"Would you like a virtual hug?" said Xyla Foxlin, a sophomore from Case Western Reserve University, to a woman passing by her booth at this year’s International Consumer Electronics Show.
"What’s a virtual hug?" replied the passer-by, Tiphaine Bichot.
Ms. Foxlin handed Ms. Bichot a fuzzy, brown teddy bear that happened to be tethered electronically to an identical stuffed animal.
"The idea is that, as I give one bear a hug, it sends a Wi-Fi message to that one, and that bear gently vibrates," the student said. As the visitor nestled the toy to her chest and began to feel the simulated embrace, she laughed delightedly, with a wide-eyed smile.
"So if you’re constantly traveling away from your kids," continued Ms. Foxlin, "or if you work abroad or if you’re in the military, etc. — separated for any reason — then you have a way of physically communicating with your child, which is psychologically the most important form of communication."
Of course the vast show, known as CES, is about much more than just higher education. It drew a record 150,000 attendees this year, and more than 3,600 companies set up booths here, in an exhibition space that sprawled across just about every available conference venue in Las Vegas. The booths were organized in clusters by topic or type (smart home, fitness, virtual reality, etc.), and this year Case Western bought 10 slots in an area called "university innovations."
This is the third year the Ohio university has claimed spots here, and it held a competition for students and alumni to take advantage of them. As William Wichert, a contractor for Case Western who organized the project, explained, it’s part of a larger effort by the university to create an "ecosystem" to support student entrepreneurship.
This year’s breakout student project for Case Western, judging from interest by attendees and journalists, was the bear. Ms. Foxlin devised the idea after her boyfriend moved to Austin, Tex. She found that there were times when she would call him on the phone but didn’t really have anything to say, she said. She just wanted some sort of contact, and she figured a virtual hug might help. "I said, ‘I’m an engineer — this is really my problem.’"
Once upon a time, such a notion would have remained a fleeting idea in a student’s mind. But these days colleges stage events like hackathons, marathon sessions where teams of students try to develop something innovative in a sleepless period of hard work and creativity.
Last year Ms. Foxlin traveled to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor to attend the largest such student hackathon in the country, called MHacks6. There she teamed up with a high-school student from California, Harshita Gupta, whom she had met through a national network for female entrepreneurs. The two built a prototype of the connected teddy bears, and decided the idea was worth taking further.
Back at Case Western, Ms. Foxlin set to work at the university’s think[box], a building that is a "maker space," full of 3D printers and other fabrication machines, where students, faculty members, and even local residents can try to bring an invention to life.
With a $1,000 grant from the university for materials, Ms. Foxlin built the prototypes of the hugging bears that she brought to CES. She and Ms. Gupta founded a company called Parihug, and they plan to run a Kickstarter campaign this summer to raise enough money to manufacture a version for the consumer market.
The students are also looking for other creative ways to get attention. Just before I talked with the inventors, they had pitched their idea to a producer for the reality-TV show Shark Tank, which held an open casting call at CES.
Many credit the show, in which entrepreneurs pitch their plans for nascent companies to a panel of investors who may then actually back the ventures, as a major force in popularizing the start-up lifestyle. A Case Western administrator woke up early to stand in line to get a free ticket for the students to participate in the casting call.
Hot Houses to Hatch Ideas
Case Western is hardly alone in offering such support for student entrepreneurs. Across the hallway from Ms. Foxlin at CES, I met a group of students from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo hawking their invention, which they call Spritely. It’s an alarm clock that can sense a user’s sleep patterns and ring only if the user is in a light sleep — considered the least-stressful way to be awakened.
"If you want to set the alarm for around 7:30 a.m., it will find between five and 90 minutes of that, depending on the best time considering your sleep pattern," explained Katrina Strawich, a freshman at Cal Poly who is part of the project’s marketing team. "It wakes you in the most relaxed state."
The idea arose at the university’s Hatchery, which provides support services for student-run companies as part of its Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The students then took the project to another university facility, called the HotHouse, which provides mentors and other support to students who want to start companies.
"College is the only time you’re going to have these mentors free of charge," said Ms. Strawich. But a better way to think of it, considering that tuition and fees at Cal Poly range from $9,000 to $21,000 a year, is that some students see the learning they might do on a personal invention differently than they see the courses they take.
If some students begin to see colleges as primarily places to find services to start their own businesses, is there reason for budding entrepreneurs to stay on a campus once they get those start-ups off the ground? After all, the idols of Silicon Valley, like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, met some co-founders and mentors in college and then promptly dropped out.
Ms. Foxlin said she definitely struggles with that question. "For some of the things I want to do I need a degree," she added. "I’m almost in college just for the sheet of paper, not to learn, or to do research, or get a job at the university, or be a professor — it’s just for a sheet of paper."
Ms. Gupta, who like many high-school seniors is still deciding where to start college in the fall, is more sold on the old-fashioned notion of college as a place to become more well rounded.
"People have told me to drop out of high school to work on this" company, she said. "But I don’t feel like I have become aware of all the things I might be interested in." One thing she isn’t particularly looking for, though, is technical skills. Like many people in tech these days, she just teaches herself with online resources. "Google is your best friend," she said. "You just type in, ‘How do I do this?’"
A Higher-Ed Holodeck?
It’s hard to say what the big trends were at this year’s CES, and especially difficult to predict which technologies will have the greatest impact on education.
While sharing hugs via bears seems to have little to do with higher education, it did fit into a trend of trying to convey a richer sense of presence and emotional connection over the Internet.
One example was a tool called AirClass, announced by Lenovo, that promises to give professors a sense of their students’ emotional reaction to an online lecture or discussion.
The software uses the video camera on students’ laptops to record each participant’s face during a class. The footage is then sent to a system that tries to quantify the student’s emotional state in nine categories, including confusion, surprise, frustration, and happiness. Data are thrown out for students who are not facing the camera or whose emotional state can’t be determined.
Jan L. Plass, chair in digital media and learning sciences at New York University, who designs games for higher education, said that while he had not seen AirClass, he has encouraged online-course designers to pay more attention to emotion. "Emotions have long been undervalued in the realm of education, except of course for negative ones such as test anxiety," he said by email.
Some companies at CES unveiled systems that track movement, so that navigating a virtual space will involve gesturing or walking in place. One of the more elaborate versions of that idea was the Infinadeck, an "omnidirectional treadmill" that designers compared to the "Holodeck" in the Star Trek universe. The company behind the Infinadeck, and others, also sold a vision of a computer display strapped to your face, giving a fully immersive experience.
The Infinadeck is not yet ready for the market, and many other gadgets here were equally unready for prime time. Perhaps entering a Holodeck is throwing more technology at education than is even needed.
Clearly the harder question for higher education is what it should teach and how it might fit into the career plans of future students.
Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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