inFORM

September 22nd, 2014

A kind of haptic, 3D digital desk from MIT – very nice!

Thanks to Jo Paulger for the link.

I’ve seen the future, and I think I might be hooked

August 25th, 2014

Philips-hue-bulbThere are more costly ways to light your home than by installing Philips Hue lightbulbs — you could, for example, send your butler on trips around the world to gather various species of fireflies, bring them back and cultivate them in custom-made crystal chandeliers — but I suspect not very many.

For those who haven’t come across them, these are mains LED bulbs that you install in place of traditional ones, but with the added benefit that you can change both their brightness and their colour remotely, from an app on your phone or tablet. Now, I am a serious gadget enthusiast, and I liked the sound of these when they first appeared, but I quickly dismissed them, for several reasons.

First, did I mention that they are expensive? By expensive, I mean £45-50 per bulb. Yes. Per bulb. They come as standard-shape bulbs with screw-fittings, or as those little GU10 spotlights which are so trendy nowadays. Got six of them in your dining room? That would mean… well, you can do the maths. If you don’t already have low-energy bulbs, you can make an argument that they’ll pay for themselves in a few years, but most of us have already had to switch, and my previous attempts at buying expensive LEDs have not been encouraging: the majority of them have failed within about 18 months.

Secondly, they seemed, well, a bit childish. I loved playing with multi-coloured light bulbs in my bedroom when I was 12 years old. But now, well, I don’t really want the house to look like a night club or bordello. It’s sad, but, as an old married couple, we seldom have the kind of parties for which red and purple glows in the corners of rooms are needed.

And then, of course, they come with screw fittings, which is terribly European, but in Britain we tend to have those somewhat-annoying bayonet sockets, unless, that is, we bought most of our lights at Ikea.

And finally, do I really want to pull out a phone, unlock it, find and start an app, just to turn the lights up or down? What will my wife, Rose, do, since she almost never carries her phone, and has only started up about three phone apps in her life?

No, in the end, I thought, it’s easier just to stick to our nice dimmer switches, and buy up stocks of incandescent bulbs from Amazon to use with them, for as long as the EU will let us.

And yet, I had some nagging doubts.

You see, I kept hearing good things about the Hue system from people who had it. “I bought a starter kit to play with and I now have 14 bulbs!”, said one person. “One of the few Internet-of-things products that just works out of the box”, said another. It was a bit like when I finally bought Sonos speakers, or a ScanSnap scanner – both were expensive decisions that I’ve never since regretted. People who have these things, on the whole, really like them.

But – and this was the key issue – I was very aware that this, or something like it, has to be the future.

Assuming we are not going to restrict ourselves to the simple on/off switch for all our future lighting — even if we don’t want colour-changing bulbs, but just dimmable bulbs — then we have a problem with our current model. LEDs cannot be effectively dimmed simply by turning up and down the voltage, as we used to do with hot filaments. Yes, you can buy ‘dimmable’ bulbs which try to work with existing dimmer switches, but it’s a bodge, a stopgap at best – they never do a very good job.

No, the right way to do this is clearly to separate the power circuitry from the control. In an ideal world, we’d probably run four wires to each lightbulb instead of two or three, but retrofitting that to any existing building would be a nightmare. So we have to keep the power lines, ignore or remove the old light switch, and use another method to control the brightness, such as a wireless signal. Now, once you can control the brightness of an individual LED, it’s very easy to put red, green and blue ones in a single package and control them individually, which means you get colour control almost for free. At the simplest level, companies like Auraglow make bulbs which come with a remote control: you can change the colour from anywhere in the room by pressing a little button on the channel-changer. It’s a fun toy. But any lighting system that’s going to stand the test of time needs more than that.

I know what I want from my ideal lighting system. It needs to be managed through the network. I want the lighting to respond to timers, to motion sensors, to external events, to IFTTT rules. In an ideal world, it would have a nice open programming interface, so lots of people could write software to control it, and my house wouldn’t depend on one iPhone app. Ideally it would use one of the established wireless standards, rather than yet another proprietary protocol, so there’s some chance it could interact with other devices using the same standard. I’d like the communications to be two-way, so different components could find out what the state of the lighting is now, and not assume that they already know; that they are the only things interacting with it. And it would be helpful if there were libraries for some of my favourite programming languages so that writing my own software, if it proved necessary, would be easy.

And the more I thought about this, the more I realised that Philips had already built my ideal lighting system.

It was very expensive, but I can’t imagine Edison exactly gave away his bulbs at the start of the last lighting revolution, either. I was willing to pay for quality. And I was definitely willing to pay to experience the future.

philips-starterSo I ordered the three-bulb starter kit, which includes a gateway that connects the system to the network. I explained to my long-suffering wife that this was part of experiencing the future, and she smiled at me in a bemused way that made it clear that (a) she was used to this kind of thing by now and (b) she fortunately had no idea of the financial outlay involved.

Converting them to fit in our bayonet sockets turned out to be an easy process, and I started to play. Within a very short period, I had ordered three more bulbs.

The first thing I found out is that changing colour is very valuable, but not because I wanted patches of purple kitchen. For me, it’s about subtle changes of colour temperature: morning light to high noon to evening glow to tungsten coziness. More about that later.

The only more saturated colour I use is a dim red (I call it ‘low glow’), which we turn on when heading to the TV room to watch a movie – it feels like the low light in cinema corridors. The lights on the landing also switch automatically into this mode at about the time we’re heading for bed, so that any late-night pottering about is done in a rosy dimness that makes me think I’m in a submarine, about to surface and not wanting to destroy my night vision. Run silent, run deep. A little while after midnight, they fade out over a 15-min period, so I don’t have to get up to turn them off.

It was even reasonably wife-friendly, since you can reset the bulbs in the time-honoured way: by turning them off and then on again. They lose their settings and come back with a pleasant warm white. Others have complained about this: if you have them in the bedroom, and there’s a power cut during the night, you’ll certainly know when the power comes back on! But for me it was a feature. All good so far. But it gets better.

You see, there was still the problem of having to reach for a gadget whenever you wanted to interact with them. I knew that this would prove to be too much of a nuisance, and we’d end up just flicking the light switch off when we left a room, which would destroy a big part of the experiment: I wanted to see whether we could usefully automate our lights so that you wouldn’t need to turn them on and off: most of the time they would just be at the right level. And you can’t do that if they’ve been switched off at the power source.

20140823-18271203Fortunately, there was a solution on the horizon for this, too: the Philips Hue Tap, a four-button switch which can be programmed to select different scenes, and which has a couple of really nice features: firstly, it can be unclipped from its mounting plate, so you can put it on the coffee table or kitchen workshop if wanted, and secondly, it needs no batteries! The button presses need to be fairly firm, but that’s because it harvests enough energy from them to transmit the signal. These were still tantalisingly unavailable on Amazon UK, but someone in a newsgroup mentioned that they had found one at their local Apple store. I popped into town and, sure enough, there they were. Not actually on the shelves, which were looking a little bare — “Someone just came in and bought enough kit to do their entire house!” — but they still had some in stock at the back. I went home with two, and they work beautifully.

The next excitement is that there’s a new bulb coming soon: the Philips ‘Lux’ – which allows you to control the brightness but not the colour, and costs about half as much as the Hue. We have a few ceiling light-fittings which take two bulbs, and equipping each of them with Hues would be decidedly pricey. So I have some Luxes on pre-order, which Amazon should deliver in a week or two. That was always really my intention: the Hues were a frivoulous experiment, I thought.

In the intervening time, though, I’ve found I really like the colour-changing abilities. I’ve always tried to get low-energy bulbs to be as ‘warm’ as possible, so they feel comparable to incandescent bulbs. Some people like a very white light, but in general I don’t want to feel as if I’m in an operating theatre. Now, though, I’m discovering that different colour temperatures are good at different times of day. The problem with a warm tungsten glow is that it is clearly an artificial warm tungsten glow. Our upstairs landings have no windows, so we often need lights switched on during the day, and having a very different colour of light from the outside world somehow emphasises the fact that there are no windows. Now, for most of the day, we just turn on some daylight, almost as if we’ve installed an extra window.

I, of course, think that it’s fun to be able to turn the entire house into a submarine by pressing a single, non-battery-powered button. But I knew that this whole experiment might be a longer-term success the day after I installed the bulbs, when Rose (who normally tolerates, rather than embracing, my high-tech projects) volunteered a comment over dinner. “I have to admit”, she said, “it was really quite nice having that daylight in the hall outside my study today.”

Yes, the system has its flaws — the cost, the limited range of bulbs, some quirks in the standard app — but I think it also has many qualities which point to what the future of lighting will be. And the fact that it has this degree of spousal acceptance — so far, at least — suggests it may also point to what the future of our lighting will be as well!

Fits like a… bluetooth headset

August 18th, 2014

Cambridge is known for having a fair number of eccentrics (especially amongst those who haven’t visited Oxford).

But this is a good thing, because it means when winter comes along I could perhaps get away with using this in a public place:

bluetoothglove

It’s a bluetooth headset, built into the fingers of a glove.

As you talk into it, I imagine, people will smile comfortingly and realise that it was just about here that they needed to cross the road. This will help to ensure the privacy of your phone calls.

I wouldn’t try it when driving, though. You couldn’t really describe it as a ‘hands-free kit’…

Available from Firebox.

Sign of the times

August 17th, 2014

My programmable remote control has shortcuts for various activities:

  • Watch Roku
  • Watch Mac Mini
  • Watch a disk
  • Watch live TV

For the last year or so, ‘Watch live TV’ has been relegated to the second page… and I don’t think I’ve used it…

2014-08-17-16.10.53

Speaking to the future?

June 22nd, 2014

speakerconesFrom the “Things I should patent but probably won’t” department…

Predictive Loudspeakers

Yesterday, I was talking to a loudspeaker designer, who was describing the mechanical limitations of speaker cones. One of the key problems is that a loudspeaker cone is basically a mass on a spring. Once you give it an impulse, it will then rebound to its original location with a velocity and momentum, and these will all affect the sound that comes immediately afterwards. It also, of course, has its own resonant frequencies. And these factors mean that people have spent a lot of time trying to minimise the mass and resonance of loudspeaker cones or replacing them with complex electrostatic devices, or vibrating ribbons, or whatever.

Now, it occurred to me that as we start to get digital linkups to loudspeakers, we can do something we could never do before: we can predict the future.

At least, we can buffer the digital signals for a while as they come into the loudspeaker. As long as we do this for all of our channels equally, the delay is not usually a problem. (I am thinking primarily about listening to music at home or in a studio; if this was audio for a movie, you’d need to delay the image by the same amount, and it wouldn’t work at all for live PA systems, but bear with me…) We could then look ahead in that buffer and provide an impulse to the loudspeaker cone now based not just on what we want now, but on what we are going to want a few milliseconds down the line. The signal you feed to the speaker would then be the first derivative, or the Laplace transform, or something, of the sound you actually want to come out once delays, masses and spring co-efficients are taken into account.

Now, I’m not a control systems expert, and I don’t know how difficult constructing a dynamic PID-feedback system would be, but this is at least a very controlled environment, and the system could, if needed, be self-monitoring and adapt over time.

Such analysis could, of course, already have been done in other places that have access to the digital stream – like the CD/DVD player – but the earlier stages will not typically have much information about the amps and speakers. Now, however, the trend is towards active speakers which include their own carefully-matched amps, and for digital, even wireless, links replacing the old analog cables. So this becomes quite possible, and the market is ready.

What do you think? Anyone want to invest huge amounts of capital and help me make the speakers of the future? Or is this already available?

Music Nerd

June 17th, 2014

SONOS-PLAY3-and-BRIDGE.jpgLike most people who own Sonos kit, I’m a big fan of my loudspeakers and amps. They work beautifully, and sound great.

However, I suspect most of their users would be less interested than me to discover that by pointing a browser at ip_addr:1400/status I can discover, for example, which version of the Linux kernel each loudspeaker is running, and the fact that they seem to incorporate an accelerometer.

I couldn’t do that with my old record deck, now, could I?

Post-processing RAW for Fujifilm cameras

June 7th, 2014

One thing for which the Fujifilm cameras (such as my beloved X-Pro1) are known is their impressive on-board JPEG converter, which can produce sufficiently yummy images that many people who would otherwise shoot RAW just stick to JPEG with these devices.

I, however, want to stick with RAW, and I found that getting the best out of it takes rather more initial tweaking with the Fuji cameras than it did, say, with my Canon. I eventually settled on a small boost to the saturation (+13), and quite a large amount of sharpening (+60), and saved that as a Lightroom preset which I now apply as I import any images coming from the X-Pro1.

However, the biggest improvement came, I think, when Adobe Camera Raw (the engine behind Lightroom & Photoshop imports) was upgraded a couple of months ago. One of the easy-to-miss features was the inclusion of Fujifilm camera profiles which mimic the film emulation modes found in the camera. Even when I had upgraded and knew it was there, it was still a little tricky to find, but it’s under the Camera Calibration section of the Develop module:

Lightroom-provia-600

(click for full size)

I’ve found that experimenting with these profiles, and particularly using the VELVIA emulation while reducing my previous saturation setting a little, can bring much more richness to the colours.

