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OpenLearn Live: 8th April 2016

Updated Friday, 8th April 2016

The attempt to drag cassette tapes into the late 20th Century that unspooled. Then more free learning through the day.

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OpenLearn Live brings free learning into the world you live in. This page will be updated during the day.

Yesterday, we explored King's Cross station, heard how people talk to dogs, and caught up with what were then the latest revelations from the Panama Papers

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Today's posts

FitBit goes to A&E

Wearables are riding a wave at the moment - some the world has taken to, some have failed to catch on (like Google Glass, as we heard yesterday). And people find fitness trackers helpful with their keep fit regime. But can these devices go beyond keeping us healthy, and actually assist doctors?

Well, in one case, a FitBit did exactly that - in a New Jersey hospital, a patient arrived with symptoms suggesting he had heart problems. The difficulty for the medical team was trying to establish not what his heart was doing while he was there, but what it had done before. And that's when they noticed what he had on his wrist:

During the patient’s examination, it was noted that he was wearing a wrist activity tracker, which was synchronized with an application on the patient’s smartphone, recording his pulse rate as part of a fitness program. The application was accessed on the patient’s smartphone and revealed a baseline pulse rate between 70 and 80 beats/min, with an immediate persistent increase to a range of 140 to 160 bpm at the approximate time of the patient’s seizure. The pulse rate remained elevated until administration of the diltiazem in the field.

The information was enough for a diagnosis, and helped the medical team decide on a course of treatment.

At present, because tools like FitBit aren't approved for medical use, it's down a medical judgement whether they wish to trust the information they can access from a device. But, as the writers of the report observe, there is potential for the data gathered to be used to provide objective clinical information.

Read the full report at Annals of Emergency Medicine: Interrogation of Patient Smartphone Activity Tracker to Assist Arrhythmia Management

Why wearable tech is more than Google Glass

Keeping local languages alive

How do you keep indigenous languages alive? In Mexcio, they're trying animations:

“You can't love what you don't know” is the premise of ‘68 tongues, 68 hearts’, an animated project aimed at preserving and sharing the indigenous languages of Mexico.

The project aims to promote pride, respect, and encourage the use of the indigenous languages of Mexico, through a series of animated stories narrated in these languages and subtitled in Spanish.

Read more and see some of the animations

The Chinese internet just became more protected

It's never been especially easy to be a Western business with a presence on the internet in China. It's about to get tougher:

In February 2016, China released new Administrative Regulations for Online Publishing Services requiring all foreign-owned media which has mainland Chinese people as part of their target audience to host all of their content — “text, maps, games, cartoons and audio files” — on servers located inside China. The only alternative for foreign media companies would be to distribute their contents through project-based cooperation with local partners with prior approval from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.

The regulation not only bolsters the legality of the Great Firewall, a mechanism that blocks overseas websites, but also raises the threshold for foreign media companies that want to enter the Chinese market.

Read the full article: Why has reaching the Chinese internet audience just got a little harder?

Farewell, Rachel

To just step out of the stream of learning for a moment - today, OpenLearn is saying goodbye to one of the team. Rachel Powild - whose stay with us has been all-too-brief - is leaving us to take up a new role in Manchester. The northern city's gain is very much our loss, and we wish her well for the future - and thank her for her hard work over the last year.

Digital rewind week: Digital Compact Cassette

This week, we're spending some time digging out casualties of the digital revolution. If you've missed any, here's our collection to date:

We're rounding off the week with the Digital Compact Cassette.

A digital compact cassette Creative commons image Icon game boy band pepino under Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 license

As the world entered the 1990s, Philips was on something of a high. The Compact Disc had defined the previous decade, and shaken up the music industry more firmly than punk had managed in the 1970s. Vinyl as a format for prerecorded music was on the way out. Digital gave a crisper sound and a better experience. The question was: could Philips do the same trick for recordable music?

Back in 1963, the Dutch company had taken magnetic tape technology and turned it from a cumbersome, expensive medium into a popular consumer product - the compact cassette. Suddenly, it had become cheap and easy for teenagers to tape the chart rundown. The record industry had panicked. Sony had found a way to take those small tapes and give you music on the move. Without Philips' innovation, Cliff Richard would never have found himself in Milton Keynes filming this video:


The prospect of bringing together the read/write convenience of tape and the hi-fidelty of compact disc was mouthwatering. Surely, this was a consumer product which would sweep the world.

Philips wasn't alone in hoping to create a new format - Digital Audio Tape (DAT) had hit the market in 1987, and was starting to see professional sales build. Sony, meanwhile, was working on the MiniDisc. In this field of competing formats, Philips knew it needed something special to make it stand out. And it hit on a USP - backwards compatability.

One of the grumbles that had held back penetration of CDs came from people who had spent the years since the invention of record players collecting vinyl. Was their collection now without value? What were they supposed to do with all those records? (In the 1980s, nobody knew the answer was 'store them for thirty years and sell them to hipsters in 2016'.) Could Philips give themselves a market lead by making the new digital tape compatable with existing analogue tapes?

It was a big task, but they pulled it off:

It uses a clever head which has 9 tracks for digital recording and playback on one side and 2 tracks for normal analogue recording and playback on the other side. So, the digital tracks are on the other side of the tape from the analogue data. The system uses the same tape speed, width and case size as the traditional CC.

Here's an aficionado's look inside the case:

The trouble was, making the new players work with the old tapes slowed progress in development, which meant that the machines hit the market at the same time as MiniDisc, 1992. In a straight playhead-to-playhead, MiniDisc had an advantage of seeming shiny and new, and while backwards compatability was nice, it meant that consumers associated DCC with the problems of the compact cassette. Visions of trying to spool back in your lovers' latest mixtape using a pencil haunted the DCC.

In the end, though, neither product became a consumer hit, as it turned out the answer to the question 'what would a thing like a CD look like if you could record onto it' was 'it will look a lot like a CD'. (Ironically, CD-R was a product developed by Philips and Sony working together. There's an opera in there, somewhere.) Recordable Compact Discs delivered a lot of the promise of DCC - people could keep their existing collections, which worked on the new players; the sound was digitally perfect - but it was just on disc, not tape.

MiniDisc did have an afterlife - journalists, djs and recording studios adopted them, and in Japan they found a sustainable consumer market - and Sony continued to make and sell players until 2013. But the Digital Compact Cassette couldn't even find room as a workhorse, and in 1996, Philips wound down the product. There was a final sting, too, as the company adopted the rival format:

Philips has taken the digital compact cassette (DCC) out of production. DCC will only be made for professional applications. For the Japanese market, Philips are releasing a MiniDisc player in the near future.

So was it a total failure? Not quite - the expensive development of those clever playheads proved to be valuable in the lucrative computer hardware market. And, perhaps more significantly, the invention had a surprising side-effect, as the New Scientist reported:

DCC used record/playback heads that could write or read magnetic data through holes just 70 micrometres wide. To make such small holes, Philips harnessed technology used in making microchips: it used a beam of hot fluorocarbon plasma to blast the holes in a metal film.

While DCC failed against the might of the CD, a Dutch start-up called Fluxxion in Eindhoven has now adopted the hole-blasting technology to make a new class of fluid filters.

Yes, the process used to create digital compact tapes proved to have value for the brewing industry. The product may have flopped, but at least its legacy allows us to toast its demise.

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