22Sep07

Yesterday I discovered a neat little website with some potential for science communication. ScribLink is a `virtual whiteboard.’ It combines a rudimentary drawing program with a chat room and some `Web-2.0′ features.

Fig 1. Screen shot using ScribLink, featuring a graph in a previous post.

Ok, so it’s a glorified MS-Paint. If you want you can play pictionary with up to four friends. But, to the best of my knowledge, basic drawing tools haven’t been included in any of the standard `instant messaging‘ (IM) clients.

As an example of an application, I was recently helping a friend of mine with an MCAT physics problem which required a force diagram. Piece of cake, right? The only problem was that she was across the Atlantic in New York and we were communicating over the net. We ended up drawing an MS Paint diagram and e-mailing it back and forth.

That’s not a huge hassle, but if you’re a chronic multitasker, it’s just a lot of effort to have to go through an IM window MS Paint, and then an e-mail client. Scriblink allows you to paste a URL into the IM window and then start working in the Scriblink `virtual whiteboard’ environment. My friend could then save the image (via automatic e-mail to herself) and try to work out the problem again on her own.

IM 2.0: not just for procrastination

Allow me to wander off Scriblink for a bit to talk about the subtle development of `academic’ instant messaging (what I’ll call `IM 2.0′). A few years ago, it would be common for university students to instant message one another to ask homework (among other things). Humanities students were happy, while math\science\engineering students would bang their heads trying to communicate formulae.

Then came Adium. Adium allowed Mac users to include $\LaTeX$ mathematical typesetting into their instant messages. Suddenly students could discuss a derivation at 3 a.m. in the morning without having to trek out to meet each other in the department. (Ok, so Adium is only for Mac users, but that’s another story.)

Scriblink introduces Web-ware that also allows diagrams, albeit of the crude MS-paint variety. The next step? An integrated client with basic drawing tools, chat, and $\LaTeX$ would be a fantastic tool for students.

IM 2.0 for the physicist on the go

There’s another bit of upcoming software that has great promise. Apple’s iChat client has allowed video conference chats for some time now. The upcoming version in OS X 10.5 (`Leopard’) also allows users to share documents as part of the chat client. The example they highlight is giving a presentation to a small audience.

This, I think, is really neat. Imagine giving practice talks with collaborators who are in another country — you can actually work through the timing and the exact points you’ll make with each slide and get real-time feedback.

On top of that, iChat will allow you to save these chats. I know Bee had some [very reasonable] reservations about the role of videos in academia, but seminar talks are usually a way to (1) advertise one’s research and (2) advertise one’s self for postdoc/faculty positions. Having some of these recorded `practice’ presentations on one’s personal homepage may be a decent way to `get the word out.’

(I apologise, by the way, for all the Mac references. I’m not a Mac user, but I plan on switching soon, so I’ve been doing some research on Mac OS X and science.)

Last words

This started out as a mini-advertisement for Scriblink, but I think at its current stage Scriblink is still a bit crude as a “Web 2.0 for science” app. The idea however, of being able to communicate multiple types of media via instant message is what’s exciting.

Scriblink is described as a `virtual whiteboard.’ No word yet if they’ll make `virtual chalkboards‘ for theorists. It should include options like “erase with hand” and “accidentally make that annoying screeching sound.” (Now that’s multimedia.)

Hii….its a good point you raised here. I cant wait for the day when we would have online video conferences, and wont have to travel 1000s of miles just to listen to one. However I believe that its never good to live at the bleeding edge of such technology. These sort of technologies are still untested, and no body knows what will become the de facto standard later on. I dont doubt that such video and audio technolgies are good, and help is fast and efficient transfer of knowledge, but then if we scientists start using such technogies, we would be more of beta testers and not users. May be once these technologies become more popular, I would like to start using them. Communication is only a part of science, but is not science per se, I think the present hype about blogs, chat, arxiv, is undermining the fact that you have to do good science first and then communicate, its no use just to use these for fun sake…

I agree with you that communication is part of doing science, not science itself. But communication (interaction in general) fosters the creativity that leads to good science. Which, as you say, should then be communicated to the rest of the, er, community.

The main point of all of the “Web 2.0 Science” tech I’ve openly been wondering about is that it could help facilitate `doing good science.’ The point isn’t just to make a nice video presentation and plop it on the web. The point, as I see it, is to utilize the web as a mode of interaction that is unlimited by physical distances. I hope to get into this a bit more as I continue posting on this subject.

Cheers,
F

3. 3 Chris

Hey Flip,

I was very excited to read here that adium supports latex, but it took me some time to get it working. I should point out that for some inexplicable reason, the latex plugin was removed in the more recent releases (post-1.0.6). You can still take advantage, though, by downloading an old version and copying the plugin out of the package into the new version. A little annoying, hopefully they will put the plugin back into the standard release in the future.

Cheers,
Chris