Aero-worship

March 9th, 2014

aadlerIf you’re a fan of the Aerobie frisbee-like device, or the Aeropress coffee maker, or, like me, both of them, you’ll enjoy Zachary Crockett’s fine article about how they came into existence, and about Alan Adler, their inventor. Nicely done.

Many thanks to Hap for the link.

Spinning the cloud

February 26th, 2014

You might think that, of all the household devices that could be connected to the ‘net, a washing machine would be amongst the least useful, except perhaps for the purposes of energy monitoring or service diagnostics.

So I was particularly impressed with Berg’s Cloudwash demonstrator, which emphasises the user interface aspects of connectivity. It’s always struck me that washing machines tend to have particularly awful user interfaces. Until very recently, for example, we had one where program ’4′ was the one we used all the time. We needed to remember that, and on the rare occasions when we needed a different program, we had to look it up on a card.

Often, by giving a device connectivity, you can also give it a better user interface, even if that’s only used to configure the buttons on the front.

Drive to live?

February 1st, 2014

hddOne of the very valuable things to come out of large data centres is large-scale reliability statistics. I’ve written before about my suspicions that my Seagate drives weren’t as reliable as they might be, but I had insufficient data for this to be anything other than anecdotal.

And then a couple of weeks ago, I pulled a couple of old 2.5″ drives off a shelf — Western Digital ones, I think — intending to reuse them for backups. They both span up, but neither would work beyond that.

So I was very interested by this Backblaze blog post which discusses their experience with a few thousand more drives than I have at my disposal. They use consumer-grade drives, and are very price-sensitive.

A quick summary:

blog-survival-drives-by-month

Some quotes:

Hitachi does really well. There is an initial die-off of Western Digital drives, and then they are nice and stable. The Seagate drives start strong, but die off at a consistently higher rate, with a burst of deaths near the 20-month mark.

Having said that, you’ll notice that even after 3 years, by far most of the drives are still operating.

Yes, but notice, too, that if you have four computers with Seagate drives, you should not expect the data on one of them to be there in three years’ time. And, quite possibly, not there by the Christmas after next.

The drives that just don’t work in our environment are Western Digital Green 3TB drives and Seagate LP (low power) 2TB drives. Both of these drives start accumulating errors as soon as they are put into production. We think this is related to vibration.

and

The good pricing on Seagate drives along with the consistent, but not great, performance is why we have a lot of them.

If the price were right, we would be buying nothing but Hitachi drives. They have been rock solid, and have had a remarkably low failure rate.

and

We are focusing on 4TB drives for new pods. For these, our current favorite is the Seagate Desktop HDD.15 (ST4000DM000). We’ll have to keep an eye on them, though.

Excellent stuff, and worth reading in more detail, especially if longevity is important to you. It’s tempting to fill old drives with data and put them on the shelf as archival backups, but this would suggest that you should only use new drives for that!

Oh, and if you’re wondering about which SSDs to buy, this report suggests that Intel ones are pretty good.

Update: Thanks to Dominic Plunkett for the Backblaze link, and for Rip Sohan for a link in the comments to the TweakTown article that attempts (with some, but not a great deal, of success) to debunk some of this. The previous article I mentioned above links to an older Google study which didn’t distinguish between manufacturers and models, but did say that there was a correlation between them and the failure rates. It also catalogued failure rates not too dissimilar to the Backblaze ones after 3 or so years, so the general implication for home archiving remains!

Toss me a mike…

January 24th, 2014

I think CatchBox is a great idea! A soft, chuckable microphone that you can throw to an audience member who wants to ask a question.

CatchBox

It’s like a conch, but less fragile, which is also good for maintaining civilised discussions…

Thanks to Adrian Higgs for the link.

Take charge of your batteries!

December 22nd, 2013

I get through a lot of batteries.

This is mostly because of my strange habit of wearing a GPS logging device, which means I always use at least three AAAs every day. But even without this idiosyncracy, the increasing number of flashguns, remote controls, bluetooth trackpads, keyboards and mice, bicycle lights, microphones, voice recorders and other gadgets around the house means that I would have been bankrupt long ago if I hadn’t switched over entirely to rechargeables a few years back.

It strikes me that I can’t be the only one in this position. So here are a few ‘workflow’ tips from a seasoned charger, to help you take control of your battery-powered life!

1. Be willing to invest in power!

There’s nothing worse than having to find a fresh battery for your remote control in the back of a drawer, just at the moment at which everyone in the family is waiting to watch a movie. Make sure you have plenty of batteries for your needs, and lots left over. Brace yourself, spend a reasonable amount of money, and your life will become easier. It is Christmas, after all.

