Christian Heilmann

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Introducing Mozilla technology and ideas to students for a hack day.

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Today I was part of a video conference with the university of Dundee for this year’s Yahoo university hack challenge. Every year the students release a “hack” as part of their coursework for Yahoo and the programme yielded quite some amazing hacks in the last years.

This year is different for me as I am not working for Yahoo any longer. So instead of telling the students about YQL, YUI and Yahoo’s Geo platform I talked about Mozilla, our mission and gave them some ideas what to hack for the benefit of HTML5 and the open web. The slides are available on Slideshare or embedded here:

My main task for the students was to think about the web as it is right now. The web is the platform and the browser is the tool. Documentation about the different technologies is freely available and – in Mozilla’s case – also editable by everyone to ensure that it is up-to-date.

HTML5 is a big new thing and a lot of people go crazy about it. The issue is that a lot of it is progress for the sake of progress and there is not much insight into what the new technologies mean in terms of accessibility or backwards compatibility. As Dundee university is one of the few in the UK that have an accessibility focus I thought this a great opportunity to ask the students to consider some a11y hack with new technologies.

I talked about native audio and video in browsers and the benefits it has over closed source solutions (pointing to the lecture I’ve given at MIT on the subject of multimedia on the web).

I also told the students about the interview I did with John Foliot on the topic of HTML5 accessibility as this contained a few ideas they could hack on that need solutions.

I talked about the Popcorn.js library which makes it easy to sync video with other web page content and the Butter interface for it which simulates Flash builder or Shockwave but for open technologies.

I briefly mentioned the Universal Subtitles tool that allows you to add subtitles with translations to any video on the web.

Another demo to inspire the students was Mark Boas’ audio and text sync example which shows how you could sync the text of a speech with the audio file for later replay.

This led to a quick introduction of Mozilla’s Audio API which gives you in-depth access to audio files down to the beats per minute.

Next I introduced Mozilla’s gaming section and the winner of the last game competition Marble Run, explaining that HTML5 gaming is hot right now (especially with Facebook’s support) and that there is quite some prize money and good prizes to be won.

Next up I talked about Mozilla’s Labs and the tools to play with there – Rainbow, a JavaScript extension to access the camera and microphone of computers as input devices, Chromeless, a UI-less browser allowing you to build bespoke browsing solutions and Prospector, a way to data-mine browsing behaviour of users.

I ended my introduction to Mozilla tech for hacking with the extension builder for Firefox which makes it easy to make the browser do what it doesn’t do yet.

Let’s see what the students come up with!