red_balloonI read a short paper by a colleague, George, today which rightly argues that usurpation is a proper process for the inhabitants of universities continually to attempt. It can certainly result in transformation but is it necessarily transcendent? Does it have balloon-like qualities?

George opened his piece with the question as to whether transcendence and transgression amount to the same thing. I found the notion of adiaphora, adopted by Bauman (2002), to be a helpful way of addressing this question.

Transcendence, from its Latin root, conjures climbing, rising above, going beyond but implies no breaching, violation or infringement, as does transgression, in which the stem gredi carries the meaning of stepping across or over an acceptable line (legal or moral). From this derives the idea of erring, stepping off the straight and narrow.

In order for transcendence not to entail transgression, there needs to be a degree of adiaphorism at play, i.e. if the state/action transcended is not expressly forbidden, the going beyond it is treated with indifference by authority. The problem is that, in a time like ours of moral liquidity (Bauman again! – 2000), the laissez-faire economics of neoliberalism make both transcendence and transgression more difficult, as society becomes indifferent to (or fearful of) the space beyond. If we are numb, the urge to transcend is lessened. I think we see this in our increasing acceptance of legislation that is anticipatory as much as punitive.

Perhaps the question can be re-phrased. Are creative appropriation and creative expropriation (usurpation) equally effective tactics of resistance to academic closure? George takes a similar line when he notes that usurpation tends to be cyclical, the usurper becoming the usurped, all parties falling victim to the will to exert power. Over time, the will to usurp declines as the academy loses its social value and numbness and adiaphora set in.

Balloons, on the other hand, though inclined to transcend, are unlikely to transgress. We cling to them for as long as we can to prolong the sensation of freedom they convey. It takes courage to release our grip and let them float free.

This is the pain of the liminal state in education.

Bauman, Zygmunt (2002). Society under Siege. Cambridge, Polity Press.
Bauman, Zygmunt (2000). Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, Polity Press.

TEG mega meal deal

The TEG (Technology Experimentation Group) invites Wheatley staff and students to a

3-in-1 mega meal deal for digital gourmets

Thursday 5th May, 12:00-13:30, Wheatley Training Room (H.217)

Virtual Reality is here
Is Virtual Reality the future? No, it’s already here. Come and experience it for yourself with VR enthusiast Gerard Helmich.

3D Printing – the only limit is your imagination
Watch a hands-on demo of this exciting technology by Simon Llewellyn.

360º photography
Richard Francis takes spherical snaps (like this one) with his brand new panoramic camera.

All Wheatley staff and students welcome.
To be sure of a place please email Richard Francis (

There’s a digital hole in my bucket

With apologies to Liza and Henry.

There’s a bug in my PC, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
There’s a bug in my PC, dear Help Desk, a bug.

[Long pause]

There’s still a bug in my PC, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
There’s still a bug in my PC, dear Help Desk, a bug.

Then fix it, dear User, dear User, dear User,
Then fix it, dear User, dear User, fix it.

With what should I fix it, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk?
With what should I fix it, dear Help Desk, with what?

Our FAQs will have the answer, dear User, dear User,
Our FAQs will have the answer, dear User, our FAQs.

It’s a new bug, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
It’s a new bug, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, it’s new.

Then try a reboot, dear User, dear User,
Then try a reboot, dear User, dear User, reboot.


My PC’s frozen, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
My PC’s frozen, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, frozen.

Raise a ticket, dear User, dear User,
Raise a ticket, dear User, dear User, a ticket.

Tell me how should I raise it, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
Tell me how should I raise it, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, tell me how.

Use our webform, dear User, dear User,
Use our webform, dear User, dear User, our webform.

Where do I find it, the webform, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk?
Where do I find it, the webform, dear Help Desk, find it?

Just Google it on your PC, dear User, dear User,
Just Google it on your PC, dear User, dear User, Google it.

But my PC’s frozen, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk,
My PC’s frozen, dear Help Desk, dear Help Desk, FROZEN.

TEG lunch bytes – thinking outside the lunchbox



Digital delicatessen re-opens

The Technology Experimentation Group’s successful lunch byte sessions are back by popular demand.

Now served in a convenient yellow lunchbox, the items on our lunch byte menu for semester two are as varied as they are tasty.


Here is what you will be able to sample if you drop in to the Headington Library Help Zone Training Area this semester.

Tuesday 9 February 12:00 – 13:00 & Wednesday 17 February 12:00 -13:00
Padlets and Stormboards – simple-to-use tools for online brainstorming and collaboration
(Richard Francis)

Tuesday 23 February 12:00 – 13:00 & Wednesday 2 March 12:00 – 13:00
Digital well-being – how to thrive in a world saturated with technology
(Abi Ball)

Wednesday 16 March 12:00 – 13:00
Visual note-taking & feedback with a tablet and stylus
(Laura Novo de Azevedo)

Tuesday 22 March 12:00 – 13:00 & Monday 25 April 12:00 – 13:00
Infographics – trying to digest too much data? Wash it down with some infographics.
(Richard Francis)

Tuesday 5 April 12:00 – 13:00 & Wednesday 13 April 12:00 – 13:00
A Pop-up VLE – lightweight solutions for spontaneous, ultra-portable, online collaboration activities
(Greg Crichton)

Tuesday 19 April 12:00 – 13:00 & Wednesday 27 April 12:00 – 13:00 (t.b.c.)
360º Photography – from Google Street View and virtual panoramas to 360º spin photography, spherical imaging is changing the way we experience the world around us.
(Richard Francis)

Don’t miss out!

SPACE IS LIMITED (approx. seating capacity is 12). We’re offering repeat sessions on alternating days to give as many people as possible the opportunity to come but it’s advisable to book.

Please let Richard Francis know which sessions you’d like to attend.

Upgrade to the mechanical

I couldn’t resist this ad by the luxury Swiss watch maker H. Moser & Cie for their new, unapologetically mechanical Swiss Alp Watch. Whether far-sighted or foolish as a business strategy, it’s an elegant and witty poke at Apple. Listen out for the sound of an apple being bitten into at the end.

At home, “upgrade to the mechanical” has become our catch phrase of the moment. Out it comes every time someone forgets to charge a smartphone battery or when the network connection drops out or when a file no longer opens because we’re running an out-of-date version of the app or when someone accidentally deletes a crucial email or when the hard drive won’t spin up or when… etc. etc..

My own watch is as old as me and belonged to my father. It’s 100% manual and mechanical … and Swiss.

24/7 digital life support

In homage to all the beeps, buzzes, wails, whooshes, chimes and pings that punctuate our daily lives.

(Add times and rearrange order of events as appropriate).


Alarm rings

Alarm rings again – expletive

Razor battery low – hunt for plug

Microwave milk – set time

Milk boils over – expletive

Text message – neighbour sick, son needs lift

Remove skin – reheat milk

Door bell – neighbour’s son

Set burglar alarm

Passenger door still open

Seat belt unfastened

Reversing into tree – correct trajectory

Pedestrian crossing

Lorry reversing

Pedestrian crossing


Radio news time signal

Low on fuel

Reverse into parking space outside school

Passenger door still open – close and pull away

Fire engine

Work car park barrier lowered

Security guard on walkie talkie

Car park barrier raised

Reversing into space

Lights still on

Activate car alarm

Pedestrian crossing

Swipe entrance to office building

Swipe office door – red

Re-programme swipe card

Office door green

Install PC updates?

