Saturday, November 06, 2010

App of the week

Among the flotsam if the itunes app store - and in the case of the iPad - one rarely finds apps that are totally unique not just to the platform, but the form factor.

One such app is
Holographium (App store link), whose purpose is not immediately apparent, even after a brief twiddle.

Presented with oversize controls, Holographium first prompts you to enter a phrase, then it asks you to choose one of several neon style colours. You then set a 'depth', then a duration.

The app then does a little calculating before flashing up a bizarre sequence of bright lines and rectangles.

At first, it makes no sense whatsoever, until you realise that the flashing imagery is not meant for human consumption - at least not initially.

No, the idea is startlingly simple. What Holographium wants you to do is move the flashing sequence in front of a camera with an open shutter.

The long exposure captures the animation as it move across the cameras field of view, spelling out the phrase you first keyed into the app.

The results are surprising.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Robonova steps up to the mark

My Robonova doesn't get out much these days. It's a time thing, see. If you're as time poor as me, you don't waste the precious little you do have on fiddling around with little humanoid robots.

Granted, like a good book, video game or movie, programming up your own 'droid can both be rewarding and a black hole for time. That's not a good analogy, really. Black holes make time stand still... anyhoo, you get the idea. It's an interesting hobby but vastly time consuming which is why I suppose I haven't written about it before.

Robonova, if you haven't met him before is a low-ish cost bipedal robot constructed out of servos, an aluminium frame and a micro-controller board to drive the servos.

Programming is done via a PC using the supplied Robo-Basic programming tool.

Now, out of the box, Robonova doesn't do very much, other than the stock moves supplied with the software. These moves are varied enough to give you an idea of what the little chap is capable of, but there are no sensors or AI out of the box like you might find in, for example, Robosapien.

But there's a wealth of information in the online robotics community if one cares to seek it out, and one of my future aims is to equip Robo with some sensors to facilitate some autonomy.

One task I was particularly keen to see was Robonova tackling some stairs. There are few videos on youtube showing this and those that are there are a little underwhelming. But credit is due to the roboteers involved for at least trying.

Which moves me on to the inspiration for my own set of moves: Honda's Asimo.

Here's one example of Asimo 'doing stairs'.

Now, despite costing probably millions of dollars, I can't help the feeling that, like Robonova, Asimo isn't just being asked to 'go up stairs', but rather he's been meticulously programmed to climb and descend the no doubt carefully designed staircase.

So, taking my cue from Asimo, I set about getting Robonova to 'do' a set of simple 18mm fibreboard 'stairs'. The result is below:

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Come on, Windows

Something has been bugging me for a while. Ever since I upgraded our old iMac to OS X 10.4 (Tiger), I've always been surprised, or rather, caught out, by the speed at which it boots.

At the same time, I've been impressed by the time it takes Windows 7 to boot to the desktop, on fairly modest hardware. Good work, Microsoft. This in contrast to a Vista laptop at work which seems to take an eternity to settle down after switching on from cold.

So, in the interests of Science (and geekdom), I undertook to prove, once and for all, that we haven't
really moved forward in the last ten years.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that a 10 year old iMac with a hockey puck mouse is better than a relatively new (if cheap) laptop. That would be madness.

But you have to admit, it's not too shabby either.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Art, cubed?

Crazes. There don't seem to be that many going around these days. In this super-connected era, there isn't one single product that every child must own. The new Buzz Lightyear is just, well, meh, even with a whole new movie to star in. Who cares if the fully poseable action figure has over 50 phrases? Mine (circa 1995) has three. And is just as poseable.

But anyway, I have to trawl all the way back to 1980 to find a real craze. Call it a global phenomenon. I'm talking cube. Rubik's Cube. The one single object that can identify a decade. Ok, that and the Motorola 8000X.

But I'm not talking about technology today, I'm talking puzzles.

Back in the day, I felt a need to know how to 'do' the cube. There were no computers to help solve it. No Youtube videos show you how. No robotic Lego contraptions to actually twist the cube for you. No. You either had the Krell machine-enhanced brain of Morbius (er, but not The Brain of Morbius) and worked it out for yourself, or, like me, you bought one of the umpteen books published on the subject. Or you just took it to bits to reassemble correctly. Or peeled the stickers off.

Needless to say, I learnt 'the moves'. Ok, after 30 years of cube I can't quite remember all the shortcuts, but enough to solve a standard cube in a couple of minutes or so.

Now, I still have my original cube from 1980. I keep it in my desk drawer at work. Now and again I'll whip it out, scramble it, then solve it. Just for the sheer heck of it. It's the one on the left, pictured below. Paradoxically, it's not even an original Ideal Toys Rubik Cube, but one of the many many rip offs. A clone.

So it was with a mixture of surprise, delight and a modicum of fear, that I stumbled on, an online store almost completely devoted to puzzles of a twisty nature.

Let's just say that there is a bewildering assortment of cube like puzzles, in an equally bewildering assortment of geometries and configurations. Almost all unsolvable, probably, by my learnt by rote methods. Or any method, for that matter.

So with a little trepidation, and tempted by the unique engineering, I ordered up a 5x3x3 cube, shown below.

As you can clearly see, this cube differs from the norm by having an extra plane of cubies (look, I don't know what the terminology of the little cubes is - cubies, cubits, cubelets?) that rotate independently from the others. The pleasing aspect of this puzzle, is that when scrambled, it looks like a work of art.

I'm not kidding. Look at the picture. Is it Bauhaus? Mondrian? Cubism?

Another surprise is the fluidity of movement of the faces. This is a really well engineered item. Helped by the precise moulding of each cubeling, lubricated and sprung just right, the result is a smooth, tactile objet.

With a little sleight of hand, it's possible for me to make this cube look scrambled, yet solve it as normal for muchos kudos.

But then it's just as easy to fuck it up completely.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Struxx iPad Stand

Just got an iPad? Got an empty wallet? Wondering what to do with that Struxx robot you bought last year and left, forgotten, under the bed in the spare room?

Have no fear, mygadgetlife has the answer!*

Ok, I admit it, I had a... let's call it a nerdgasm, because let's face it - anyone with an iPad soon finds out that the device spends a lot of its time on its back when not being supported by hands or lap. Not much use for the fancy pants photo frame mode let alone the video playback mode.

Oh sure, you can prop up your iPad or couple it with Velcro, or you can just buy a stand. Have you seen the prices for some of the stands?

With that in mind, I sought a DIY solution and ended up discounting Lego, down to lack of confidence in its structural integrity. Fine for an iPod touch, but not for the iPad.

Then I remembered Struxx, the alternative construction toy.

What you'll need is shown below.

For the spars, you'll need 3 x 14 length, 2 x 12 and an 8.

Start by fitting a ball-socket to each of the spars. It helps if both sockets are in the same orientation at each end of the spar.

Next, form a triangle with vertices of 3 x size 14 spars, with 3 x 3-way ball joints. Angle the ball joints about 45 degrees so that the axis is pointed inwards.

Position the triangle so that the shortest side faces you. This is the front. Clip the two size 12 spars to the left and right ball joints, then clip a 8 spar to the back.

Position the triangle so that the point faces away from you. Clip a further two 12 spars to the left and right ball joints, then clip a 8 spar to the back corner.

Bring all the spars together and join them with a further 3 way ball joint.

Take the 75 degree angle joints and fit a single ball joint to each. Fit the angle joints to the inner left and right axis of the 3 way ball joints so that they poke out of the frame. These are what the iPad will rest on.

Take the 2 way ball joint and fit it to the axis of the top 3 way ball joint. To this fit the parts with the vinyl tips that were the robot's fingers. Angle the fingers slightly up and out to provide a suitable angle for you iPad.

You're just about ready, but first even up the frame a bit, make sure your angles are symmetrical and that the thing lies evenly on a flat surface.

There you have it, an iPad stand made out of Struxx.

*of course, it goes without saying, but build and use this at your own risk!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

my gadget holiday

Ok, so I kinda cut down on the gadgets for this year's Spring holiday to Wales, insofar as only packing my Sony HCR-5E camcorder, Panasonic Lumix G1 and a Nintendo DS.

And the Tom Tom for directions, my Android powered phone, and our iPod Touch.

And the Belkin Tunebase FM car transmitter for the iPod. And our Macbook Pro.

Oh and the 3G dongle for internet access. And my Gerber multi-tool for those times we get lost in the woods.

And of course not forgetting the all the chargers and cables for the above.

Quite honestly, I don't know how we managed to get by that week.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

On buying an iPad...

Those outside the UK will probably never have heard the term 'Dixons' to describe a chain of electronics retailers - and sadly, never will, because the Dixons we all know and love has been rebranded to Whatever.

The important part is that the Dixons name lives on in airports up and down the country. The last time I was in one it was called Dixons Tax Free. As the name implied many of the goods were on offer sans the Value Added Tax we in Britain pay for mostly all goods. Sadly, it too has succumbed to rebranding and has now become Dixons Travel. I fear it has something to do with not quite offering the same VAT free prices.

Anyway, there was a slight saving to be made by purchasing an iPad in the airport, so I waited, oohhh, at least a week after the UK launch before making use of a handy business trip to facilitate said saving.

As soon as I got though security, I proceeded straight to the tech store, narrowly avoiding the bar.

There were at least four staff, all seemingly preoccupied with their own duties.

I hesitate. Unlike the Dixons at, say, Luton airport, the purpleshirted staff here were positively sanguine towards the new, easy prey that had just walked in.

They have an iPad on display. It is being probed by some bearded traveller with a backpack. (Readers please note: By this time, I have already spent some quality time with an iPad at Apple's Regent St store. With 500 other people.)

I've been the shop for quite a number of seconds with nary a glance from a member of staff, except from a bloke I initially think is security and therefore ignore. Later, I realise he's a blackshirt from another tech store located deeper within the bowels of the terminal's retail space.

To my right are the laptops, to my left the cameras. Ignoring both I head manfully to the back of the store hoping, on the way, to be accosted by an eager staffer. I reach my destination unmolested.

Here, there appears to be about 10 feet of rack space devoted entirely to iPod cases. I bloody hate iPod cases. Nevertheless I casually pretend to be interested in the hope of an approach of a member of staff. Imagine their surprise, I chortle to myself, when instead of a cheap(ish) iPod accessory, I ask if they have any iPads in stock!

The staff ignore me. They seem to be preoccupied by replenishing the already full shelves.

Slightly annoyed at the staffs' lack of attentiveness, I wander out of the store to check the departure board. I have 45 minutes.

I hesitate, still not utterly convinced of the financial realities of actually purchasing an iPad. It's a lot of wonga, my brain tells my heart.

The moment of doubt passes and I once again amble into the store.

You'd think that sales floor staff in electronics stores, especially ones located in airports, would be trained to look out for yo-yo doubters like myself and be ready to pounce at this obvious sign of weakness.

I begin to wonder if my loitering hasn't triggered some semi-sentient security system somewhere, and that an armed Tactical Response Team is on its way to take me down. I wait. Nothing happens. Now I start handling 'the goods', a tactic that never fails to draw purpleshirt attention.

Well, I say 'handling', but down to fear of setting off the hypersensitive alarms, it's more a stroking of expensive kit. For some reason, I'm looking at a Canon EOS 5DMkII with a serious looking lens. The lens too, has a little alarm umbilical that means I'm twice as likely to set the ruddy alarm off..

I put the camera down, gently, and reassuringly see an older member of staff near the iPod docks. I stroll over, confident that his obvious seniority will enable him to process my request with utmost efficiency. On my way, I'm momentarily distracted by an Alienware laptop, it's neon lit keyboard beckoning to be touched. Strong of will, I ignore these glittering temptations and proceed past the Toshibas.

To my bewilderment the senior sales chap has disappeared!

Unnerved by this development, I now pretend to be interested in iPod docks. Apart from that oversized rugby ball of tech, the B&W Zeppelin, they're all rubbish. Still no interest from the staff, whose numbers have dwindled to three. Surely, I think, there are rules governing the number of staff present in the store at any one time. I mean, what if a huddle of wealthy Japanese tourists were to shuffle in? They [the store] would be swamped, unable to cope... I dismiss the idea quickly - Japanese tourists are unlikely to bring back Japanese goods from Britain, to Japan. That'd be like me flying to Tokyo to buy a bottle of Glenfiddich.

Having worryingly lost track of time, I head back to the departure board. 35 minutes to go. Phew. I decide to ponder the purchase over lunch, and head to Pret for a Super Club and a cappuccino.

The coffee is hot. I mean really hot. 20 minutes later I'm quaffing back the last of the foamy goodness, and having possibly quite definitely made my mind up over the iPad, make my way back to the store.

There are 15 minutes until my flight is due to be called. As I double check the departure board to make sure I'm looking at the right flight, the banner changes to green. Goto Gate 88.

Sod it. I march into the store, right up to a sales assistant who is checking, on the computer, that the shelves are indeed full.

He is startled by my sudden appearance. I do not mince my words. "iPads," I say, "Got any in stock?"
"Uhh, yes." he replies, moving swiftly to where the demo unit is perched. He unlocks the undercounter storage. His cupboard of iPad boxes is full, save for the one he'd extracted for me. It looked a lot like a game of Tetris that was about to end.

At the till, I have a frisson of fear that my credit card will be rejected. It is not and I leave the store much poorer than when I entered.

I rush to the aforementioned Gate. Come my precious, I think to myself, bag in hand, let us board the winged stallion and travel to the Northern territories, for the ceremony known as the "Unboxing".

Monday, May 03, 2010

Nissan Leaf Test Drive

Nissan’s Leaf will be one of the first mass produced fully electric vehicles to be introduced to UK roads.

Last week, I had the privilege of taking one of the prototypes for a short test drive, as part of Nissan’s rather low key efforts to raise awareness of this new model.

With the Leaf, Nissan are attempting to bring to market a battery powered car in the shape of a regular family sized hatchback. And, to an extent, they’ve largely succeeded.

Of course, the usual caveats of EVs persist - limited range and (at the time of writing) poor recharging infrastructure.

However if, like me, you drive a 20-25 mile commute and have a garage within which to charge the vehicle, then the Leaf starts to become a serious proposition. Fuel is relatively cheap and is free of the duty levied on petrol and diesel. Being a zero emission vehicle, it attracts zero Vehicle Excise Duty - or road tax to you and me. There are fewer complicated oily bits to go wrong, so servicing should be cheaper.

As a result, the Leaf should be a cheap car to run. And, unlike the Tesla Roadster, the Leaf is approaching affordable, even if it is expensive for the size of car it is. Entry to the EV club was never going to be cheap for early adopters. The same was probably true for ICE automobiles until the Model T arrived.

Back to the Nissan event. The roadshow, if you could call it that, was held at 2 locations; the 02 Arena in London, and at the Centre for Life, Newcastle Upon Tyne. As the car is planned to be built at Nissan's Sunderland plant, Newcastle was the obvious choice for this demo.

Having driven down from Glasgow, and not knowing what to expect, we were a little underwhelmed to find a couple of small Nissan tents and a small exhibition trailer parked up in the courtyard that forms the campus of the Centre for Life.

That said, the Nissan staff were helpful and I quickly got signed onto the test drive list. The car was still being charged (unceremoniously left in a corner, near a power outlet), so we decided to come back after lunch.

Under one tent sat the 'static' Leaf showcar. Cordoned off, this was strictly hands off, because apparently they only have two - a left hand drive model and a right hand drive model. Present was one Nissan gentleman sporting white cotton gloves who was good enough to open the rear hatch and doors so that we great unwashed could get a better look at the interior.

Whilst the cream insides of the prototype might not be very family friendly, the blue tinged dash and controls looked very Star Trek. Whether this makes it to the production model remains to be seen.

Overall, we liked the look of the Leaf. The slightly bulbous look is deliberate - apparently it makes it look like an eco car - and I'd agree. And because it looks unique (as opposed to fitting the electric gubbins in, say, a Micra or Note), it's sure to leave it's eco mark wherever you leave it.

It was time for my test run. Turns out the test vehicle was actually a Nissan Versa, a production car available in the US, and thus a left hand drive. It had been modified to accommodate the electrics and drive train of what will be the production Leaf.

The first lap was with the Nissan test driver at the wheel. Let me tell you, this car can shift. And it does it silently.

Within the limits of the tiny track, the vehicles' performance was surprising to say the least.

My turn, now, to drive Nissan's only working model.

As I slid behind the wheel I found the controls were exactly like an automatic, and as my current car is a CVT equipped Nissan, I was right at home.

Still, I forgot to put my foot on the brake before engaging Drive, so nothing happened initially. (The CVT has a mechanical interlock - the gearshift won't move unless the the footbrake is depressed. Not so on the fly-by-wire Leaf.)

Underway, the car was surprisingly smooth. Nissan have obviously put a lot of work into making the drivetrain respond in a similar way to that of a petrol car and dipping the accelerator provided a pleasing burst of power.

The car does all this silently, of course. There is legislation being introduced to make EVs emit a sound to alert pedestrians of their presence. If not, I imagine the death toll in local supermarket car parks to be quite high.

So, test drive complete, the serious question of would I actually buy one quickly came up. I certainly fit the profile of a low-mileage commuter, and as we're a two car family, we always have a fossil fuel car for those long trips up and down the country. So yes, if the price is right, the Leaf seems a viable proposition.

Prices are to be announced in for the UK at the end of May 2010, so watch this space.