This week I saw a presentation by David Lowe from University of Technology in Sydney on the Australian Labshare project. In this project, they are developing remote labs; laboratories that can be operated over the internet.
Unfortunately, I was not able to see the demo of the software (check it out – it is called Sahara and you can find it on Sourceforge), but as far as I understood it, the process is as follows: You can choose from a range of experiments in every lab. If you have found an interesting one, you can fiddle with the settings and – subsequently – run it. In the process you are getting visual feedback from a camera. Afterwards your are presented with the data from the experiment in the form of sketches and numbers.
At the moment, they are using it mainly for educational purposes. There was a long discussion after the presentation whether real labs could largely be replaced with simulations. This is an interesting topic, and it sparked a lot of controversy, but I was more interested in “Doing research with remote labs”. I am not a natural scientist, but as far as I can see, remote experiments would make it a lot easier to write protocols and keep open lab books like on OpenWetWare. The software records your settings as well as your results, so you would only have to fill in the rationale between the experiments.
Apart from the set-up and the data, you would be able to also share something even more valuable: you could share the whole experiment! I mean this in a sense that everyone would be able to have the same experience as the original researcher. This naturally includes the recordings, but it extends even beyond that. You could provide others with the exact same set-up in the exact same lab, so that they can reproduce the experiment from the beginning to the end.
I am aware that there are certain challenges on the way: experiments in research are most possibly more complicated and need more variation than those intended for education. Still, I am very intrigued by the idea. I would love to hear your opinions on this (especially from people in natural sciences) and I will definitely follow the Labshare project to see what they will come up with in this area.