A lunchtime run

An event that has ignited competitive passions at Hursley for a number of years is the annual Quad-Department Games (previously known as the Tri-Department Games). Each year, the Barbarians, Hatters, Mavericks and Titans compete in a series of events with a rolling aggregated scoreboard. It is not just about outdoor sports, although the running, football and touch rugby are major parts of the calendar… the departments can also demonstrate their prowess in a cake bake, in a quiz, or at table football. It’s a lot of fun ūüôā

Yesterday’s event was a running race around Hursley Park. On a brilliant, sunny and clear November day, a total of 57 runners completed a 5km course. There are a couple of sets of photos on Flickr, but here are some highlights…

Runners gathering

Quick start

Through the trees

Beneath the autumn trees

Congratulations to all involved, congratulations to the Mavericks for the overall team win, and to Dave Currie for his organisation (and for bringing along MiniMe support!)

Homecamp 4

DC power, electricity monitoring, gas monitoring, data gathering, solar panels, hardware hacking, software hacking, behaviour change, open source, home energy, energy visualisations, cows…

Just some of the things we talked about this weekend at Homecamp 4 at the Centre for Creative Collaboration near King’s Cross in London.

A two-day event this year, Homecamp 4 (thanks to organiser Ken Boak) brought together hardware hackers, software hackers, home automation fans, energy and sustainability people, designers, and loads of enthusiasm and energy for sharing skills and experiences. And, thanks to the generous sponsorship by Amee and the support of Manager Debbie Davies at C4CC, we had lovely breakfasts, lunches, and Saturday evening drinks.

C4CC

Saturday morning was dedicated to a series of presentations that had been scheduled in advance. It kicked off with a fascinating presentation by Simon Daniel from Moixa (inventor of the Palm folding keyboard and the USB rechargeable batteries) about how we could, and should, power all our lighting and computing at home off a couple of solar panels. By storing the solar power in batteries and then using it as DC power, rather than converting it to AC power, we’d not only avoid unsightly power bricks on everything, but we’d double the efficiency of the solar energy over converting it to the usual AC power to match our ordinary home electricity circuits and then convert it back to DC for consumption by LED lighting, laptops, mobile phones, and the like.

Simon from Moixa

Another interesting point he made was that most young people either don’t own their own homes or they’re not likely to stay in their current house for the next 15 years so they’re unlikely to invest in solar panels. So the company is working out a way to produce essentially portable solar panel, battery, and control packages that could be installed (and transported when you move house) as easily as Sky.

Next up was James Smith from Amee to demo what you can do with the Amee API. Amee collect data about energy consumption and carbon emissions, most of which is publicly available but usually not in a form that’s easy to consume. A team of scientists search out¬†data from all over the world about the carbon emissions of anything you can think of. The team reviews the data, corrects any errors they find, and then turns the data into code. Developers can then write applications that use the data through the Amee API.

James from Amee

James and Chris Adams, also from Amee, demo’d how to use one of the toolkits that Amee provides to developers to show how quick it is to generate a web form that calculates the carbon emissions of cows from ‘enteric fermentation’ (burping and farting, to you and me). His favourite Amee hack, though, was to display the carbon emissions of setting fire to things in Minecraft.

After a brief pitch by Casper Koomen from Amsterdam about Pachube, and an update from organiser Ken on his Nanode (previously seen, discussed, and built at Oggcamp 11!), Trystan Lea¬†and Glyn Hudson (from North Wales) described and demo’d their neat open source, Arduino-based energy monitoring project, the OpenEnergyMonitor (first presented at Homecamp 2).

After a novel but tasty free lunch of Vietnamese baguettes, the afternoon proceeded in a more unconference-style format. In a mix of formal presentations and informal discussions, we had talks on a range of topics, including getting your hardware ideas produced commercially, home energy monitoring experiences and visualisations, home-grown wind turbines, 3D printing, and I gave a short introduction/overview on the psychology of energy behaviour change. Most talks got several questions and I was really pleased that my talk, despite having a fairly different focus from many of the others, generated quite a lot of interest and discussion both at the time and over the rest of the weekend.

Evidence I was there!

The Saturday evening pub was unfortunately closed for a private party so Tony and I encouraged everyone back to the lovely Harrison Bar where we were staying and had already eaten a good dinner and noticed an interesting list of beers. If you like ginger beer, I recommend the Crabbie’s Ginger Beer (4%).

Sunday took on a more hackday feel and the attendees either hacked on Nanodes and similar hardware, played with software APIs, or wandered/sat around discussing cool ideas.

Hacking

In all it was a very fun weekend. We had some great conversations and met some very cool people. Hopefully, there’ll be a Homecamp 5.

Conversing

During the weekend, Tony and I, ever on the lookout for interesting content for the Ubuntu-UK Podcast, interviewed James about Amee, and Tristan and Glynn about their OpenEnergyMonitor project. Look out for them in upcoming episodes of UUPC.

Photos thanks to Tony Whitmore

BBC looking at mind control

Katia Moskvitch from the BBC has just published a nice article on using the mind to control technology.

As part of the article as well as trying out the Emotive headset* she interviewed Ed Jellard and Kevin Brown from the IBM ETS team based in Hursley.

* This is the same headset used for the Bang Goes The Theory Taxi racing.

Bridge building with local students

Last week saw the start of a new year for IBM Hursley’s MentorPlace programme. The idea of MentorPlace is to connect people from the lab with female students from local schools who might be interested in pursuing a career in one of the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). We work with the girls over the course of the year, providing a weekly email mentoring session, and run some activities on-site to build up their knowledge of different topics and work together in teams. The idea of engaging more with students to help them to learn more about technology and careers is something I’m personally passionate about, and I wrote about it on my own blog last week.

It’s a lot of fun, and I think the people from the lab get as much out of it as the girls do! Last week’s activities at Hursley saw 48 students learn some Java coding in the morning, and in the afternoon to build bridges using paper, string, tape, and craft sticks – they had to support a number of text books in order to be successful. The girls were divided into teams named after different inspirational women in science, technology and other areas of achievement. Here are some of the resulting pieces of work:

All of the bridges performed to the required specification and it was left to the judges to decide which one was the most creative and successful design – tough job! Looking forward to working with the schools during the academic year…

 

MQTT powered video wall

Scaling things up a little from my first eightbar post.

This was one of those projects that just sort of “turned up”. About 3 weeks ago one of the managers for the ETS department in Hursley got a call from the team building the new IBM Forum in IBM South Bank. IBM Forums are locations where IBM can showcase technologies and solutions for customers. The team were looking for a way to control a video wall and a projector to make them show specific videos on request. The requests will come from pedestals known as “provokers”, each having a perspex dome holding a thought-provoking item. The initial suggestions had been incredibility expensive and we were asked if we could come up with a solution.

Provoker

The provokers have access to power and an Ethernet connection. Taking all that into account a few ideas came to mind but the best seamed to be an Arduino board with Ethernet support and a button/sensor to trigger the video. There is a relatively new arduino board available that has a built in Ethernet shield which seemed perfect for this project. Also, since a number of the items in the provokers would be related to IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, it made sense to use MQTT as a messaging layer as this has been used to implement a number of solutions in this space.

Nick O’Leary was enlisted to put together the hardware and also the sketch for the Arduino as he had already written a MQTT client for Arduino in the past.

Each provoker will publish a message containing a playload of “play” to a topic like

provoker/{n}/action

Where ‘{n}’ is the unique number identifying which of the 6 provokers sent the message.

To provide some feedback to the guest that pressed the button, the LED has been made to pulse while one of the provoker-specific videos is playing. This is controlled by each provoker subscribing to the following topic

provoker/{n}/ack

Sending “play” to this topic causes the LED pluse, sending “stop” turns the LED solid again.

The video wall will be driven by software called Scala InfoChannel which has a scripting interface supporting (among other things) Python. So a short script to subscribe to the ‘action’ topics and to publish on on the ‘ack’ got the videos changing on demand.

And sat in the middle is an instance of the Really Small Message Broker to tie everything together.

Arduino in a box

This was also the perfect place to use some of my new “MQTT Inside” stickers.

First sticker deployed

This project only used one of the digital channels (for the button) and one of the analogue channels (for the LED) available on the Arduino – which leaves a lot of room for expansion for these type of devices. I can see them being used for future projects.

Parts list

  1. Arduino Ethernet
  2. Blue LED Illuminated Button
  3. A single resistor to protect the LED
  4. 9v power supply
  5. Sparkfun Case

Extreme Blue covered by BBC News

A really quick follow-up to the write-up of the Extreme Blue presentations to note that the BBC News website also has a nice report on this year’s programme at Hursley:

Every year, IBM runs a summer internship programme for the most talented young software designers and business students.

Participants are divided into groups, each of which works on a pet project. At the end of their 12 week design period, their prototypes are presented.

The UK leg of Extreme Blue takes place at IBM’s Hursley lab near Winchester. BBC News went along to see what they had dreamt up.

Read more at Cars and Cursors go Smart at IBM’s Extreme Blue.

Hursley Extreme Blue 2011 Presentations

Extreme Blue logoExtreme Blue is IBM’s summer intern scheme. Students can apply to IBM to be part of the scheme and those lucky enough to be selected are brought into various IBM locations worldwide to be mentored by IBM staff who have proposed an idea and small project for them to work on.

This morning I went along to listen to what the 16 students in the UK have been doing with their summer. These students were split into four groups of four, working on projects for an improved voting system, a smart cursor, smarter vehicles and FTP discovery.

You know you’re getting old when all the students seem rather young, I think “green” is the term people used to use when I was starting in IBM, they do remind me of my early days at work. However, they all presented themselves beautifully, spoke very well using slick rehearsed presentations they’ve put a lot of effort into, and (barring one or two stutters) seemed entirely confident in what they were doing up at the front of what must seem an intimidating auditorium full of knowledgeable IBM professionals. They handled questions well too, I don’t necessarily have to agree with all the answers, but the way they each went about receiving the questions and providing thoughtful answers was good.

Each team had 7 minutes to present their 12 weeks’ work with every person in the team getting a chance to pitch in at some point, so they didn’t get very long to put their projects across. The audience were asked to keep questions until the end of the pitch, which allowed them to flow easily through their material. The range of presentations was interesting, some chose to manually click through PowerPoint-style, while other groups came up with stories or monologuing through a video they had created. This range kept the audience interested with each style of presentation being effective for its purpose.

It was interesting to see how each of the projects has been clearly influenced by the four members of the team. Each team of four contained one business student and three technical students, and the range of skills came through in the presentations. Some groups had “deep-dived” straight into technical work while others had spent more time thinking about use cases, business cases, how their project might fit in with IBM or be sold. I suspect this has a direct relationship to both how the team was lead by the IBM staff but also by the particular characters of each team and reminded me of Myers-Briggs or Belbin style studies I’ve done in the past.

Now I’ll have a little look at each project in (very) brief… I’ll stress in advance that I’ve heard a small snippet of 12 weeks of hard work and any opinion here is mine alone and based solely on today’s pitches:

Improved voting system
The team gave an introduction to their solution involving a three phase voting system followed by an example of the problem they were trying to solve and how their solution tackled these. The team had been working with a local council to identify requirements for such a system, so were able to work with real-world examples and solicit feedback. Questions followed and feedback from the council seemed to have been good. Some doubts were expressed by the audience about the security of such a system which whilst possibly valid, it seemed to me that these could be addressed should the solution be implemented live. The team presented the solution as having environmental benefits which might seem obvious at first but I thought were rather questionable given the requirement to use computer hardware and power, a further study would be required here to determine whether the current system using sustainably-sourced paper could be bettered on the environmental front. Verification of voters appears to be vastly improved using their system with less room from fraudulent votes with connection to other systems for authentication such as the DVLA. Clearly any such automated voting system would have huge benefits for the speed of counting after voting has completed.

Smart Cursor
A new input device to control an on screen cursor using any sort of body movement aimed at improving human-computer interaction (primarily for disabled people). The system involves a hardware sensor strapped to the part of the body that has movement. Initial calibration for any new part of the body is required which is run once to set up 4 movements (up/down/left/right). Other movements and gestures would also be possible such as a mouse click and the combination of sensors on multiple parts of the body. The hardware technology could be built small enough to be permanently wearable without distress or difficulty to the user. Other uses of the technology appear to be for rehabilitation or monitoring a condition whilst wearing the hardware device. Lots of room for customisation brought out during questioning as well as a few issues about how to set up the device in the first place. However, this seemed like a really worthwhile (if low usage) piece of research that could be immensely useful to its target audience and at low cost too.

Smarter Vehicles
The aim of this project is to personalise the driving experience for car users by attempting to add three things to a car (1) identifying which user is driving, (2) providing the car with knowledge about where it’s going, and (3) permanently connecting the car to a network. The team used a video style presentation and monologue they had story-boarded which was clearly well produced and rehearsed. It was unclear what the project had achieved, however, as no specifics were mentioned on what had been achieved but there were certainly plenty of good ideas as to what could be done in this area. The team do appear to have a demonstration available which I’m looking forward to going to see in Hursley tomorrow and the Extreme Blue demonstration expo after which I’m sure it will be a lot clearer which ideas they’ve followed through into something tangible and which are still in progress. Another great plus for this team was they were aligned with an automotive manufacturer and will be presenting their ideas back to the board at a later date which will be a fabulous experience to get for them all.

FTP Discovery
Tackles the problem of escalating FTP network complexity in enterprises. The project attempts to map FTP files on the network in flight and automatically provides a visualisation of the network in a node graph style format. This network can be annotated manually with things such adding the cost of various transfers and links to allow the users to build up a visual picture and cost to the company of their FTP services. The team advocate the use of managed file transfers (as provided by WMQ File Transfer Edition, for example) but failed to clearly state what the problem with FTP as a service is. That said, they seem to have a very clever way of detecting FTP traffic by sniffing the network and could easily extend their architecture to include all sorts of other protocols. They have also thought carefully about how their work might be used in the future, for example as a tool for IBM pre-sales, a saleable IBM product or (most likely) a component of one or more existing IBM products.

Congratulations to all the teams and people involved. The presentations were great, a very entertaining hour, and it seems like some really useful work has come out of Extreme Blue in the UK again this year. Well done!

Minihacks and Open Technologies

It’s not all about process, software development, and quadricopters… ūüôā

Guruplug This week we’ve had what could be described as a “mini Hackday”, instigated by an idea from Andy Stanford-Clark and organised by Hursley newcomer Vaibhavi Joshi. The idea was to spend a few hours exploring the world of plug computers (in this case, a model called a Guruplug); to brainstorm some ideas around utility computers; and to generally see what we could do with this kind of a form factor.

Some great ideas emerged, and quite a few of us were severely tempted to order our new shiny gadgets on the spot… by the end of the morning the Really Small Message Broker was built and running on the Guruplug and some exciting MQTT-related thoughts were flying around. A nice break from the norm for all of us!

Inspired by some of the “social technologies for internal communications” discussions I’d had with Abi Signorelli at Social Media Week London the previous week – in particular, the ease of capturing a brief audio snippet on any particular topic – I thought I’d ask Vaibhavi what she thought – here’s a quick interview:

Straight after the hacking, it was time to move on to the Open Technologies event that was being run to promote Linux, Firefox and Symphony. I’m a user and a big fan of all of these tools so it was nice to see a local Hursley event as part of IBM’s global awareness month dedicated to helping those within the internal community not yet up-to-speed on what people were using. The best part? Free stickers ūüôā

Open Technologies

Sending, not taking, the biscuit

Teleportation becomes one step closer as UK scientists collaborate. A team of astronomers have joined forces with IBM’s software engineers and taken tentative steps to transfer material across the Internet.

Being unable to take up the offer of a biscuit at a recent meeting of a sub-group of the Isle of Wight’s Vectis Astronomical Society, Dr Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM Master Inventor, who was at home at the time, accepted instead the offer of a Virtual Biscuit.

He then laid down a challenge to the team of astronomers, led by Dr Lucy Rogers (@drlucyrogers), to deliver the biscuit to him using IBM’s Smarter Planet messaging middleware technology, MQTT.

This challenge was enthusiastically accepted, and the next day, Andy took the biscuit by subscribing to the appropriate topic on an IBM message broker and downloading the confectionery – picture.

In an interesting twist, not unusual in the early stages of the invention of new technology, the image arrived intact, but subtly altered – it is horizontally flipped. This is reminiscent of some of the teething problems in the matter transportation technology described in Michael Crichton’s book TimeLine.

Stanford-Clark said: “clearly there’s a very long way to go before we can transfer an ACTUAL biscuit across the Internet using MQTT, but this is an exciting first step, and a great motivation for further research.”

Parrot AR.Drone

Andy Piper brought his new toy to the lab today. While on a whistle stop tour of China recently he called in at Hong Kong on the way back, where he picked up one of the a Parrot AR.Drones which have been released this month.

The AR.Drone is a quadricopter with 2 video cameras, one mounted in the nose and one downward-facing. The drone that acts as an ad-hock Wi-Fi access point allowing it to be controlled from any device with¬†Wi-Fi. At the moment Parrot are only shipping a client for the iPhone, but there is an API¬†available¬†and there is already footage on the net using an Android Nexus One to control one. It’s loaded with a bunch of other sensors as well, an accelerometer to help keep it stable and a ultrasound altimeter to help it maintain altitude over changing ground.

The iPhone interface for flying the drone uses the¬†accelerometer and is a bit tricky to start with, but I think with a little bit of practice it shouldn’t take too long to get the hang of it. The feed from the video cameras is fed back to the handset allowing you to get a pilot’s eye view. At the moment none of the software allows you to capture this video, but it’s expected to be added soon. You can also use the camera to play AR games or have the it hover and hold station over markers on the floor.

The whole thing runs a embedded Linux build on a ARM chip and you can even telnet into the thing. It comes with 2 chassis, one for outside and one with some protective shrouds for the propellers to use indoors. 

I think some very cool stuff should be possible with a platform like this.

Here are 2 short videos I short of a few of us having a go with it on the lawn in front of Hursley House.