The Vernier LabQuest Stream: The Absolute Hub of Discovery

“Stream”

Nouns are useful, but verbs are educational. So when Vernier released their LabQuest Stream sensor interface into the wild, the familiar grey box quickly proved to be much more than just a powerful and innovative radio station that broadcasts up to five data channels via Bluetooth to any device that can listen, but truly a hub of discovery. 

LabQuest_Stream_overall

The form factor of the Vernier LabQuest Stream is similar to the LabQuest2. It is a rectangular block with ports and buttons surrounding three of the four edges. The back panel houses a replaceable rechargeable battery and necessary legalese, and the front panel contains the logo, indicator lights and port identification. The same shape and port locations also means the Lab!Quest Stream will charge in the Vernier docking cradle that works with the LabQuest2, as well as using the same rechargeable and replaceable battery.

LabQuest_Stream_family_photo

As forward-thinking as the Vernier LabQuest Stream seems to be, I can’t help becoming a little nostalgic about the release of the LabPro back at the turn of the century. The LabPro was a AA battery-powered interface that translated the electrical signals from a data sensor into an intermediate language that software could understand, which was then further converted into a visual display that transcends all language differences: The language of Math. Or as Galileo so eloquently put it, “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” 

LabQuest_Stream_LabPro

The LabPro had no display, and only three buttons. Communication with the user was through a series of blinking lights and audio beeps. The LabPro included a round mini DIN-8 Serial connector because USB was still in diapers, but the futuristic USB-B female connector was present but always behind a sliding door if the Series port is exposed. One magical thing I do remember clearly the moment I first held a LabQuest was the translucent plastic housing the gave a glimpse of the circuitry inside the unit. A “Visible” interface is not new for Vernier, but was absent in the Serial box interface that preceded the LabPro. Prior to that clear housings allowed an unobstructed view of the innerworkings inside the interface boxes.

LabQuest_Stream_Connections

Vernier_Labquest_Stream_port_diagram

Nuts and Bolts

The Vernier LabQuest Stream will accept up to three analog sensor connections and two digital ones all at the same time. And each and every sensor’s data point can fly invisibly through the air at 2.4 GHz up to 30 meters away to where a comptable Bluetooth enabled device running Vernier software can present the data in graphical form, table form, gauge form, or all of the above at once.

The Vernier LabQuest Stream will propel data wirelessly to iOS platforms including iPhones, iPads, and the iPod Touch. Desktops and laptops of both the Mac and Windows variety work equally well. Chromebooks are fully supported as are Android tablets and phones that are capable of loading the necessary Vernier software.

LabQuest_Stream_LabQuest2_LabQuest_Mini

There are other wireless solutions available including the LabQuest2 and the GoWIreless Link, but nothing is as powerful as Vernier’s LabQuest Stream. In fact, you could think of the LabQuest Stream as a successful hybrid of the LabQuest2 and the LabQuest Mini, Vernier’s multi-port on-demand-powered un-wireless USB-connected interface box that has been the inexpensive multi-sensor mainstay until now. And I say until now because the price of the Vernier LabQuest Stream is only $50 more than the LabQuest Mini, but you get so much more given the wireless expectations that students today. And at only double the cost of a single GoWireless Bluetooth connector

Much has been written…

At the time of this writing it s 2016. That late into 16% into the 21st century or barely 84 years before the 22nd century. Eighty-four divided by 12 is seven. So? So it will take only seven students to go from first grade through high school before we say goodbye to this current century that so eloquently has been used to indicate the Future. In other words, our future is not their future because our future is now our present. Where am I going with this? Simply put, what we as teachers might be impressed with as new and innovative solutions to practical problems, the students of today consider the same advancement in technology to be both necessary and obvious. It is really hard to surprise a student with new technology. Instead of awe or even mild appreciation, the students to whom I introduce emerging technology “get it” right away, and often without even a passing hint of appreciation for how monumental a step the new technology really is. Oh well.

I’ve written much about data sensors, wired interfaces, wireless interfaces, and the magic they can add to the science classroom. What’s new about the Vernier LabQuest Stream is that it not only adds a dramatic upgrade in the dimensionality of wireless data collection, but it neutralizes the need for standardized device. Much of the expectations of students today includes the belief that…I mean expectation that…I mean demand that classroom technology will be as seamless, invisible, and easily connected as anything they use at home. In fact, it is a very reasonable expectation that things at school should work as well as they do in real life. That’s fair, isn’t it?

https://youtu.be/yWpMad17cxg

YouTube Stream video Link

Streaming

The Vernier LabQuest Stream has the latest in Bluetooth connectivity hardware onboard so it connects fast and stays connected. For those of us who have been with Bluetooth from the beginning are easily impressed when it works and stays working. But students today have a low tolerance for half-baked tech, and use technology that works as if it was always that way. So from my long-view perspective, the Vernier LabQuest Stream connects fast and hangs on to the device like a pit bull, and is remembered by the iWhatever a week later. The Vernier LabQuest Stream locks onto the target machine like a missile. Even when the Vernier LabQuest Stream goes out of range of the device, it snaps back to life the moment the two are within 100 feet of each other or 30 meters for those in the rest of the world.

Ever since my students clicked “connect” between an iPad and a Bluetooth connected sensor I have been impressed by the potential in science education. Being able to measure the physical invisible with a wireless sensor provides the student a glimpse into the edges of our universe. And now the Vernier LabQuest Stream adds five data channels to the wireless mix. Thus far there are dozens and dozens of sensors that work with the Vernier LabQuest Stream.

Vernier_Labquest_Stream_BT_connectors

Accepting both analog and digital sensors, the Vernier LabQuest Stream has two types of sensor ports that are mirror images of each other. The analog ports are left-handed British Telecom-type connectors. The digital ports are right-handed. While the British Telecom connectors (or BTs) are a bit dated having begun service in 1981, they are one of the more popular phone-type data jacks in the world even if you don’t trip over them everyday in the US.

While the ports might be similar but reversed, the difference between analog and digital is not. Digital signals are binary; on-off, all-nothing, yes-no, one-zero, etc. Analog signals, on the other hand, are mildly infinite being able to occupy a large degree of values between none and all. Luckily the auto-detect features of the Vernier sensors make the device identifying the sensor a non-issue for the students. For the technology to work seamlessly it must disappear in the excitement of discovery.

Radio Station

The Vernier LabQuest Stream can be a powerful radio station of many flavors; weather station, hydrology station, exercise physiology station, chemistry station, black box station, sound station, optics station, force station, and my favorite, the random station. With up to 84 sensors compatible with the Vernier LabQuest Stream (depending on the particular machine that the Stream is talking to) that puts the number of potential combinations of sensors well into the millions. So a random station is where you draw two or three or more sensors at random from the list and imagine what kind of science you could do. For example, a temperature sensor and a humidity sensor and a sound meter could be used to measure the atmospheric changes inside a car when the air conditioner is turned on.

LabQuest_Stream_ports

Or, and this his one I have used often, running two hand dynamometers at the same time. Once the quest for maximum force is out of the student’s system as their right and left hands compete with each other, there are some other aspects to data visualization that can drive home scientific concepts and minimize misconceptions. For instance, using dual prediction lines, two sine waves 180 degrees out of phase presents a difficult problem for first time hand dynamometer users. The challenge is unusually difficult at first while the student conceptualizes what is necessary in order to make their squeezing of the sensors match the prediction lines of the graph. That is, however, until the graph is described as “milking a cow” at which point they rapidly learn to match their movements with the prediction.  Which also means they are conceptualizing 180 degrees out of phase.

LabQuest_Stream_out_of_phase

Other more complex graphs can be presented that require mental gymnastics to model the forces necessary to replicate the lines. The examples below are just two of many you can create for when you pass the dynamometers and Vernier LabQuest Stream around the classroom. 

LabQuest_Stream_square_wave

LabQuest_Stream_saw_teeth

One of the physiological questions here is why some patterns are so much more difficult or confusing than others. Or how a basic explanation or visual description can simplify a complex interaction between two data inputs. Perhaps there is an untapped arena for Vernier data sensors to be used in psychology? Just a thought from someone who holds degrees in both science education and psychology.

How Many?

As noted, the number of sensors compatible with the Vernier LabQuest Stream depends on the device and software. Here are the current numbers:

84 sensors for a laptop or desktop (Mac or PC) running Logger Pro

72 sensors for a laptop or desktop (Mac or PC) running Logger Lite

64 sensors for a Chromebook running Graphical Analysis

53 sensors for an Apple iOS device running Graphical Analysis

53 sensors for an Android device running Graphical Analysis

And while we are on numbers, the Vernier LabQuest Stream will charge in about 8-10 hours through any of the options including the AC plug and USB port. The high-capacity lithium-ion battery should pump electrons for about 24 hours non-stop, and is good for 500 charge-discharge cycles and contains overcharge protection.

LabQuest_Stream_external_batteries

Should your power needs outsize one full day, and no AC is available, Vernier offers a Battery Boost option. For $119, a powerful external battery is available that includes a special cord to charge LabQuest devices using the circular charging port. Something I would like to see is the availability, or better yet, Inclusion of the cord so any of the external power source batteries we already have will work with the LabQuests. Luckily, the Vernier LabQuest Stream does charge through a mini-USB port so at least in this case, a battery to mini-USB cable will bridge the gap. I guess while I’m making requests, I’d like to see the USB micro become the standard charging port on the LabQuest Stream just as it has for non-Apple cell phones. Mini USB is going the way of the Dodo.

LabQuest_Stream_external_battery_conection

In another minor bout with nostalgia, one of the first software programs that David Vernier wrote to help teachers and students collect, manage and visualize data was named “Graphical Analysis.” That was over 30 years ago. Today, the pencil-thin supercomputers we carry in our pockets can run a Vernier App named “Graphical Analysis.”

Vernier_Graphical_Analysis_app_iTunes

King Bluetooth

The Vernier LabQuest Stream uses Bluetooth 4.1 which might seem dated in that it went into service on December 4th, 2013. It was not a huge advance over 4.0 but was the most of the V4x options that could happen without a hardware upgrade. V5 or Bluetooth version 5 entered the wild in  June of 2016 so it is completely understandable why the  Vernier LabQuest Stream does not run the absolute latest and greatest version of Bluetooth radio. The protocol stack for Bluetooth runs backwards just fine so pretty much anything earlier in time will work. So if your Bluetooth experience is far from current, then you are in for a surprise with the Vernier LabQuest Stream since it connects rapidly, stays connected, and if the connection drops for some reason, it lock on again the moment it can. In other words, this is not your grandfather Bluetooth. This version makes you happy.

It’s a Wrap

So to wrap this up and get you out to the Vernier website to buy your own Vernier LabQuest Stream, let me just say that even though I have used all their interfaces since nineteen-ninety something, this is the most exciting thing since the personal computing power of the device-in-hand was harnessed (which is hugely powerful, by the way. Hugely!). So a strong, reliable, and deep connection between processor/screen and sensor is what makes everyone smile. especially your students because discovery is just the beginning.  🙂 

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