Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

AirTags and Airplanes

I’m a big fan of my Apple AirTags. I have a few of them now, and they’ve been jolly useful on several occasions, enabling me to find things quickly that would otherwise have involved more time and stress, or to notice that something has been left behind and so recover it far sooner than would otherwise have been possible.

They’re very cunning devices. Tilly even has one on her collar now!

For those not familiar with the underlying technology, the general challenge with locating devices in the past has been that it typically involves two components: a GPS receiver (to find out where the item is), and a connection to the mobile phone network (to report that location to whomever may be looking for it). Both of these need significant battery power, so trackers have been bulky, required frequent recharging, and the phone connection generally implied a subscription. In the past, therefore, tracking has generally been reserved for valuable things which can carry big batteries, like cars, or like smartphones which happen already to have the necessary functions built-in and get recharged every night.

Since I have been known, just occasionally, to be a little absent-minded, I have made extensive use of Apple’s ‘Find my…’ system over the years to locate iPhones, iPads, even spouses. And before you scoff, I should mention that my knowledge of how to use it also once won me an enthusiastic embrace in the middle of a field from a rather beautiful young woman who was a complete stranger to me. So there! But that’s a story for another day…

Anyway, the AirTags have neither a GPS nor a big battery, and yet still manage to transmit their location back to you remarkably effectively in most circumstances. How do they do it? Well, they can be detected by any passing iPhone, and there are a billion of those moving around the world, so there’s a surprisingly good chance that if a human passes close to your lost bunch of keys, you’ll get to know about its location fairly soon.

The AirTags are also, I believe, the first large-scale deployment of UWB location technology, the details of which are beyond the scope of this post, but it basically means that if you have a recent iPhone, when you get really close to the Tag, you can be guided to it using a compass-needle-type display, in a way that would not be possible with something like Bluetooth alone. You can find out not just that your wallet is in this room, but that it’s behind this sofa cushion.

Still, my use of AirTags has been very practical and prosaic. Others have had more fun, and a YouTuber calling himself AirtagAlex has done some wonderful experiments over the last few months of mailing AirTags to different parts of the world and seeing the routes they took to reach their destination.

I rather liked his latest video, though, which explores one of those questions you might never have thought of asking in the past: what actually happens if you get on a plane and leave something in the pocket of the seat in front of you?

Gardening tip of the day!

This may also be my shortest YouTube video yet!

Now you’ll be able to explain if anybody says, “I think Quentin has finally cracked. I saw him jet-washing his lawn the other day!”

Twice, while I was clearing the driveway, as if by way of defiance, a leaf came down and landed on my head! It occurred to me that if I pointed the lance upwards, I could probably have blasted the last few leaves from the tree and swept them all up together, rather than having to wait for the next gale…

Rockin’, Rollin’, Ridin’

“Model railways”, someone once told me, “are a lot like breasts. They’re meant to be there for the children, but it’s always the men who want to play with them.”

Well, though I’ve always liked and admired them, they’re not something I ever went in for very much myself. Model railways, I mean.

It must be much more fun these days, though, since I gather you can get engines with cameras in them, giving a driver’s-eye view of your carefully-constructed world. I’d love to see one of those in action!

But, lest you should think that model trains are purely frivolous, Tom Scott’s latest video shows that they can have serious uses too.

Now that must have been great fun to build! And, as Tom mentions, and as some of my colleagues in the Computer Lab discovered a few years back, users exhibit a lot more engagement with something if there’s likely to be a physical crash when they get it wrong or lose concentration. Even if that crash only involves a model, it’s a great deal more compelling than a simulator on a screen.

I don’t think, by the way, that I’ve ever seen one of Tom’s YouTube videos that wasn’t worth watching. Subscription definitely recommended.

Audio sometimes preferred!

I had an interesting start to the day. Regular readers of this blog will probably have heard quite enough about webcams and coffee pots, but that’s apparently not true for everybody in the world…

Thirty years ago today, Sir Tim turned on his first public webserver, which means that this is one of the days that people have chosen to label as the 30th anniversary of the Web. As it happens, we’re also not too far from the 30th anniversary of the day when we turned on the Trojan Room coffee pot camera, which would be connected to the web a couple of years later and so become the first webcam.

Anyway, I sometimes get wheeled out as a suitable relic to display from this era, and I had an email yesterday from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire asking if I was willing to be on the Louise Hulland show first thing this morning. I said yes, and they were going to contact me with further details… but I heard nothing more, so presumed it wasn’t going ahead. Until, that is, I emerged from my shower this morning, draped in my dressing gown but dripping slightly, to hear my phone ringing… and answered it only to be dropped into a live interview. However much I like networked video, there are times when audio really is the best medium! Anyway, it’s here, for the record.

Perhaps better is an interview that was actually recorded quite some time ago by Jim Boulton for the Centre for Computing History, but which they first published today as part of the local Web@30 event. In it, I am (a) slightly more compos mentis, since it was recorded later in the day and I had consumed more coffee, and (b) rather better attired.

MeetingBuster and the Christmas Call Diary

There was a period of a few years when I played quite extensively with VOIP, which for the uninitiated, stands for Voice-Over-Internet-Protocols, sometimes called ‘IP Telephony’. This isn’t about Zoom and Skype and FaceTime, but about traditional phone calls: the things your parents used to make (and maybe still do), often using devices attached to the wall with wires!

It all seems very obvious now, but there was a point between about 20 and 10 years ago when the typical office phone changed from being an audio device plugged into a landline-style connection with analogue voltages talking to a phone exchange, to being something digital that plugged into the ethernet and had an IP address. Telephone calls, hitherto controlled by large national monopolies with expensive proprietary equipment and hideously complex signalling protocols, started to become something ordinary users could manage with their own software, even Open Source software.

Companies that had previously paid vast sums of money to buy or lease a PBX (the ‘Private Branch Exchange’ that gave you internal phone numbers and routed calls to and from external numbers), could now just install software on a cheap PC and route calls to phone handsets over the local network. If you also routed calls over the wider internet, limitations of most broadband connections meant that the quality and reliability left something to be desired, but, as one perceptive observer commented at the time, “The great thing about mobile networks is that they have lowered people’s expectations of telephony to the point where VOIP is a viable solution.”

Phone Phun

And what you could do in an office, you could also do at home, just for fun. I loved this stuff, because in my youth telephony had embodied the quintessence of big faceless corporations: you paid them, they told you what you could and couldn’t do with the socket in your wall, you lived with the one phone number they decided to give you, and could only plug in the equipment that they approved. Any variations on this theme rapidly became very expensive.

With VOIP, however, you could now get multiple phone numbers in your own house and configure how they were handled yourself. I had one number that was registered in Seattle (because I was doing lots of work there), but it rang a phone in my home office in Cambridge — the same one that also had one Cambridge number and one London one — with the calls routed halfway around the world over the internet, basically for free. All of a sudden, you could do things that the Post Office, BT, AT&T, or whoever, would never have let you do in the past. It was fun!

Part of my interest came from the clear parallels between how phone calls were handled in this new world, and the way HTTP requests were handled on the web. I first got involved in telephony with the AT&T Broadband Phone project back in 1999, when my friends and I had to write our own telephony stack based on the new SIP protocol, and build our own custom hardware to connect our SIP network to real-world phone lines.

But, as with the early days of the web, Open Source servers soon emerged so you didn’t have to write your own! The Asterisk and, a little later, FreeSwitch packages were very much analogous to Apache and Nginx in the web world. Calls came in, and you decided what to do with them using a set of configuration rules similar to those that might determine what page or image to return for a particular URL. Voice prompts and keypad button presses were a bit like forms and submit buttons on web pages… and so on.

Anyway, there were a couple of quick hacks that I put together at the time which turned out to be rather useful, so if you’re still with me after the history lesson above, I’ll describe them.

The Christmas Call Diary

We were a young startup company, with about half-a-dozen employees, operating primarily out of a garden shed in Cambridge. But we had sold products to real customers who expected a decent level of support. As Christmas approached, we realised that the office was going to be empty for about a fortnight, and started to wonder what would happen if anybody had technical support issues and needed urgent help.

So I set up a shared Google calendar, and asked everyone to volunteer to be available for particular periods of time over the holiday, just in case any customers called; a possibility that was, we hoped, pretty unlikely, but it would improve our reputation no end if somebody did answer. All we had to do was put entries in the calendar that contained our mobile or home number during times when we didn’t mind being disturbed. People valiantly signed up.

We were running a VOIP exchange on an old Dell PC, and I wrote a script to handle incoming calls, which worked like this:

  • When a call comes in, ring all the phones in the office for a short while.
  • If nobody picks up, then look at the special Google Calendar to see if there’s a current entry, and if its contents look like a phone number. If so, then divert the call to that number.
  • If it isn’t answered after a short while, send the caller to our voicemail system, and email the resulting message to all of us.

In the end, I don’t think anybody did call, but the script worked as intended, and allowed us to have a more worry-free Christmas break, which was perhaps its most important achievement!

MeetingBuster

Back in 2006, I registered the domain MeetingBuster.com, and thanks to the wonderful Internet Archive, I can see once again what the front page looked like, which neatly explains its purpose (click if you need a larger image):

A later update allowed you to call MeetingBuster and press a number key within 10 seconds, and your callback would then happen that many tens of minutes later, so pressing ‘3’ just before going into a meeting would give you an option to escape from it after half an hour. (Remember this was all well before the iPhone was released, so all such interactions had to be based on DTMF tones.)

Anyway, Meetingbuster was just for fun, and there are probably better ways to escape from today’s virtual meetings. But if/when we go back to face-to-face meetings again, and you need an excuse to say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I really ought to answer that; do you mind?”, then let me know and perhaps I can revive it!

Eye in the Sky

I had owned my little drone for a while before I discovered one of its cleverer tricks: taking 360 panoramic views. You just put it in the right mode and press the button, and it turns round on the spot taking 26 photos at various pitch angles, then stitches them together. In some ways I find these interactive views more compelling than videos.

This was one of my first: Houghton Mill, on the River Great Ouse. (If you just see a blank space below, I’m afraid you may need to try another browser, and if you get these posts by email, you’ll probably have to view it on the web.)

Or here’s a view of the University’s Computer Lab, where I used to work back in the days when we had physical offices. The big building site opposite is the Physics Department’s new Cavendish Lab (the third of that name), which is also known as the Ray Dolby Centre, since that little button you used to press on your cassette deck is paying for a lot of this:

People who are interested in the West Cambridge Site may want to look at other shots from the same evening. And people who remember when cassette decks started having Dolby C as well as Dolby B may be inspired by the title of this post to hum tunes from the Alan Parsons Project.

There may be more of these to come.

Location, location, location (or, ‘How technology saved me a few hundred quid yesterday’)

Yesterday, I lost my glasses. This is perfectly normal, and happens on a regular basis. One of my roles in life is to provide the opticians of South Cambridgeshire with a healthy and predictable revenue stream. What was much less typical about yesterday, though, was that I found them again!

Despite some of my recent posts, this was nothing to do with Apple AirTags, because I don’t currently have those attached to my spectacles. (I thought I looked rather dashing with them dangling about the ears, and many of the chaps at the Drones agreed, but I noticed that Jeeves had become particularly frosty recently, and found himself unable to extract me from a dashed sticky situation involving Madeline Bassett… but I digress. No AirTags currently adorn your correspondent’s brow.)

Anyway, yesterday afternoon, I was out walking Tilly, in a gentle rain, and I decided to take a photo of the view across the field in the mist. “This shot would be easier to compose”, I thought, “if I were wearing my glasses”, and I reached into the pocket of my coat… to discover that they weren’t there.

“Bother!”, said I, contemplating the last couple of miles that we had walked, the branches I had ducked under and the ditches I had leaped, any of which might be clues to their likely location. But then I remembered I’d received a phone call just a few hundred meters back, and had been able to read the name of the caller with ease, so I must have been wearing them then. I started to retrace my steps, gazing without much hope at the long wet grass, and thinking how easy this would have been if it weren’t for Jeeves.

After a couple of further passes over the relevant stretch, in the fading light, with a bemused (but useless) scent-hound trotting behind, I was about to give up hope, when I suddenly remembered: Hang on a minute! I had taken one other photo! It was after the call, but before I had noticed the glasses were missing. Surely I must have been wearing them then, and removed them afterwards because of the raindrops gathering on them. I bet I dropped the glasses at the location of the photo!

The problem was that it hadn’t really been a great photo; not many distinguishing features in the view. I was along one side of a big field, on a wide path, and I had paid little attention to my surroundings. Looking back at it now, I realise that I could probably have got those two rows of distant trees in the same relative alignment and located my former position quite accurately, but I was trying to view it on a small and decidedly damp screen… without my glasses. I was having enough fun just trying to tap on the right photo.

However, of course, all my photos are geotagged. I spent a while trying to work out how to see its location in the Photos app: not easy, even when you can read the text and make out the icons. (Hint: you need to swipe up from the bottom.) But eventually I found it. Not entirely helpful for precise location.

By tapping random blurry things, I managed to get into satellite view, and that was much better:

However, you have to remember that, at the time, it looked more like this:

And there are quite a lot of bends in the path with big trees beside them.

The Photos app doesn’t show your current location, only the location of the photo. I switched into Google maps, where I could see the moving blue dot, but the trees and crops looked completely different; the photo had been taken at a different time of year, several years before. Not much help.

But Apple Maps, of course, used the same satellite imagery as Apple Photos, and I was able to switch to and fro between the apps as I walked, until the blurry image with a blue dot seemed perfectly aligned with the blurry image with a yellow square.

I looked down, and there, nestled in a tuft of long grass, were my glasses. I had passed them three times that afternoon since dropping them, as had Tilly, who can track a pheasant at a considerable distance, but takes little notice of her master’s most valuable possessions right under her nose.

“At last!”, said she. “Come on! It’s dinner time.” And we scampered off towards the car.

Getting 3-Dimensional

Some quick thoughts after my first couple of days of owning a 3D printer.

Windowizer continued

I’ve had lots of fun comments about The Windowizer. People asked things like:

  • I like the Mac version – do you make one for Windows?
  • Where’s the Mute button?
  • Does it cut you off after 40 mins if you haven’t paid?
    and so on.

Amidst these customer support questions, I’ve been working on a conference-call version to help you communicate with groups of other people, but if there are more than about three or four participants, it becomes a lot less portable, because they also need some scaffolding to appear in the correct layout. Work needed there.

My friend Shaw also sent me this cartoon:

A think the spirit of Heath Robinson is still alive…

The search for warmth

Here’s a nice story on the BBC. I had never really thought about the value of drones for search and rescue, but on the River Foyle they have one equipped with a thermal camera, which can really help find people in the river, especially at night.

Looking down from on high

Yesterday evening, I got a toy that many of my friends and family were surprised that a gadget enthusiast like me hadn’t been seduced by many years ago!

And today, I took it for a walk. I’m very pleased to discover that Tilly doesn’t seem at all fazed by the drone, only by the fact that I’m not paying enough attention to her.

It’s a tribute to how good the technology is, that a complete amateur like me can produce a pretty video on the first day. Having the sunshine and a light dusting of snow helped a lot too, though!

Fireworks of the Future

I missed this at the time, but there was a lovely presentation put together for the Hogmanay New Year’s Celebrations in Edinburgh, using a swarm of drones carrying lights.

A short summary video is here:

but it is really worth watching the full presentation, which you can find here, with music and narration.

You don’t want to think too much about the fact that the effect was really only visible from one location, or that they weren’t allowed actually to film the Edinburgh scenes over the city so they had to do it in a remote bit of the Highlands and overlay it on images of the Edinburgh skyline… It’s still a lovely combination of software, hardware and poetry.

P.S. It turns out that there have been quite a few of these type of displays in recent months, if you search YouTube for ‘drone light show’. But most of them aren’t narrated by David Tennant 🙂

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser