Background and Purpose
Ellucian is the industry leader in educational technology, providing solutions and services to thousands of educational institutions around the globe. Each year, 10,000 customers and industry leaders come together at their annual conference, ellucian Live, to network and discuss the future of the industry. ETA has supported Ellucian at these conferences, most recently in Denver for ellucian Live 2016. Working with Ellucian’s Applied Research team, ETA showcased amazing new technologies, creating a fun experience for attendees, while facilitating a dialogue with Ellucian customers about the increasing role of technology in education.
The relationship between Ellucian and ETA began as a professional services engagement. Our technology services group provides support to multiple groups within Ellucian, largely supporting the modernization of their technology infrastructure. Early in the PS engagement, Ellucian leadership began to take note of the ETA innovation events.
Ellucian (formerly Datatel and SungardHE) has been developing educational technologies for over 40 years. As a result, their engineering teams span all levels of tenure, from developers who have been with the company for 30+ years, to recent graduates. The development of their Integration Hub product marked a significant change for Ellucian, as the new product was to be developed in NodeJS, a framework familiar to some of their engineers, but new to others.
The Applied Research group within Ellucian reached out to ETA Enterprise Innovation with 2 primary goals: 1) Find a creative way to encourage internal teams to embrace the NodeJS framework; and 2) Provide a fun, exciting experience at the annual conference, allowing Ellucian customers and employees to interact with amazing technologies making their way into education.
Working with Client stakeholders, the ETA Team came up with a bold plan to tackle both challenges at Ellucian Live 2015: challenge the Ellucian dev team(s) to develop a NodeJS application that would allow conference attendees to control robots. When it came to selecting the type of robot, everyone agreed – there is simply nothing more exciting than controlling a quadcopter or drone. The ETA team worked directly with Ellucian teams as well as Parrot, the manufacturer of numerous quadcopters and robots. Working together, the team was able to develop a solution, using NodeJS – building an amazing experience for the annual conference, while simultaneously developing the skills necessary to utilize the new framework.
At the 2015 event in New Orleans, the drone flight lab was a huge hit – thousands of attendees used the application built by the team to fly numerous Parrot Minidrones high above and around the lab area. Along with the 3D printing / scanning lab and the Arduino experiments, the labs helped make the Ellucian Research Labs area one of the highlights of the conference. For the 2016 event in Denver, the ETA team worked with the Ellucian Applied Research team to craft an even bigger experience. 3D scanning of attendees was brought back, but the drone flight lab was replaced with a robot soccer game, allowing teams of attendees to compete against each other. Two new ETA experiences at the 2016 event proved to be the highlights: the Machine Learning and Virtual Reality labs.
“HAL”, the ETA Machine Learning computer, was on prominent display throughout the conference. “HAL” leverages the Google DeepMind codebase to teach himself to play classic Atari video games. At the start of the conference, “HAL” started a new cycle of machine learning, attempting to play Atari “Breakout.” He began as an ineffective, virtually random player, with no discernable capability or skill. However, over the course of the conference, “HAL” became significantly more capable, eventually “playing” the Atari game as an expert. Throughout the event, attendees followed “HAL’s” increasing skills, able to compare his current capabilities with his starting point.
In the Virtual Reality area, an HTC Vive Virtual Reality setup (released only one week before the event) allowed attendees to step into a virtual world, practicing archery or playing fetch with a robotic dog. Combined with attendee giveaways of Google Cardboard (a VR headset that uses your smartphone), the Virtual Reality lab quickly became the hit of the 2016 conference.