Story: Sm4rtLab

In 2016 we built a new type of remote controlled laboratory, Sm4rtLab in our University of Eastern Finland (UEF). This is beginning of its story. Can’t see the end yet.

The story started when Juha Eskelinen, CIO of our university, asked me if it would be a great idea to have a laboratory that can be operated from anywhere. Of course, I said yes. And so did UEF and University Properties of Finland, who jointly funded the project.

The idea shortly is that all devices, all moving parts, all detectors are controllable from the outside of the laboratory. Moreover, the user interface of the laboratory must be such that it will be intuitive to use.

So, all devices are connected to some PCs in the laboratory. They will be controlled with, e.g., LabView. Through the PCs the devices are connected to an IoT cloud service. This enables one to upscale the concept to contain as many devices and laboratories as needed in a single system. Also the cloud service enables easy storage and analysis of the data no matter if the users and the laboratory are even in different countries.

Then we need also that user interface. In the beginning we had no idea how to implement that part. Fortunately there appears one local company Process Genius that showed how one can have as realistic looking virtual interface as needed.

So, when we have a real setup like an interferometer, it is possible to use a virtual version of it. This have several benefits. First, the use of the interface is intuitive. All devices look the same as in real life. Moreover, it is then easier to explain someone what we have and how the components and systems work. One can even dive inside the system to have a closer look.

Also running the laboratory needs no information on the codes and the controlling of the devices. One just simply use menus linked to the devices to vary the parameters.

This lowers the threshold to use the laboratory since one don’t need to care too much about the technical details. Practically we can open the laboratory to any external users.

The virtual part of the laboratory is made with Unity game engine. This makes it rather simple to implement the interface to practically any devices. However, we did it first to a web browser which makes it easily reachable. The user just needs some computer and an internet connection and will be ready to use our laboratory.

So, we have the whole system. We built a couple of setups. One is the interferometer above. This is actually quite an expensive system; several thousand of euros. And this demonstrates the motivation of the work.

If some wants to use some optical setups, it can be easily expensive. For example, to demonstrate the interferometer above in the schools is in the most cases impossible. But now practically any school with the internet connection can now use this same interferometer. We can bring really high-quality science to be accessible really to any schools! This is what I feel to be the real potential of digitalization in schools.

And the same holds for all kind of research equipment. It is makes no sense to buy everything but sometimes it is more reasonable to find some partner who can provide the devices as a service where the researcher can visit and make the research. We take a step further: The service is accessible from your own office. I have tested this by using our laboratory even from abroad without any difficulties.

Also we have built even from the beginning good capabilities to broadcast the laboratory in the internet. This has been also tested already several times when demonstrating the capabilities and devices in the meetings organized with Skype or Lifesize Cloud.

Even though we are using a web based approach to reach all users, we also like to have a look to future. Therefore we have also implemented the laboratory into Microsoft HoloLens. We believe that Mixed Reality is the future also for learning. That we can bring the laboratories to the users instead of bringing users to the laboratories.

And I really mean that. To demonstrate it I tested to use Sm4rtLab in the yard of our university. In the middle of snow(where).

Also the HoloLens version of Sm4rtLab is made by Process Genius. They have shown really great flexibility in the development. After all, in the beginning we were not even sure if we can get HoloLens. But when we got those, it took only a couple of days before the first demo of the laboratory in the HoloLens was up and running.

This our photonics Sm4rtLab is just the beginning. Photonics is used here only as an example of potential. We can now easily extend the concept to cover all possible kind of laboratories in all fields.

And based on the number of visitors and their reactions, there will be a large number of new Sm4rtLab setups and laboratories coming. And my vision is the we then provide open laboratory, open science, to anyone. Making Sm4rtLab to be a place where the researchers from different origins can gather together to share the research no matter where the actual physical laboratory is located.