the story helps the optolabe as well as the distance education ideas."

Jane realized that Henry had realized that he had done it again and looked a little apologetic. She decided not to say what she was about to say and realized that people had noticed her lean forward and lift her hands from the table and then sit back.

Now there were only the rest of the topics already agreed at the IFDEP meeting yesterday to get through, five more individual choices and then the nine to be decided by majority vote. Jane hoped that although a majority vote was assured that Edith would raise no objections.

In the event it was all alright, though it was clear that Edith had not objected to anything because she had been happy with the suggestions, not because she had politically decided not to object, which was good really as in that way Jane felt that she had helped to achieve a job well done.