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Technology moves from Mars to Soweto: Pupils use robotic camera to capture panoramic images of their environment
Detail: Going from zero technology to space exploration equipment in less than a year, Soweto schoolchildren studying in the Lavela school, who had never touched a computer until eight months ago are now learning to use technologies developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to share their world with pupils in other countries by using a high-resolution robotic camera to capture panoramic shots of their surroundings, and loading them on to a website.

This GigaPan project was developed to help children from different backgrounds understand each other. It is funded by the UNESCO's International Bureau of Education. Other project partners include Carnegie Mellon University, Google and National Geographic. The Soweto school is one of only four selected for the project. The project will also work with children in the US and Trinidad and Tobago.

The project uses the Mars Rover system developed by NASA for creating explorable images. The camera can take up to 400 sequential images and its software is capable of stitching together anything from 40 to 400 images thus creating a massive picture capturing so much detail in 600-million pixels that viewers can zoom in to read a street sign. The panoramic pictures are uploaded to the GigaPan website, which holds 4000 images from around the world.

People who view the photos can post notes on top of the image asking questions about it, opening a discussion about different worlds children inhabit. By being part of this project and using this powerful new technology, children will not only learn to examine their own surroundings and question what they see, but also learn about other countries and cultures. Carnegie Mellon's professor of robotics, Illah Nourbaksh said, "We look for ways to empower people and tell their stories with technology, and the side effect is that they become technology literate."

UNESCO is looking for an art gallery in Johannesburg or Soweto to display the images Lavela pupils will take. UNESCO webmaster Christopher Strebel says if the pilot project goes well, UNESCO will lobby to have GigaPan adopted as a method of education to let pupils communicate across cultures and share their experiences.
Source: Based on “Soweto schoolchildren go hi-tech to share their world” by Lesley Stones in Business Day (South Africa), April 23, 2008
Date: April 28 2008