Restart required

Incoming email x20

Outgoing email x 9

Delete junk

Mouse battery low

Recharge smartphone

Colleague enters office

More colleagues enter office

Fire alarm test

Incoming email x10

Outgoing email x 5

Delete junk

Meeting in 10 mins

Enter PIN at bank service till

Assistant reads newspaper barcode at bookshop

Swipe office door

Meeting in 2 mins

Enter credit card PIN to pay for colleagues’ coffee

Swipe office door

Incoming email x 6

Meeting in 10 mins

PC error – expletive


Meeting in 2 mins

Swipe meeting room door – apologise

Swipe correct meeting room door

Incoming email – ignore

Incoming Skype call

Invite Skype caller into meeting

Skype caller joins meeting

Lost connection

Connection re-established – audio only

Connection lost

Text message – meet another time

Leave meeting

Swipe office door

Colleague’s phone rings – Ride of the Valkyries

Colleague leaves office

Incoming emails x 11

Outgoing emails x 3

Delete junk

Colleague re-enters

Application crashes – lose changes

Smartphone updates required – remind me later

Swipe staff kitchen door

Heat leftovers in microwave – set time

Leftovers reheated – scald finger

Text from son – will be late home from school

Swipe office door

Incoming email x3

Meeting alert 10 mins

Meeting cancelled

Incoming email x2


System outage – raise service ticket

Incoming email x17

Dial phone x3

Outgoing email x9

Office door swiped 15 times

Leave office

Text from wife – why late?

Wait at pedestrian crossing

De-activate car alarm

Petrol very low – ignore

Car park barrier raised

Wait at pedestrian crossing

Police siren

Pedestrian crossing

Reversing into drive

Set car alarm

De-activate burglar alarm

Answerphone – 3 messages


Make bread dough – set time

Text from son – is supper ready?

Fish in oven – set time

Microwave potatoes – set time

Potatoes ready

Fish ready – eat

Text – neighbour still ill, pick up son at 7:25 tomorrow

Door bell – son home

Reheat fish in microwave

Fish reheated

Text message from sister-in-law – house purchase has fallen through

Dough ready

Dough into oven – set time

Set dishwasher programme

Incoming email x25


Bread baked – singe oven glove

Dishes washed

End of TV transmissions – get off sofa

Reset alarm clock for 6.25 am

Alarm goes off – expletive from wife

Put on glasses and reset alarm

Smoke alarm battery low – hunt for replacement

DC al capo


A Digital Detox

A few weeks ago a colleague in the Library chanced to remark that she had decided temporarily to put off getting an Internet connection after a recent house move. At about the same time I happened to read of holiday camps where people are effectively prepared to pay to have an excuse to switch off their smartphones. Today I see that, according to GlobalWebIndex, posts by Facebook users dropped by 22% in the third quarter of 2015. With the phrase digital detox having entered the Oxford Dictionary and Wikipedia, I wonder, are we reaching saturation point?

I asked if my colleague would be willing to be interviewed about her experiment and she kindly agreed. What follows is a transcript of our conversation. Continue reading

The reality of Virtual Reality

Some thoughts and personal answers concerning VR following on from our recent TEG hands-on Virtual Reality sessions.

Is Virtual Reality (VR) really the future?


It’s already here, and being used, for example, to train students in laboratory techniques , to carry out surgical procedures remotely via robotic arms,  by the military for  battlefield simulation,  and by millions of people to enhance everyday activities such as viewing Google Street View or playing videogames. It’s even being used in healthcare, including assisting in the recovery process for stroke patients and as a visual aid to help people who have eyesight impairment.

What makes VR worthwhile?


“Presence” – a perception of being physically present in a non-physical world.  The “immersion” in the virtual environment is sufficient to make the brain operate as though it were functioning in a real world.  It is far more than just a three-dimensional  image presented in front of your eyes – you are IN the environment, not merely viewing it. Once you have tried VR, it immediately becomes clear how this is much more involving than, say, watching a 3-D movie, and how much potential VR has in education. Some people are already producing wonderful content for the educational sector and in the gaming sphere.

People trying the technology at our recent TEG event provided the following reactions after experiencing VR for the first time:

“The experience was amazing! I felt like I was doing real scuba diving!”

“Wonderful – affected my breathing!”

“Great experience”

“So much potential”

I know from my own experience with flight simulation software that VR makes the environment so much more immersive. Imagine sitting on a beach on a nice sunny day, with a beautiful blue sky dotted with white, fluffy clouds. One of the clouds drifts in front of the Sun and your mood dips slightly, rising again as cloud moves away and the sunshine returns. I’ve had this type of reaction whilst in the virtual world, flying beneath a cloud and mentally cursing the loss of sunshine. Not something that’s previously happened in 20 years of “simming” in front of a computer screen.

Isn’t it a bit niche, just for geeks?

It’s for everyone.

Business analytics firm Credit Suisse estimate that in 2016 some 5 million headsets will be shipped by just one single supplier (Oculus, a company owned by Facebook). Oculus are not the only game in town, however, as Samsung (with Gear VR), Sony (Playstation VR  – previously Project Morpheus), Google (Cardboard), HTC (Vive) and many others all have released or will soon make available VR headsets.

In terms of content, Hollywood studies like Fox and Disney  and TV companies like Netflix and Sky are busy creating VR material. David Attenborough has produced a documentary about ancient life. Google has updated Street View to work with Cardboard VR. Valve (a game distribution company with 125 million active customers) is working to produce VR-enabled games and is collaborating with HTC on the Vive headset. The BBC shot some of its “Big Blue Live” series in VR 360 degree format and created a virtual newsroom, complete with a virtual Fiona Bruce.

Other uses for VR abound – Facebook envisage millions of their customers chatting with their friends in a virtual world viewed through an Oculus Rift headset.  The local authority in Derby has marketed the town to potential investors by providing a virtual tour of selected development sites. Estate agents are offering virtual property inspections. Marks and Spencer have pop-up virtual reality booths in selected stores to market household products.

What about VR in education?

VR may have a huge impact on education, particularly for distance learning. Student interaction and collaboration may be much more involving when you can sit in the same virtual space as your colleagues rather than posting text to a discussion board. VR may also aid the gamification of certain aspects of education in an effort to improve student motivation.  And did we mention the wonderful content already being made for the educational sector?

Are there any problems with VR?


VR content can induce motion sickness in some people, as your eyes will be seeing movement that your inner ears will not be sensing. Clamping a large plastic box to your head can also feel a little uncomfortable after a while.

PC-based headsets currently require a cable to connect them to a computer, making it difficult to move about in the real world, if not the virtual one.

VR needs a lot of computing power, requiring the use of costly hardware (expensive phones for mobile phone-based VR, pricey graphics cards for PC-based systems). This will inevitably slow consumer take-up of VR.

Right now, the images displayed by VR headsets are of noticeably lower resolution that we’re used to seeing on desktop or laptop monitors. If it wasn’t we wouldn’t be able to have usable VR systems. It has been estimated that to match the visual fidelity of a full HD monitor or TV (i.e. 1K resolution) being watched at a typical comfortable viewing distance would require sixteen times higher resolution (16K) in a head mounted display  –  and that means sixteen times the amount of image data calculations that need to be made by the phone or PC. For VR to work successfully we need to output the screen image at around 90 times per second. Today, most domestic PCs cannot even achieve this output figure for a 1K display, let alone for 16K. As graphical computing power improves in our phones and PCs over the next 10 years there will be a corresponding increase in visual quality of VR displays.

Interacting with the virtual environment can be difficult, as we don’t yet have appropriate controllers to allow us to move or fingers and hands to interact with the VR world. Try searching for your keyboard, let alone a specific key, when you have a VR headset covering your eyes.  It might take several years for the optimal solution to be identified.

The number of competing, non-compatible systems is large and market fragmentation will be a problem. It will be a more complex situation than the smartphone or video recorder wars and will take some time before we have a clear picture of the system(s) that work best.

Despite these problems VR still has a huge amount to offer with the current state of technology and the prospects are so very, very bright. Having now tried it for a year, I for one certainly would not want to live without it.


Gerard Helmich