Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

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.

Let there be light

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Playing with my Canon flashguns using PocketWizard FlexTT5 triggers and an AC3 on my Fuji X-Pro 1 and X-Pro 2. They work fine as long as you don’t need TTL metering. (I don’t.)

Egg

For those interested in the details…

20160320-11534604-600First, I set the flash mode on the camera to ‘Forced flash’ to make sure flash is always triggered even if the camera thinks there’s enough ambient light.

Next, even though the camera just sees this as a simple on/off flash trigger, I want the AC3 to be able to control the flash levels on the Speedlites, so all of the communications between those bits need to be in TTL mode to get that level of control. So the Speedlites are in TTL mode, and all the PocketWizards are also configured to use TTL communications.

Finally, I want to adjust the levels manually, so the switches on the AC3 are set to the ‘M’ position, and I can use the dials to turn the individual flash levels up and down from the camera, even if they’re buried inside a softbox, or somewhere similarly inaccessible.

It’s possible you may see one other glitch if you try this, but it’s easy to fix. The central connector pin on the bottom of a flashgun does the basic triggering. The other ones are for the surrounding control communication, and manufacturers handle this differently, so Fuji equipment will be expecting different things on these pins from Canon kit, or from PocketWizards designed to work with Canon kit. This can cause confusion – in fact, when I first tried this, I got strange messages on the X-Pro 2 screen about internal temperature warnings – others have seen this too, and it’s presumed to be a bug in the early firmware, since it happens instantly when the camera is switched on from cold. This morning, I had no problem, but it may be a good idea anyway to stop the different parts from trying to communicate when they don’t speak the same language.

20160320-12214801-600Some people just put tape over the extra pins. Perhaps somebody sells a hotshoe adapter that only connects the single pin. I had a really dumb PC-sync-to-hotshoe adapter in the bottom of my bag, so I put this between the PocketWizard and the camera, and plugged it into the PC-sync socket on the Fuji… and it all worked beautifully, as well as giving me a bit of extra space for reaching controls and things. (See the top picture above.) Who would have thought that this old connector from the 50s would be a good way to connect to sophisticated high-speed bi-directional radio communication systems?!

All in all, I’m very happy with this setup, and it gives me one less reason to carry my heavy Canon kit around.

What every traveller needs…

My next project will solve a fundamental design flaw which exists in many otherwise comfortable houses, hotels and B&Bs: something that causes fear and trembling first thing in the morning, however peaceful a night you may have had.

This world-changing invention will be a compact telescopic rod, with a handle at one end and a rubber-coated three-pronged tripod-like fork at the other. It will be lightweight and inexpensive. It could even be a Kickstarter project. It will have just one simple function.

It will allow you to turn on a shower, and get it up to temperature, without having to stand underneath it.

Remembrance of things past

I was doing a mini clear-out, and decided it was time to say farewell to some old friends. Do you remember the days when some electronic devices didn’t look like slabs of black glass?

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For younger or less geeky readers, these are, from top-left, a Motorola RAZR (2004), a Nokia E61 (2005), a Blackberry 7100t (2004) and an Ericsson T39m (2001).

My iPhones have been the most useful devices I have ever owned (with the possible exception of my laptops), but each of the above was an iconic, reliable and, for the time, excellent gadget as well.

But, the world has changed.

Happy Memories

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Where it all started, for me, at least. Spotted on a recent visit to the Whipple Museum.

Internet of comfort

I’ve discovered a genuine use for “Internet of Things” devices.

If you happened to twist your back in a funny way yesterday (as I did) with the result that you are now propped up in bed and rather immobile, it’s very handy to be able to turn on and off the music, adjust the heating and switch on the lights from your phone!

Normally, it’s much easier just to go and press the button on the wall, but not when doing so involves increased consumption of painkillers well in advance. 🙂

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser