Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

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!

Computerphile

Sean Riley creates the Computerphile YouTube channel, which has clocked up nearly a million subscribers, and produces some great stuff, especially for the geeks among us.

I had fun talking to him about the early days of the Trojan Room Coffee Pot.

An unusual four-wheeled electric vehicle

What better way to carry a bicycle than in another bicycle?

A few months ago, I enthused about the electric cargo bike that I had tried out at a local shop. Being without a car for a little while, I started looking at them with more interest, and I discovered that the awfully nice people at Outspoken could actually rent me one for a few days. But they’re on the far side of Cambridge, so I cycled out there on my Brompton and came back with it in the front. It all worked beautifully, but I couldn’t help thinking about The Royal Society for Putting Things on Top of Other Things

Someone who wasn’t quite so sure about the whole idea was my spaniel Tilly, but once she settled down, it was a great way to transport her to one of her favourite walking spots, about 3 or 4 miles away, against a strong headwind, and bring her back afterwards.

(The rattling noise is the little bench seat for children, which I’d folded back for this trip.)

Slowly getting the hang of this…

Since I last wrote about electric unicycles, I’ve commuted in to work a couple more times, and have used it to zoom around the West Cambridge campus in search of decent coffee.

I still only get to play on it for about 15 mins per week, but it’s good fun!

A mute point…

The Amazon Echo devices have a microphone-muting button on top of them.

I’ve just realised the true value of this.

It’s so you can stop them getting confused when you’re watching YouTube videos of other people demonstrating their Amazon Echo devices…

Money-changing

I was delighted to see, this morning, that my local supermarket, Waitrose, has effectively abolished the transaction limit on Apple Pay & Android Pay. It’s now £10,000, and even with my fondness for some of their products, it’s hard to imagine hitting that limit even on Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream. So today, I paid for our weekly shop with my Apple Watch.

In fact, I pay for most things with my watch, now, when I’m out and about. (I could also use my phone, but that would be like the old-fashioned systems where you had to take something out of your pocket to make a payment.) Since I only really buy clothes about once a year, and I buy almost everything else on Amazon, there are remarkably few occasions when I need to use a physical card any more. (Cash, of course, is long gone: coins are mostly something I keep in the car as a kind of parking-meter token.) I even have an electric car, so I don’t need to buy petrol.

The only places, therefore, where I still regularly used a card + PIN instead of the more modern electronic payment systems (which have hitherto been limited to £30) were when eating out, and when grocery shopping. The latter went away this morning.

If the pubs and restaurants of Great Britain get their act together soon, my wallet will soon be completely redundant, and I will be delighted.

Cargo cult

Just because we don’t have children, that shouldn’t stop us playing with toys, right? In fact, one of the benefits of our decision not to have children is that we arguably get to play with more toys. Yesterday, anyway, I tried one of these:

It’s an electrically-assisted cargo bike, which you could use for transporting the kids to and from school, if that’s your thing. But we were more interested in transporting groceries or spaniels around, while still avoiding parking & congestion issues, and making use of cycle paths and pedestrian bridges. The electric motor allows you to do so with no more effort than cycling a normal bike, regardless of hills, wind or weather.

It’s a splendid vehicle. Tilly was nervous at first, but seemed to enjoy sitting in it once we were zooming along a straight road at 15mph, with our ears flapping in the breeze, and we got lots of cheery comments from those we passed. Will have to come up with a good excuse to get one…

If you’re curious, it’s a Bakfiets Classic Short with Shimano Steps Electric Assist, model NN7STEPS, and it’s available, for example, from here. Not cheap in bicycle terms, but not bad when compared to a car, especially when you think of all the maintenance and tax savings…

Crossing things off the bucket list

At last! Today, I finally managed to leave the ranks of those who have never commuted to work on an electric unicycle.

Not sure I’ll make a habit of this mode of transport, especially since, as John points out, it is technically illegal here, but it’s a thing one should have done at some point in one’s life, I’m sure you’ll agree.

My other electric vehicle is a BMW…

In my research group in the computer lab at Cambridge University, we have a few fun toys. This is one of them: an electric unicycle; there are a few different makes of these now, this one is a Ninebot One.

I’m not very good at it yet, but it’s great fun to learn – this is after I’ve been having quick goes on it occasionally for the last year or so.

It’s more fun outside. They’ll go to nearly 20 miles per hour. Haven’t been that brave yet…

Holo – is it me you’re looking for?

20170306-151038537-900I got to have a good play with a Microsoft Hololens today. This is an augmented reality headset: you get to see your real-world surroundings, but with computer-generated overlays.

If you remember the holographic chess game in Star Wars, you’ve got the right idea, but the projections can be big and all around you, as well as small and on the table.

holochess

It’s a very clever combination of a bright, retina-projecting display, the Kinect 3D-sensing technology which builds up a map of the room, good accelerometers and supporting hardware so there’s no noticeable lag, all built into a computer that is comfortable to wear and requires no attached cables.

This isn’t primarily for games: imagine an architect walking around a building and being able to ‘see’ the pipes and wires behind the walls. A surgeon being able to walk around the 3D MRI scan of their patient and view it from different angles, possibly actually projected onto the patient’s body in the operating theatre. A remote technician being able to guide you through disassembling, fixing and reassembling some device, because they can see what you see, and point out things right in front of you… the possibilities are almost endless.

This is version 1.0, of course, and it has some limitations — it won’t work very well outside, for example, because of the brightness of the ambient light and the difficulty of capturing a good model of the surrounding world. It’s available in restricted quantities, for about three thousand pounds apiece. The projected images only cover a limited field of your view: they are good and clear when you’re looking at them, but you don’t see them in your peripheral vision. And there are some things for which a VR headset is clearly superior, especially if you want to replace your existing environment completely.

Despite all of this, it is great fun, and exceedingly well engineered, and the inclusion of the Kinect technology gives it a real edge over things like Google Glass, and gets rid of the problem of walking into walls and tripping over furniture that is an inconvenience of full VR headsets. Overall, it’s really quite impressive, and I predict that we’ll see quite a lot more of this in future.

Dem drones, dem drones, dem high drones…

20170221-08374901-900Many of my friends have expressed surprise that I don’t have a drone yet. I’m rather surprised myself, actually – I’m very tempted by the DJI Mavic Pro. So far, however, I’ve resisted. Getting a licence to fly them anywhere close to humanity, or to use them for commercial work, takes a little while and costs rather more than the device itself. I may yet succumb to temptation, though…

I met another man who doesn’t have one today. A very nice chap taking photos of a nearby house that’s about to go on the market. We chatted for a while.

I presumed that estate agents used drones as matter of course now for their aerial shots, but he said the hassle of dealing with the CAA was still too much trouble and the insurance for commercial use ran to about £2K/year. So he has a tall pole with an SLR on it and a remotely-controlled pan-tilt-zoom head. A very nice toy, and I told him so.

“It’s ridiculous”, he said with a smile. “I’d be done in five minutes if I had a drone…”

Speeding up evolution

Motorised goldbish bowl
Technology doesn’t only help humans move around in new ways: This project at CMU allows a goldfish to drive its tank around the room.

Now they’ve done the difficult bit, all they need to do is work out how to explain to the goldfish what exactly is going on. I fear that may still take a few million years…

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser