Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

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…

Accessoreyes

Today, for the first time ever, I’ve been wearing contact lenses. As a new user, I have to say, they’re a jolly impressive technology!

These are multifocal ones, which I hope may save me from the routine of putting on my reading glasses, taking them off, dropping them, picking them up, losing them, finding them, cleaning them etc, which I currently do several times an hour. We’ll see how well they work overall, but you know what was the very first benefit I noticed in the optician’s office? I could read my Apple Watch!

Such a cruel mistress is Fate, that the very moment that I was able to purchase this miracle of technology and strap it to my wrist was the same moment my eyesight deteriorated to the point where only things further away than the end of my arm could be viewed unaided. Since then, yes, I’ve been able to read big digits and press pause buttons, but most of the more detailed displays on the watch have had me reaching for my glasses, which does somewhat tarnish the high-tech coolness of it all. Sigh. Old computer-graphics geeks don’t die, they just lose their resolution.

Another problem I’d like to solve is that of seeing both my SatNav and the road. I don’t need glasses for driving. I do need them to read the dashboard. When I put them on, I can’t see the road. Ça, c’est un problême.

So is needing a spare hand for specs when I’m taking photos. I can use my camera’s viewfinder, which has a diopter correction, or the rear screen, which doesn’t. I often want to switch between these to get the best shot, but by the time I’m ready, the eagle has flown.

In a way, it would be easier if I needed to wear glasses all the time, rather then half the time. But my distance vision isn’t at all bad, and I tried varifocal glasses and they didn’t agree with me. So I hope these prove to be a success. My total contact-lens-wearing experience currently runs to about 6 hours, so it’s too early to say.

But they have at least allowed me to write this post without difficulty, and, perhaps more importantly, they have solved that problem whose critical importance for humans was first identified by Arthur Dent on a spaceship in the late seventies, and encountered by me in central Cambridge in 2015: “How am I going to operate my digital watch now?”

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 slightly unusual view of the Sacré-Coeur

Post from RICOH THETA. – Spherical Image – RICOH THETA

We’re just back from a trip to France and Switzerland. You should see a picture from Paris above, and be able to drag the image around and zoom in and out. You might be able to see the Eiffel Tower if you look in the right direction! If things don’t work, try another browser.

More of my spherical images are on the Ricoh Theta site, including some from this recent trip. Here I am inside the Musée d’Orsay, for example. On that site, you can probably also view them full-screen.

Also, here’s a short bit of video, from the ski slopes of Saas-Fee, Switzerland, last week, where we also found a nice spot for lunch.

An early webcam TV appearance

In October 1999, I was interviewed by Leo Laporte on ZDTV’s ‘Call for Help’ programme. Yes, this is just another interview about the Trojan Room Coffee Pot, but it’s interesting to me for several reasons.

Firstly because, even though it’s nearly 20 years ago, I’ve only just seen it! They kindly sent me a VHS tape of the episode at the time, but (no doubt with good intentions) they encoded it with a rather unusual 50Hz variety of NTSC, and I’ve never been able to play it. It was only last week that, before throwing it out, I went to the trouble of tracking down somebody who was able to tell me that, yes, indeed, there was actually something on the tape…

Secondly, it was quite a challenge to do the recording. They sent me a camera in advance, and I had a slightly older PC which didn’t have the brand new USB ports that were just starting to appear, so I had to dismantle it, install an ISA card, and then repartition my hard disk and install Windows 95, because neither the Linux nor the Windows NT operating systems I had on there were supported by 3Com’s software.

But chiefly, it’s a nice nostalgic snapshot of tech life not too long ago. The rest of the episode provides helpful hints like: you’re probably used to installing hardware in your machine before inserting the CDROM or floppy with the drivers, but with USB it’s a good idea to install the drivers first. Files you download over your modem may be compressed and you’ll need a thing called WinZip to see what’s inside them. And Chris Breen (later an editor at MacWorld), comes on to explain that if you’re trying to play DVDs on your computer and they keep skipping, it may be because you’re connected to a network that does something called DHCP. The PC can’t do that and play back smoothly at the same time, so it may be worth disabling DHCP before you start watching. Oh, and there’s also a section about how, if you have a laptop, you may find it a pain to be tethered to your modem, but there are some wireless networking options becoming available, and the one that looks most promising for the future is this thing called 802.11…

The clip I’ve uploaded shows the interview from the studio in California, with me in Cambridge, and we’re joined by Don Lekei from Canada a bit later. It’s hard now to remember just how rare it was at the time to see people on TV live from remote locations. That normally needed satellite linkups, or very costly kit attached to extremely expensive international ISDN calls. For Don and I to talk casually from the comfort of our own homes on opposite sides of the world was enough to get the hosts of a tech show pretty excited. You’ll note that we both use telephones as well, though, because there wasn’t any suitable audio channel…

Anyway, Leo is now the head of the substantial TWiT netcasting network, so I guess networked video worked out well for him too 🙂

Eyes in the back of my head

Just before Christmas, Tilly (my spaniel) and I went to the Dordogne and back in our campervan. I made a video about it, which, while it may be of interest only to travel vlog and ‘van life’ enthusiasts, does have a bit of novelty value, because I filmed it on a spherical (360-degree) camera.

This means that after you’ve watched it, you can go back and watch it again from a completely different angle and see what was happening behind you!

I’ll put the link here, rather than embedding it, because this is something you want to watch on the YouTube site. Or, better still, in the YouTube app on your tablet, or phone, or VR headset…

You can find the video here.

If I had had more time, I would have made it shorter 🙂

This was really just an experiment for me, and I learned a great deal about the challenges and opportunities of filming and editing this particular medium, which I may write about in due course.

Hot at the top

This is a lovely idea – the Mixergy hot water tank.

A standard UK hot water tank heats the water from the bottom, either using electricity or water heated by a gas boiler. This means that when you want to heat up your water, you need to heat the whole thing.

Mixergy, instead, put the heating at the top, so you can warm up smaller amounts of water, and then make intelligent use of pumps to circulate it as required if you need to heat larger amounts of water. Not only is this more energy-efficient, but it means you get hot water again more quickly after you’ve used it up.

There’s a more detailed discussion on a recent episode of Fully Charged.

SeaBubbles

Fancy some fast, green, silent, smooth, aquatic transport? Me too. So the approach taken by SeaBubbles is really attractive.

They’re making electric hydrofoils which, once you get above about 6 knots, rise up and lose 60% of their drag.

They’re about the same size as a car, and the battery has the same capacity as my BMW i3. This would give you enough range, on their figures, to get you across the English Channel.

Here’s some nice footage of their tests on the Seine; they’re keen to promote them as water taxis. As they point out, many waterways have speed restrictions that wouldn’t allow you to get the most out of your SeaBubble…

They haven’t announced pricing yet, but I fear they’d be well beyond my reach, especially since I’d also need to buy a cottage by the side of a fjord to appreciate it fully.

But I hope I get a chance to ride in one!

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…

Adding custom ringtones to your iPhone using iTunes

In case you’re Googling for it, or in case I forget how to do it…

If you search online, you can can find various articles about how to take an MP3 or AAC audio file and make a .M4R-format file which an iOS device can then use as a ringtone. I’ve had a bit of Gilbert & Sullivan as mine for years, and have probably infuriated and/or amused those around me in equal measure when my phone starts announcing that I am the Captain of the Pinafore…

I lost this, though, in a recent wipe and re-install of my phone, after which I discovered that iTunes no longer makes it at all obvious how to put these custom ringtones onto your device. It’s easy if you buy them on the iTunes store, of course, but otherwise no amount of dragging and dropping would get my old favourites into iTunes or onto my phone.

But it turns out that there is still a way, and it’s documented some way down on this Apple page. As a quick summary:

  • Connect your phone to your computer, so it appears in the sidebar of your iTunes
  • Go and find your ringtone(s) in the Finder or Windows Explorer and COPY them.
  • Select the ‘Tones’ section of your device in iTunes and PASTE.

This works fine for me in iTunes 12.7 – no dragging and dropping needed. You should then see your ringtones, and be able to choose them in Settings > Sounds on the iPhone.

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!

Retro Space Invaders

I think this is wonderful. Today I got to play with Gareth Bailey’s Space Invaders game – a quick hack, he claims, which he put together yesterday.

This uses an oscilloscope as an X-Y plotter to draw the graphics, harking back to the earliest days of computer displays. But historically, displays like this would usually have been driven by a mainframe, where as Gareth’s is driven by a Raspberry Pi.

And where do you get a couple of nice analog outputs from a Raspberry Pi? Why, from the left and right channels of the audio, of course….

Apologies for the quality of the video, but I thought this was worth capturing despite the challenging environment!

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser