Where science and tech meet creativity.

I’m in hardware Mecca. Their are massive monitors, coffee table touch displays that my coffee cup won’t destroy, universal wireless, and outlets in abundance. I’m at MS Faculty Summit – a program put on by MS Research’s Academic program. I am surrounded by other faculty from around the world and the top creative minds from MS, and we are attempting to engage in a dialogue about changing the environment, the global condition, and education through technology.

In the opening session, Craig Mundie demonstrated an office of the future that brought together a pair of digital white boards, a MS Surface (so totally want), webcams for video meetings, and more. It was a fully realized holo-office for immersive design.

Imagine if you will, a fully integrated system that combines all the best features of Adobe Connect Now (desktop sharing with WebCam), Google Docs (for collaborative document editing), Smart Boards (for putting your white board notes into your computer), and add all the gestures you use on your iPhone to the white board and your desktop screen (which is literally your desktop). Then make all the software work together fluidly.

I saw this and saw a system that would facilitate remote collaboration in a way I have dreamed of and tried to kludge together using the above software. The thing is, while video conferencing and Google Docs are things I can generally get my collaborators to adopt, they generally roll their eyes at me if I try to add any additional levels of complexity.

But what I saw this morning was a demo of a future fully integrated system and it is something I would love to work with and build for.

But I’m at a university that can’t afford this type of toy, and I wilted a bit as I saw my dream platform and realized this is not something I can without significant sponsorship replicate in my office, my lab, my cross campus collaborator’s office, and the offices of my cross country and cross ocean collaborators.

Here’s the problem: Federal grants specifically say in one way or another “Thou shalt not request office equipment.” Grants ask what are you researching? What questions that are new and exciting are you answering? They don’t ask, “what toys do you need to improve your already functional work flow?” The professors with the coolest toys either designed the toys or have non-Federal grants or funding from their university to purchase the technology. While at Harvard, several of the faculty wowed me with their digital work spaces. Same with MIT. To a lesser degree same with U-Texas.

I currently teach at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The students I work with are the hardest working students I’ve ever encountered and I’m there for them. The best of them are as good as the students I worked with at MIT and Harvard. They are there for a variety of reasons, ranging from High Schools that didn’t prepare them for Ivy League to just not wanting to move too far from home, to just not knowing how good they are. I love my students. They are bright and shiny and the ones I work with on my research team are building great things.

That said, my university sometimes exhausts me. We just don’t have the funding to do all the cool shiny things I want to do. And this isn’t just SIUE. Talking to colleagues, the problems we’re facing are common across state universities everywhere. As tax revenue falls, education funding falls with it. We reached a point last semester when there was no longer funding for office supplies. When there isn’t money for white board markers and the secretaries start keeping hidden caches of chalk, it is hard to say “Hey – can I have a few ‘K’ to better facilitate communications with my collaborators in the UK?”

One of the benefits that students at places like Harvard and MIT enjoy is the ability to immerse themselves in the latest technologies in the labs they work in and in the teaching labs they learn in. Their high tuition pays (in part) for these facilities, and endowments, corporate sponsorships, and donations pay the rest. The students who get into these schools aren’t all rich, but they all benefited from a high quality back ground (whether it be a private school or an inner city school) opened the door for a high quality higher education.

There is a digital divide in America. Looking through studies at the Pew Internet and American Life website, you can see that the poor, the rural, the minorities, the immigrants and the elderly aren’t online. They aren’t getting prepared in ways that require online and digital content consumption.

There is a digital divide between universities. My upper division students don’t all know how to use Excel. They don’t all know how to use a word processor. They don’t even all know how to use a mouse in a coherent manner. And I don’t have a way to wow them into being inspired that a George Jetson Holo-Office future is coming and they need to get with the digital now. The best I can do is invite them to wave at a colleague in Skype now and then. I, who live a virtual life, have a normal office with a normal laptop and a normal sized monitor living a normal, not particularly wow-ing life.

I want to take the next steps. I want to improve my work flow, to improve my communications with collaborators, to improve my way of interacting with data, and to improve how I distribute my results to the public. I want to adopt the technologies I’m seeing here.

And I will ask MS for help.

But looking around at the Ivy League, the Big State, the top school, the private school, and the generally prestigious school name tags, I wonder how many others from underserved universities are here to ask, “MS, will you collaborate with me and help me learn how to work better?”

I’m going to go for lunch, fund my students, and see what I can find.