Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

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…

Sending satnav locations from your iPhone/iPad to a BMW navigation system

One of those ‘in case you’re Googling for it’ posts! This will probably be of little interest to anyone who doesn’t own both an iOS device and a BMW, but might be useful if you own both.

Also available on Vimeo if preferred.

The times, they are a changin’

This afternoon, having an old show tune running though my head, I turned to my new Amazon Echo.

“Alexa, play Some Enchanted Evening.”

Short pause while it explores Spotify. Flashing lights. Music about to start…

Some Enchanted Evening by Bob Dylan.”

Really?!! Bob Dylan?!! I was somewhat stunned. Partly because my image of the rebellious Dylan seemed about as far from ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ as I could imagine. And partly because there are many famous recordings of this song — by great singers from Frank Sinatra to José Carreras to Bing Crosby to Perry Como to Ray Charles to Barbra Streisand to The Temptations to Willie Nelson to Harry Connick Jr. (to name a few), a significant number of which have been Top-10 hits, but I had no idea Bob Dylan had recorded it.

Well, it turns out that ignorance was bliss.

I’m an admirer of Bob Dylan, but in general I think the music world would have benefitted if somebody had persuaded him, early on, that he should stick to writing his own songs, and get somebody else to actually sing them. I grant that others may disagree.

For him to sing other people’s songs, though, is an undeniable mistake, especially when it comes to the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I can imagine worse sounds that could emanate from my speakers, but they would probably have to involve Billy Bragg. If you doubt me, say “Alexa, play Some Enchanted Evening”, perhaps as a cruel joke when visiting the house of a Spotify subscriber.

More seriously, I can’t help wondering what the algorithm is behind the scenes that picks this version first, and can only be overridden by tacking something like ‘by José Carreras’ onto the end of your command. Is it because it’s the most recent? Because all those recordings that spent weeks in the upper reaches of the charts don’t appeal to Spotify’s target audience? Or – a more worrying thought – perhaps it’s selected personally for me! I guess I do have more Dylan in my collection than, say, Paul Robeson or Ray Charles. In which case, maybe it’s my own fault…

Car Talk

The Amazon Echo arrived in the UK a couple of days ago, and by combining some of my earlier work with John Wheeler’s excellent Flask-Ask framework I was able to make it talk to my electric car.

Also available on Vimeo here if preferred.

Software security and the new app platform

As regular readers will know, my car has a programming interface which, sadly, is not officially supported by BMW. Still, it lets me create some little apps to improve the daily experience of car ownership; not something I’ve really been able to do with any previous cars. We’ve come a long way from some of my earliest ones, where I spent most of my time straightening bent carburettor needles and replacing leaf springs!

car_lock_checkMy latest hack is a little script which runs periodically on one of my servers and checks whether the car has been stationary for more than 15 mins. If so, and the windows, sun roof or doors are open or unlocked, it sends a notification to my phone. This is partly for security reasons, but mostly because the British weather has been sending us hourly alternate bursts of sunroof-opening heat and torrential downpours! Of course, if I’m not near the car at the time, I can lock it remotely.

One of the many things I find appealing about the move to electric cars is that the actual mechanics become so much simpler. I no longer have an exhaust pipe, a clutch or gearbox, an oil sump or filter, head gaskets or piston rings. The motor isn’t much larger than a melon, and the batteries can be made in various shapes and sizes to fit the layout of the vehicle. In my case, I have a flat floor, with no propshaft tunnel or gear lever to get in the way. Reconfiguring such a design to be a van, a campervan, a flatbed truck, or whatever, is much less of a challenge now.

As the complexity of the mechanics goes down and the flexibility goes up, I think software, both inside and outside the car, is going to play an ever more important role in our experience of it.

The automotive industry has become interesting again, for the first time in many decades.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser