Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

First experiments with an Instamic

New toy! I bought an Instamic: a tiny voice recorder that I wanted to use in situations where conventional microphones might be difficult or a nuisance, especially when I’m recording with my GoPro Max, which has no facility to take an external mic input.

Here’s my quick first test on yesterday’s dog-walk, in case it’s of interest!

Watching the map

A screenshot from the appI’ve long been a fan of the ViewRanger app for handling maps on my phone. I know I’ve been using it for at least 8 years, because I have tracks recorded from early 2012.

With it, you can use free maps, and buy commercial ones from a range of sources, in many countries, and pay for them in a variety of ways: subscriptions, individual purchases, or — the method I use because I started before the days of in-app purchases — buying a block of credits up front and using them as needed to purchase the map tiles you’re interested in. ViewRanger isn’t perfect: I find bits of its user interface very counter-intuitive, but in general it’s served me very well.

Another worthy contender for UK users, by the way, is the app UK Map, written by a good friend of mine, and which I’ve been using even longer than ViewRanger. UK Map has always provided a great combination for users here: a standard basic UK road atlas, always available offline; the ability to download the free Ordnance Survey maps (since almost the moment they became available), and the overlaying of paths from OpenStreetMap, which are often the most up to date indications of where you can actually walk. More recently, it too gained the option to buy premium maps, but by then I was somewhat invested in the ViewRanger ecosystem. Nonetheless, I do recommend UK Map – it’s helped me out on more than one occasion when I found myself completely out of phone coverage and just needed a good old-fashioned street atlas, for example. Don’t be fooled by its lack of flashy graphics and fewer immediately-obvious features. Phil, the author, is a very smart guy and knows what he’s doing. It’s worth having on your phone.

Maps have always held a fascination for me, and their combination with technology especially so. I remember I was in Seattle on the day the iPad was released, and so was able to get one that day, about 6 weeks before most of my European contemporaries. (I’m still a bit smug about that!) It only took me a few hours, though, to realise it was the best map-viewer I had ever seen. A zoomable, infinitely-scrollable, tactile display that was also big enough to show a reasonable area? Amazing. (The main thing I miss, by the way, about no longer also having an iPad Mini is that it combined most of that with the ability to fit in a coat pocket.)

Anyway, this is all old hat now. We almost all wander the footpaths and byways gazing at our phones, rather than unfolding bits of paper from our map pockets. They do, after all, have that undeniably useful extra feature – the little blinking dot or crosshairs showing where you actually are. And zooming and scrolling mean that the place you’re heading for is no longer on the other side of the fold! I do find, though, that zoomability means I’ve lost the intuition I used to have about how long it would take me to walk a certain number of inches…

There’s another problem, too, with phone-based navigation, that I’ve found in the soggier parts of the UK: touchscreens, and indeed fingerprint readers, really don’t work very well in the rain. The process of extracting the phone from a damp pocket, trying to find something less damp to wipe it on, failing to unlock it with my fingerprint and having to type a PIN before trying to manipulate a semi-responsive touchscreen has just occasionally left me thinking that even damp paper would be preferable to electronics.

Until today.

Because today I discovered something I should have noticed some time ago. ViewRanger has an interface for the Apple Watch. If it’s running on my phone, I can simply raise my wrist to see where I am.

I could have used this in the past, had I discovered it, but it’s also vastly improved by my recent purchase of a Series 4 watch to replace my Series 0, which means that when I raise my arm to look at my watch, things actually appear before my arm gets too tired and has to be lowered again. In fact, while testing it on this afternoon’s dog walk, it was effectively instantaneous. Where does this footpath to the right go? Let me just glance at my wrist – ah, OK. You can scroll around, zoom in and out etc, but most of the time, all I needed was a quick glance: no unlocking, no soggy touchscreen. (It also looks amazing, but I think that’s mostly because of another recent purchase: a new and expensive pair of spectacles!)

All of which makes me wonder whether, despite being at the opposite extreme in terms of screen size, I may after a decade have found an even better map viewer, at least in certain circumstances, than the iPad!

Coronavirus and cavemen

It seems only a few years ago that, when I walked around my house, the lights wouldn’t turn on automatically! For younger readers, I should explain that in the past you actually had to go to a particular place on the wall and press a switch if you wanted to be able to see things!

Can you imagine the inconvenience if, say, you had your hands full at the time? And when you left the room, if you wanted to save power, you’d have to do the same thing again, and then repeat it as you went into the next room. So people had to install switches in all the places they thought they might go in and out of rooms. They had to come up with complex wiring schemes because you might want to turn lights on at the bottom of a staircase and turn them off at the top, when the upstairs and downstairs lights were normally on different electrical circuits!

It’s hard to believe, in this era of easy home automation, that there are some people still living this caveman-like existence, but it’s true, just as there are those who, when they want to listen to the news, turn a physical dial instead of just talking to their smart speaker! Those whose house doesn’t know when they’re in movie-watching mode, so they have to turn the TV on and off with a remote control.

This is, of course, terribly inconvenient for those people who still embrace the ‘retro’ approach to life, but now it has an extra drawback: every one of those switches, buttons, knobs is a hot-spot for potential virus transmission. How are those people meant to protect their family from infection if, carrying in groceries or deliveries from the outside world, they have to press a light switch that everybody else in the family is going to touch later that day? And if, without thinking, they draw the curtains by hand, how many hands will touch the same spot later?

And that’s just home automation. When the lockdown is lifted, just imagine those poor people who have to go back to work in non-automated workplaces! The potential for contagion is terrifying.

But yes, my young friends, that’s what the world really used to be like for most people! Amazing, but true.

The Ring cycle?

I have a Ring video doorbell. When there’s movement in front of my door, or when someone rings the bell, it captures a brief video clip and saves it to the cloud.

It occurs to me that:

  • Amazon owns Ring.
  • Amazon delivers to my door.
  • Amazon could register that they had successfully delivered to my door by holding the delivery (or its barcode) up to the doorbell’s camera.
  • Perhaps I should patent the idea?

Regenerative amplification

When I take my foot off the accelerator in my electric car, the ‘regenerative braking’ process charges up the battery. Similarly if I’m going downhill. This is reasonably well-known now.

Well, I was talking to a friend today about his planned purchase of some high-tech hearing aids. They sound splendid, though they should do for the price. It would be cheaper to put two MacBook Pros in your ears… though perhaps a bit less comfortable.

Anyway, I was asking him about their battery life, and, pondering this topic later, I was thinking that you ought to be able to do something similarly clever there: if they use power to amplify things which are too quiet, could they also recharge their batteries by deadening things that are too loud? If you were out for a long day and they started to run down, you could simply head for a loud rock concert, or perhaps seek out a high-crime area and stand near some police sirens. Even if the recharging didn’t work very well, you wouldn’t be able to hear anything afterwards anyway, so you wouldn’t care.

Brilliant, eh? I’m off to the patent office…

A top-down view

My friend Richard has done a lovely blog post showing some of his recent experiments with a spherical (‘360-degree’) camera. (Hint – you may need to pick your browser to make all of these work well, and the YouTube videos are best viewed in the YouTube app on a mobile device. Try dragging the view around with your mouse/finger.)

One clip that I particularly liked was this one, from the top of a punt pole.

Now, I had played with this new art of punt-pole photography some time ago, as a way of getting shots that would otherwise be tricky. (Remember, this was back in the days when, if you talked about drones, you were probably referring to bees.) And I’ve since played quite a bit with a spherical camera.

But I hadn’t thought of combining the two. Which is why it always pays to have friends who are smarter than you are…

The 360 camera I used for a while was on loan from the Computer Lab, and I’ve since returned it. But Richard’s post is definitely making me miss it… I may need to get another…

A well-rounded view

Over lunch yesterday, my friend Richard was expanding my limited knowledge of spherical cameras: cameras which can take an all-round image – or even video – of the world; an immersive view which you can then explore in a VR headset, or by holding up your phone and moving it around, or (suboptimally) in a regular browser window by dragging around with your mouse, StreetView-style.

Richard’s done a nice blog post about this, from which I’m shamelessly cribbing! Thanks, Richard!

The normal way to get high-resolution all-round footage is to use a special rig like this one:

These are actually not that expensive… assuming that you already have ten GoPro cameras lying around ready to go in them. If not… it’s a different story.

But there are now more compact and affordable options if you don’t mind sacrificing some resolution – things like the Ricoh Theta V. For more information about how it works, Richard pointed me at this great video:

Now, we all know that you can get interesting feedback effects when, say, standing in a lift or changing room with mirrors on opposite walls, or by pointing live cameras at their own output.

What happens when you explore the same ideas in a spherical world? Cool things:

Oh, and if you’re like me, the next question is, “Can you do this kind of thing with live footage?” And the answer is yes. Here’s… ahem… a recording… to prove it…

A final thought.

In the old days, some comedy shows would emphasise that they were “recorded in front of a live audience”, so that you knew that the laugh track wasn’t canned. Soon, we’ll be able to recreate the effect of a live audience so realistically that it won’t be sufficient to persuade you that the recording was actually done in front of real people. Even if you have multiple spherical recordings.

So here’s a challenge to ponder over the weekend: How could you prove that a YouTube video of an event was originally a real event, shown to real people?

Future Imperfect

As someone who has watched a few Star Trek episodes recently… well, OK, I admit it… a few dozen Star Trek episodes recently, I must express my concern about the quality of hardware engineers employed in the construction of Federation starships.

Why is it, that after several generations, they still build ships with computer consoles that explode at the slightest hint of enemy phaser fire? Perhaps Samsung had a watertight long-term supplier contract and the Federation couldn’t get out of it, but still, it does seem like a serious design flaw, especially on the bridge.

If you search the web, of course, you’ll find that I’m not the only person to have noticed this, indeed, there are many long discussions which might provide an answer if you’re a bit more interested than I was. If you’re considering a career as a Starfleet officer, however, it might be worth your while doing some more extensive research.

Perhaps the consoles are more robust than they might appear, though. Others have pointed out that a surprising number of them do seem to keep working after having exploded.

So the basic underlying manufacturing is sound. Like so many computer consoles, though, more work is needed to improve the user experience.

Zooming in the rain

On Wednesdays, there’s an interesting group of catering vans that collect at the far end of the West Cambridge campus, and I like to go there for lunch.

But it’s a bit of a distance, and the weather today was bad, so it was important to find the most appropriate method of transportation…

A possible solution to slow or unresponsive Hue lights

They used to say that there are two ‘internet of things’ systems that ‘just work’ out of the box: the Sonos sound system, and Philips Hue lighting. I’m fortunate enough to own both of them, and I would add the Honeywell Evohome heating system (though one of my friends has had a few complications with an unusually large installation).

When we moved house recently, though, my previously-faultless Hue system seemed to become a bit less reliable. Admittedly, we have rather more bulbs now (33 and counting), but that’s nowhere close to the limit it can handle. Our bulbs are always powered, so the cunning mesh networking should make sure that nothing is out of signal range. Yet sometimes lights weren’t obeying their commands promptly, switch presses needed to be repeated, and things generally seemed, well, a bit sluggish. I was beginning to think it might be time to wipe the configuration off my bridge and start again from scratch. It probably does have a lot of accumulated junk on there…

And then I did a little research and realised something that I should have thought about earlier.

Zigbee (the wireless networking used by Hue and a variety of other systems) runs at approx 2.4Ghz: the same frequency range as Wifi. Like Wifi, it has a number of channels, and if your wifi router and your Zigbee hub have overlapping channels, they can interfere with each other. I found this useful diagram online (apologies for not knowing its creator):

‘802.11b/g’, in case you don’t know it, is part of the technical standard popularly known as Wifi, so the green labels show Wifi channels, and the blue bars show Zigbee.

The number and availability of channels vary depending on your country, but they will be similar to the above. Although Wifi has about a dozen channels, the nearby ones overlap substantially, so most installations only use 1, 6 or 11: if both you and your neighbour are using Wifi channel 1, you won’t make much difference by switching to 2 or 3; you need to go at least as far as 6. Go much further than 6, and you’ll start interfering with your other neighbour on channel 11. Usually, these days, wifi routers are pretty good at picking their channel by finding the least congested space, though you may need to reboot them from time to time to encourage them to do so.

Anyway, one thing that had changed in my new house was the Wifi. And when I looked, sure enough, my Wifi router was on channel 11 and my Hue hub was on a Zigbee channel that was rather too close for comfort. By going into the Hue app and looking at the settings for my Bridge, I was able to change the Zigbee channel to number 15, and things are going a lot more swimmingly now!

Hope that might help someone else…

Update: As Nigel points out in the comments, if you have 5GHz wifi available, moving as many of your devices as possible to that will also help!

iOS tip of the day

When you’re setting up your fingerprints for Touch ID, take the time after registering each one to go in and give it a name. Then if you find one finger becoming unreliable, you know which one to delete and reprogram.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser