Cambridge incubator spawns spinoffs aplenty

Are you allergic to VoIP?

Smirk

What's the academic equivalent of a "shoot-em-up" video game? How about a "teach-em-up University" online?

The Virtual University really exists. Instead of going to class, you send an avatar into a virtual world, where the lectures and blackboards are software-generated.

It's called Smirkworld, said David Kraithman, who is not in fact a Cambridge University lecturer - he comes from the University of Hertfordshire, also represented at St John's. "It's like a computer game, but instead of warriors and monsters you have students and tutor."

There are three pieces to the virtual university.

Smirk is the basic authoring tool. It creates multimedia slide shows - a sort of super-Powerpoint that runs on a web server. Smirkboard is the hosting software, and SmirkVR takes the other two components and generates a virtual world in which several "players" or students can meet.

"The ensuring fight - or discussion, as we prefer to call it - can be recorded as captions, like subtitles on a movie," said Kraithman. He believes that the accessibility features will enable people who simply can't get to a class to join in, and interact with other students.

The breakthrough is in dropping the idea of using video conferencing, which has been the assumed basis of many shared-classroom systems in the past. Video conferencing is notoriously hard to manage, and either prohibitively costly in bandwidth, or simply crap.

But sending an avatar in, exactly as you send a player with your choice of "skin" into Doom or Quake or Half Life, uses trivial amounts of bandwidth, but works far more convincingly.

"Smirk enables anybody to produce accessible presentations that can be streamed over the web," says the publicity blurb. "The presentations are produced at the desk without any technician support. Audio, graphics and captioning are the basic building blocks but other elements such as Flash movies, video and links (internal and external) are easy to include."

You can download Smirk from the Hertfordshire University website.

Ferret out copying of your writing...

Plagiarism is, of course, rife on the web - and there's a difficult line to draw between legitimate quoting and ripping off. An easy line to draw, these days, with the release of Ferret, which can spot "cheating" in exams in an instant.

It may also be able to spot musical theft in its next version but, sadly, there are currently no plans to develop an artistic ferret.

The software was originally developed by a University of Hertfordshire lecturer to spot cheats. He set up the Plagiarism Detection Research Group at the university with a brief to simply spot degrees of similarity between text works - or if you prefer, essays.

Ferret can alert you to a possible copyright infringement on just three words. You may well say that "OK, but so can Google!" but Google can't tell you which of the documents with those three words is "sufficiently original" to pass a test of plagiarism.

"It can compare several reports, a number of news items, entries in an electronic encyclopaedia, or different versions of a legal draft," says the blurb. "Even on an ordinary PC, it takes longer to convert a batch of Microsoft Word file to plain text, than it does for Ferret to read those same files and identify the ones that match."

It also works on software. "Natural languages like Chinese and Dutch have already been tested. Only minor changes to the software were required for Chinese, and equally minor changes made it possible to check through C++ and Java code."

Full details at the university web centre.

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