Category Archives: Gadgets & Toys

Watching the map

A screenshot from the appI’ve long been a fan of the ViewRanger app for handling maps on my phone. I know I’ve been using it for at least 8 years, because I have tracks recorded from early 2012.

With it, you can use free maps, and buy commercial ones from a range of sources, in many countries, and pay for them in a variety of ways: subscriptions, individual purchases, or — the method I use because I started before the days of in-app purchases — buying a block of credits up front and using them as needed to purchase the map tiles you’re interested in. ViewRanger isn’t perfect: I find bits of its user interface very counter-intuitive, but in general it’s served me very well.

Another worthy contender for UK users, by the way, is the app UK Map, written by a good friend of mine, and which I’ve been using even longer than ViewRanger. UK Map has always provided a great combination for users here: a standard basic UK road atlas, always available offline; the ability to download the free Ordnance Survey maps (since almost the moment they became available), and the overlaying of paths from OpenStreetMap, which are often the most up to date indications of where you can actually walk. More recently, it too gained the option to buy premium maps, but by then I was somewhat invested in the ViewRanger ecosystem. Nonetheless, I do recommend UK Map – it’s helped me out on more than one occasion when I found myself completely out of phone coverage and just needed a good old-fashioned street atlas, for example. Don’t be fooled by its lack of flashy graphics and fewer immediately-obvious features. Phil, the author, is a very smart guy and knows what he’s doing. It’s worth having on your phone.

Maps have always held a fascination for me, and their combination with technology especially so. I remember I was in Seattle on the day the iPad was released, and so was able to get one that day, about 6 weeks before most of my European contemporaries. (I’m still a bit smug about that!) It only took me a few hours, though, to realise it was the best map-viewer I had ever seen. A zoomable, infinitely-scrollable, tactile display that was also big enough to show a reasonable area? Amazing. (The main thing I miss, by the way, about no longer also having an iPad Mini is that it combined most of that with the ability to fit in a coat pocket.)

Anyway, this is all old hat now. We almost all wander the footpaths and byways gazing at our phones, rather than unfolding bits of paper from our map pockets. They do, after all, have that undeniably useful extra feature – the little blinking dot or crosshairs showing where you actually are. And zooming and scrolling mean that the place you’re heading for is no longer on the other side of the fold! I do find, though, that zoomability means I’ve lost the intuition I used to have about how long it would take me to walk a certain number of inches…

There’s another problem, too, with phone-based navigation, that I’ve found in the soggier parts of the UK: touchscreens, and indeed fingerprint readers, really don’t work very well in the rain. The process of extracting the phone from a damp pocket, trying to find something less damp to wipe it on, failing to unlock it with my fingerprint and having to type a PIN before trying to manipulate a semi-responsive touchscreen has just occasionally left me thinking that even damp paper would be preferable to electronics.

Until today.

Because today I discovered something I should have noticed some time ago. ViewRanger has an interface for the Apple Watch. If it’s running on my phone, I can simply raise my wrist to see where I am.

I could have used this in the past, had I discovered it, but it’s also vastly improved by my recent purchase of a Series 4 watch to replace my Series 0, which means that when I raise my arm to look at my watch, things actually appear before my arm gets too tired and has to be lowered again. In fact, while testing it on this afternoon’s dog walk, it was effectively instantaneous. Where does this footpath to the right go? Let me just glance at my wrist – ah, OK. You can scroll around, zoom in and out etc, but most of the time, all I needed was a quick glance: no unlocking, no soggy touchscreen. (It also looks amazing, but I think that’s mostly because of another recent purchase: a new and expensive pair of spectacles!)

All of which makes me wonder whether, despite being at the opposite extreme in terms of screen size, I may after a decade have found an even better map viewer, at least in certain circumstances, than the iPad!

How I Flitted away my Friday afternoon!

Today, I got to ride the Flit Electric Bike! It was great fun!

Actually, it was much better than that; I was invited to visit their office in Cambridge and got to spend quite a bit of time meeting the team and distracting them from what they ought to have been doing. But they were great people, and very patient as I quizzed them endlessly to find out more about what I think is a really nicely-designed product.

A bit of personal background: I own an elderly (non-electric) Brompton folding bike which I got from my parents, and there’s a story behind why I’m particularly fond of that brand. My father had bad arthritis in his ankles meaning that, from an earlier age than one might expect, walking any distance was difficult, but he could cycle just fine. Some of us got together and gave him a Brompton, little knowing that it really would prove to be quite a life-changer. He could take it with him almost everywhere he went, and it allowed him to join in on family walks, get exercise, and see new places in a way he never could have done without it. For him it genuinely was a mobility vehicle, and I think it kept him out of a wheelchair for probably 10 years longer than might otherwise have been the case. My mother also got one soon afterwards, and until fairly recently, their car always had two bikes in the boot. So yes, I have a soft spot for this brilliant bit of British engineering, designed by a Cambridge engineer and finally brought to market after a long hard struggle.

To be fair, almost everybody loves Bromptons, though for most people the value is that you can cycle at all on something that folds away so ridiculously small; it’s not really the bike you’d probably choose to ride just for the joy of riding. There are compromises in rigidity, in cycling position, etc., which are apparent when you compare it to any regular bike (though I gather newer models may be a bit better than my ancient and well-travelled example!). And when Brompton came to build their battery-assisted version, they didn’t want to change too much of the basic design which had been so successful for so long. They did an ingenious and careful job of electrifying it, but it was always a retrofitting exercise to an existing layout.

The Flit bike, on the other hand, was designed from the ground up as an electric bike, yet it folds almost as small as a Brompton, and weighs a bit less than their electric model. At present, it’s also cheaper, because Flit are selling direct; you can’t yet walk into a dealer and buy one. And in fact, even buying direct, you’ll need to be patient; they expect the first batch to ship in July. So the one I was trying was a pre-production model, but they’ve managed to sell quite a number through their crowdfunding campaigns, initially on Kickstarter and now on Indiegogo, which is impressive given that very few of those people, presumably, will have had the opportunity to go and try it out just a few miles from home, as I did!

But I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. I found it great fun and comfortable to ride, a good weight to carry, and easier to roll along the floor than any other folding bike I’ve tried. I can definitely see that if you lived a few miles from your nearest train or bus station, this would be a great way to get there. Or, say, to carry in your motorhome or yacht for trips to the nearest pub or grocery shop. OK, so it doesn’t fold quite as small as a Brompton. And it doesn’t have the load-carrying capacity of, say, the much larger and heavier Tern Vectron. Both of those are fine machines, but the Flit is noticeably cheaper than both of them at the moment and (in my opinion) nicer to ride than either.

I shall watch with interest as they ramp up production, and follow their blog, and I hope they have the success they deserve!

]9 Alex Murray

My thanks to Alex Murray, the Managing Director, for the invitation. (I first heard of Flit, by the way, on this excellent podcast, which I recommend for anyone interested either in bikes or startups or both!)

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.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser