A particularly good exhibition of sonic art by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which I wanted to keep some notes about.

The first thing, the most important thing, is that everything was presented beautifully, and worked. Where ultrasonic sensors were supposed to detect a person approaching, they did; when a button was supposed to record your voice, it did. I can say from experience this is no small achievement – so hats off to that. The second thing, which is also often lacking in exhibitions that involve something digital, is that everything was beautifully presented and looked as though the artists had been able to fulfil their intentions.

The artist has a concept of ‘speakers as pixels’ and in the piece Sphere Packing below it really works. Each sphere is covered in lots (sometimes hundreds) of tiny transducers working as speakers. They are so quiet, so close together, that from a distance each sphere emits white noise. But if you put your ear very close you can hear that it is actually playing a discernible song. For example, one sphere plays Mozart, but each speaker is playing a different bit of his work, so in total its just a random mess. I haven’t seen this played with before.

Sphere Packing
Sphere Packing

In this instance the way the effect works means that you to literally put your ear against the speaker to get an individual signal. I wondered if it would be possible to have the cross over from noise to signal a bit further away, but the logarithmic nature of perception might make this rather hard to achieve. I also wonder what the effect would be if the speakers played different but more related sounds, for example just fractionally out of sync. Virgin territory, as far as I know, it’s seems to explore a really interesting cross over between noise and music in a spatial way. This especially, but also perhaps the exhibition as whole, makes me thing of applications in calm technology.

In Voice Array visitors are able to record a short sample of their voice, which is played back on it’s own, then with all the previous contributions simultaneously. For me the sound aspect of this was less exciting than the way LEDs worked, each independently twinkling in slightly different shades of white, giving an effect that set it apart from the clinical look these things normally have.

Voice Array

Finally, Pan-Anthem, which features magnetic ‘bricks’ representing each country in the world by playing back their national anthem (although I seem to remember hearing that Oman doesn’t have a national anthem because music is banned there?). The magnet in the speaker sticks to the metal sheet on the wall, so the bricks can be re-arranged to visualise different sets of data. Weirdly reminiscent of the vitamin calendar, and obviously I like the idea of stand alone devices that play one song – being, this the eventual goal of the Rifff project.

Overall, the sound was actually quite annoying and didn’t add that much, but I feel like there is a realisation that could really make the sonic dimension work. I guess the problem with country’s national anthems is that they are mostly unknown and don’t evoke anything. If the system relied on a palette of sounds or songs I knew, or triggered a mood, perhaps it would work better. As with everything else though, beautifully, functionally executed.

 

Pan-Anthem

 

 

 

 

 

Every day, every day. Every day on my laptop. If feel a bit like a prisoner in solitary confinement who forgets how to walk more than two paces: my arc of gaze is limited to the 13″ of my MacBook. It’s a voluntary arrangement, but it’s so useful I can’t get away from it. Will it be like this forever?

I’m interested in the iPod as activity-specific device. You can listen to music, but not browse the internet or send an email. As a result, it could never dominate your life like a laptop does.  I think we’ll see more of activity-specific form factors, instead of the ‘swiss army knife’, all purpose devices that pervade at the moment.

Steve Jobs said that Apple would not be releasing an e-book because “people don’t read“. Obviously some people read, what I take from that statement is that the e-book market is too small for Apple to bother with. (It’s seems like they were right: Amazon has a particular strategic interest in the Kindle, things like the Nook have not be very profitable.)

What Apple would rather sell is a universal device that can do everything, and therefor has a bigger market. The iPod was a beachhead, a personal device from a time when screen and processor tech made a multipurpose device impossible. Even then, the iPod targeted a use-case, listening to music, that is almost universal. As soon as it could, Apple bought us the iPhone and the iPad, which allow you listen to music, browse the web, any task someone can write an app for. This is a great place for them to be because the market is enormous.

Now they are stuck. What could make the iPhone or iPad or MacBook better? I would suggest there are essentially no improvements to be made to it (I’m not alone). The only things left are incremental tweaks to the OS, battery life, camera technology. Apple isn’t alone in this, phones and tablets all offer similar specs with few obvious areas for improvement, except perhaps battery life. Chromebook laptops are available at virtually disposable prices, and are increasingly reasonable offerings. Especially if you put Ubuntu on them.

The crux of it is that the tech to build a great device is not expensive or rare any more. A Raspberry Pi (£18) has (just) enough power to run an OS and a web browser, which is basically all you need. Any additional complexity can be shunted into the cloud.

The free availability of Android and tailored versions of linux obviously make a big difference, but perhaps the biggest factor is that we’ve stopped demanding faster and faster processors, there just aren’t any tasks a consumer wants to do that are pushing at this limit any more.

For these reasons I foresee that tablets and phones will be increasingly commodified (as do others) in the future. Probably laptops also, however for reasons I don’t understand no one seems to make laptops that are quite as good as Apple’s – perhaps because they have the whole area locked down with patents (just a guess).

I started by contrasting the universal device with the activity specific iPod. I think the pendulum might swing back to the activity specific device while the big manufactures are stuck in a cul-de-sac of increasingly commodified universal devices.

There are two reasons. Firstly, as devices get cheaper it will become feasible to own more of them. Secondly, the only significant improvements remaining to be made to devices are their physical interfaces, moving away from the “picture under glass” paradigm.

An example of this I’ve been toying with is the idea of portable device specifically for writing. It would have an excellent, real, tactile keyboard and a e-ink screen. It might connect to the Internet to save files, but would have no browser to avoid distractions. Without a backlit screen it could have great battery life and be very portable. It could be cheap, perhaps less than £100. I’d buy one.

I think this diversified future is something to look forward to. While Facebook and Google might still dominate the web landscape, perhaps in devices there will be a more pluralistic market. Lower barriers to entry and smaller markets to harbour niche manufactures.

Finally, I’d like to suggest this vision might be a more plausible frontline for the Internet of Things. At the moment, we mostly think of IoT as putting processing power in previously non-digital objects: often fridges, or smoke alarms, or bedside lamps. I’m not always sure these offerings quite ring true for me. Perhaps the slightly IoT-ified tablet or laptop will be the way that ubiquitous computing creeps into our lives. It seems more plausible the computational ubiquity will seep out through devices that look gradually less and less like a laptop, as opposed to leaping directly into the toaster or bicycle.

 

If I can gesticulate at the Internet of Things concept it’s something about taking objects normally considered purely physical and giving them digital expression. Examples: lamps, fuck-yeah-fridges, NFC, manufacturing things digitally with 3D printing.

So thinking of it backwards means taking something we consider mainly digital and treating it more as physical object. I’m thinking of our computers. Rather than using them as generic,  multipurpose, solipsistic digital experiences what about recasting them as manufacturing plant: as the lathes and injection molding machines of an industrial shop floor.

Central St Martin's metal workshop from Frazer Nash - click for his annotations

In the standard office each individual sits at their own computer all day and does every task on their own (meetings aren’t for doing, they’re for talking). Everyone is locked into their own world, and the work of the office is invisible: the whole room could be on YouTube and it would look exactly the same as if we were all working flat out.

What would happen if computers were instead matched to tasks, and people moved to the computer that was designated for the task they were currently doing? Just as workstations in a workshop are set up for specific tasks.

Example – you are making a presentation, so you sit at the computer that has Photoshop and big screen and Keynote. It’s set up so several of you can sit round it. Perhaps it has projector set up too. If you are doing some extended writing there might be a quiet spot, and this computer always has WriteRoom ready to go. This means:

  1. Fewer distractions – the computer you are using is not the same one you use to browse YouTube, so that’s at least psychologically important. Perhaps it doesn’t even have a browser.
  2. Looking around the room would let you know what other people are doing. Who is sat at the presentation computer? Who is doing some writing?
  3. Would you perhaps start doing things at computers in groups or pairs? If I say social you think Facebook, but what about the lo-fi version – two people using the same computer?

There are some activities that are already done collectively on a single computer, for example audio and video production often involve two or more people sitting in front of some tech and doing something creative. Why not more activities?

It also happens with development, with a technique called pair programming. Two programmers sit next to on another and write code together. This is often thought to produce better code – though at a higher cost. I’m told it’s also extremely tiring: no stopping to check your email or look at Reddit, which I think supports the thesis here – it’s an aid to focus.

In big companies this might also solve the software problem. When I worked at the BBC, life was a constant battle with IT – could we have Photoshop? Could we install Chrome? Could I install my own software? An endless nightmare. Rather than trying to get IT to buy more licenses, perhaps it would have been better if there was a communal computer that had Photoshop on it.

There’s a massive conceptual framework behind the idea of the Internet ‘leaking out’ of your computer that supports the IoT thesis. But I think there is also an intuitive appeal: I’m bored of looking at the same device all day every day. If I could access the power of my laptop through some different interfaces I’d much happier – and more productive and creative.

 

 

 

Y Combinator founder Paul Graham has written an interesting post pointing out that 7 of 84 projects this year have come from hardware companies.

From Quora, those companies are:

BufferBox (bufferbox.com)
Double Robotics (doublerobotics.com)
Coco Controller (milkshakelabs.com)
Dreamforge (dreamforge.me)
Boosted Boards (boostedboards.com) [This thing looks impossible to me]
Arc (arccameras.com)
TagStand (tagstand.com)

It’s notable that Paul Graham isn’t making the Internet of Things type claim: that the Internet is leaking into the real world, that the physical objects in our everyday lives would benefit from having an IP address. Of the projects funded by Y Combinator, only TagStand has the IoT ethos about it.

Instead his logic is that physical products are popular with startups at the moment because the manufacturing technology is getting more accessible – CNC milling, 3D printing, arduinos etc.

For me, this only pushes the question back a level. The reason that 3D printing and arduinos are being developed so quickly is because there is demand for them, or at least people think there will be demand in the future. I think the infrastructure for low scale manufacture is falling into place because startups are demanding it, not the other way round.

So, why are startups looking to manufacture? It’s because the number of truly exciting things on the software horizon is limited. There’s plenty of streamlining social experiences to happen, niche social networks to form and apps to be built – but I think there’s a feeling that for the moment it’s a case of filling in the details around Facebook and Google, that their is a hiatus in world-changing opportunities on the web.

 

Berg’s Little Printer has received something of a mixed reception. In essence it’s a receipt printer that connects to the Internet. It queues up a collection of content, when you press the print button on the top you get a printout of your content. It could be that day’s Guardian articles, a weather report, your Nike+ report, whatever, you can choose from their menu.

It costs £200, which is a lot of money, and a reason for some of the criticism. Another reason is that it’s bad for the environment to print things out unnecessarily. This I think is something of a marginal point; the average British person emits 9.2 tonnes of carbon a year, a couple of rolls of paper aren’t going to make any difference.

Really, the root of the criticism of the little printer is that it doesn’t seem that useful. But wait! Berg are design geniuses, why have they made something that isn’t that useful? First, perhaps we’re all wrong and it is actually very useful. Text messages and Twitter are both examples of an extremely limited format which has been successful exactly because of their narrow scope.

I don’t honestly think that’s what’s going to happen though. I think what happened was that it’s a very early step exploring the “Internet of Things” and first steps are always uncertain.

When I refer to the Internet of Things, I mean the idea that the future of computing is going to be less ‘virtual’ and more ‘real’. It’s an appealing idea: who isn’t fed up with staring into a computer screen all day? People choose their careers based on avoiding being etiolated in front of a computer. We’d never put up with it if it wasn’t so damn productive.

To the end of understanding this concept I’ve spent a long time thinking about what ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ mean: my conclusion is that there is no coherent definition. The world virtual only got the meaning of “having the essence or effect but not the appearance or form” in 1959, with the birth of computers.  Two related points that capture some aspects of virtuality:

  • Computers are virtual because they require humans to connect them to the real world, to put information in.
  • Computers are virtual because their output is non-physical, text or pictures. Humans have to take this and then cause the effect on the real world.

The IoT movement is about breaching these barriers. It’s worth noting that they only exist in respect of consumer electronics, in the industrial sphere computers have been controlling production lines and HVAC systems in building for decades. In doing this they have real-world sensors and real-world output. IoT happened years ago for industrial computing.

This conception of virtuality has mislead people into believing that what we want in our homes is for our computers to connect to the real world. But we already know this isn’t the case. When Bill Gates founded Microsoft he thought that he would sell PCs for spreadsheets, desktop publishing and home automation.  Home automation, almost a synonym for IoT, hasn’t ever taken off, it’s the nut that Microsoft didn’t crack. The use case simply isn’t there.

I don’t want my computer to know much about the real world: what items I have in my fridge, what temperature living room is, if someone is having a bath. I also don’t want my computer to have much physical world output: I’m not going to turn the oven on before I get home using my phone, I’m not going to 3D print myself a guitar and I’m not going to print out my day’s reading on a receipt. Domestically, there just isn’t the desire to have a computer interact with the real world.

But, as mentioned previously, we do like the idea of getting away from the computer screen. This brings me to second idea of virtuality: that a computer is virtual because it does everything. From buying and selling stocks to writing music to playing games, you do it all on the same device, and see the results on the same screen and through the same speakers. How could a device that exhibits this degree of flexibility be anything other than virtual, some remote of abstraction of the underlying processes?

In the consumer setting the Internet of Things is about UX, it’s about being able to access the power of a computer without having to do it through my laptop. This is where Little Printer fails, because although it offers a physical interface with your computer, it does it with worse UX than a computer screen. Being able to use Photoshop on it’s own tablet, having the calendar that hangs on my wall connected with Google Calendar, having an interface for my music collection that’s part of my HiFi – these might be valuable UX wins. 3D printing ticks the box of connecting the virtual with the physical, but it doesn’t solve a UX problem.

It’s interesting to see how audio equipment deals with the interface problem. Below, the blue item is an entirely analogue (tube-based!) mixing desk.  It couldn’t be more real, everything about it is totally physical. Open it up and there will be glowing valves inside. The grey one is a digital mixing desk, it’s totally fake, a laptop in a box, but for the sake of the UX, the outside is more or less identical to an analogue version.

Knobs, dials, real buttons and purpose-specific displays are what IoT really offers the consumer.

 


London hackspace is a club for people who want to make things out of electronics,  a perfect city-centre shed. The kind of place where Fred Dibnah would be comfortable if he were born in 1998. Rather than steam and wrenches and grease, there are soldering stations, 3D printers and circuit boards. During one of the presentations the inventor of a device called Nanode explained how much time he’d given to the project. Someone reverently whispered “he’s got a wife!”. I suspect he may have been in the minority.

Hackspace is important and it knows it, as was attested by an incongruously sharp suited man who ask questions about commercial prospects. It’s important because the residents are exploring the border between the physical and the virtual worlds. There’s a device that calculates the number of people in the building using two laser beams to detect comings and goings. A label on it says “do not hack”, presumably because if it didn’t someone would take it pieces and turn it into something else. It’s symbolic, even as you walk in your physical presence is turned into data.

There were two presentations, both on the theme of the turning the physical environment into data. Before we went I explained to two friends that came with me that I thought the Patchube website (talk No. 1) was like YouTube, only for physical data: a place where anyone can upload time-sequenced information about the temperature of their greenhouse, the location of their smart phone, whatever takes their fancy. This description turns out to be pretty accurate, but in fact that Patchube is pronounced Patch-bay, so I’d just made the analogy up. When the nuclear disaster happened in Japan, people started using Patchube to stream data from Geiger counters they had bought. Patchube served as an aggregator, and others produced visualisations of the data. The resulting maps of radiation were apparently more accurate than any data the government realised.

Patchube relies on there being lots of sensors in the world. The Nanode (Talk No. 2) is the answer to this problem. It is a circuit board about 5×5 cm with an ethernet connection so you can plug it into a network just like you would a laptop. What’s really special about it is that it runs as a web server, so if you know how to make web pages (which must be the most widespread type of programming knowledge) you can understand the data Nanode produces. It can send data straight to Patchube, at which point anyone can start using it. The Nanode retails at £18.

Invention is the mother of necessity, but it’s clear that Patchube and it’s associated network of sensors haven’t quite found their necessity yet. They’re exciting, but it’s hard to put your finger on why.

To give an example of permeability  between real and virtual, Usman Haque, the founder of Patchube told us of a gardener trying to grow a particular breed of Indian chillis, requiring very precise conditions. He has sensors measuring soil PH, humidity etc. What he needs is for someone in India to do the same, and then he will be able to copy the environmental natural conditions precisely, thus successfully growing his chillies. Physical stuff -> Data -> Physical stuff, it’s a fax machine for topsoil.

We accidentally turned up an hour early for the talks, and decided to get something to eat before we went in. Conversation turned to the hotdog man at Old Street (apparently they’re great hotdogs) who tweets his location. If we’d have known then what we know now, perhaps we’d have talked about him streaming data from his grill into Patchube to give it genuine physical context (queue length, remaining sausages etc.)

The Nanode is open source hardware,  in the sense that you can order the components and make it yourself using the freely available design. The process is such that it doesn’t involve any complex industrial tools.  Preassembled and kit versions will all be shipped from China. Some might think this morally dubious, but I’m impressed by the fact that Ken Boak, it’s inventor, went to stay in Shenzhen to meet the companies who would manufacture it. He also pointed out that, unlike some other similar devices, the Nanode will be affordable to Chinese workers who are paid in the region of £150 a month.

The missing killer app, the creative approach that will make Patchube’s practical appeal manifest, probably isn’t going to be thought up exclusively by the current Hackspace residents. Making it all function is nerd fun, but put to good use needs wider participation.

I know that that Hackspace does a lot of work to embed itself in the community, but I suspect a lot of people who would be fascinated by its multifarious possibilities don’t know about it. I mean this in kindness, but precisely because it’s where computers interface with the real world Hackspace should also be a place where nerds do the same.

An aside: The Hackspace toilets have a sign saying “Techhub memberships – please take one” above the bog roll. A rivalry? I’m backing Hackspace. (For the uninitiated, Techub is the more commercially oriented hot desking space for tech startups in Old Street.)