2. Set aside space for it.

I have four little storage trays labelled ‘AA flat’, ‘AA charged’, ‘AAA flat’ and ‘AAA charged’, and there are typically about 6-12 batteries in each tray, besides those actually installed in my devices. There are always charged batteries available whenever I need them, and when the ‘flat’ trays start to get too full, I stick a batch of them in the charger before I go to bed.

battery_shelves

There is also a small shelf in our store room which is dedicated to charging. That’s where my iPhone dock, and all the chargers for my various different battery types, live. There’s a multi-way mains adapter so I never have to search for a charger or search for a socket. Makes life much easier.

3. Get yourself good batteries.

And by that, I mean Sanyo Eneloops. These have served me so well that I never buy anything else now. They aren’t the highest-capacity ones available, but they are low self-discharge. This means that you can charge them up, put them in your ‘charged’ tray, and be pretty confident that they will have retained plenty of oomph when you come to take them out again. Traditional NiMH batteries will discharge pretty quickly over a small number of weeks, meaning that there’s likely to be a gap between realising that you need them, and being able to use them again! (It drives a lot of the sales of turbo 20-minute battery chargers, which do work, but will shorten the life of your batteries. And you may still have to wait 20 mins before watching the movie!)

4. Treat yourself to a decent charger.

I have an exceedingly good one by Maha.

maha_charger

Whoa, I hear you say… you spent how much on a battery charger? Well, trust me, it’s possible to spend a great deal more than this, but I went for Maha after seeing recommendations from professional wedding photographers who go through large numbers of batteries every week, and I’ve been very pleased with it. It has fast and slow charging modes, can take any number of batteries from one to eight, but, most importantly, these are 8 independent charging circuits, which means that they will do the right thing even if you mix up partly- and fully-discharged, AAs and AAAs all at the same time. There are smaller Maha ones, but you don’t need to load and unload your charger nearly so often if you can do eight at a time!

But if that seems like overkill for you, then I recommend the Energizer CHCC-UK, if you can still find it.

energizer1

This has four independent circuits, supports 9v batteries too, and doesn’t try to woo you with super-high-speed charging. Fill it up before you go to bed and empty it in the morning. (I’ve found Energizer batteries to be good, too, though not as good as Eneloops).

Beware, though, of more flashy modern imitations like this Energizer CHP42UK:

energizer2

This may have a pretty display, but it only has two charging circuits, so you must insert either two or four batteries at once, and ideally you should always pair up similarly-discharged ones of the same type and age. Too much hassle. It can be hard to find out in advance just what a charger can do; see if you can find the manual online before buying.

5. Old batteries die.

When they do, you should send them to the great recycling centre in the sky. Fortunately, the days of leaking acid destroying the inside of your bicycle lights are mostly behind us, but a dead battery will sap the strength of your good ones if placed in the same device. No point in having taken good care of your troops, if they then have to go into battle dragging an injured colleague with them. (Am I overdoing the analogies?)

When I suspect a battery of being near the end of its life, I make a mark near one end of it with a fine-tipped permanent pen, and then stick it back in the charger. If, at a later date, I again find it rather flatter than I think it should be, it gets another mark. Three strikes and it’s out.

Recently, I’ve taken to labelling new batteries with their date of first use, and a code to help me to keep them together as a batch if wanted. This helps give a clue as to whether a permaturely dead battery is likely just to be discharged, or is in fact very elderly.

eneloop_pack

And so we come to the last point – how do you know when they’re dying?

6. Get a good battery tester.

You want something that can test various different battery types, and test them under load. Simple devices will just measure a battery’s voltage, which is useful, but almost anything more sophisticated will give you a better indication of how it’s likely to perform in the real world.

You need something that will let you quickly check any batteries before you dash out with your flashgun to that important press event. But you should also periodically review the ones in your ‘charged’ tray to make sure they are behaving as they should and won’t take you by surprise in future. Ideally, you want to check your batteries periodically, a few hours after they’ve been charged, to make sure they’re charging properly, and holding their charge. I’m not that disciplined. I tend just to do random spot checks from time to time, but this is much better than nothing.

To do this, I use the ZTS battery testers, which can check a variety of different battery types using a test cycle of just a few seconds, and then give you a simple readout.

zts_chargers

I have a big one for my charging shelf, and a smaller one for the office and when on the road. Once again, you may want to brace yourself before looking at the price, but they’re well-made and I’ve never regretted my purchases. You can get them from Amazon, or, slightly more cheaply in the UK, from here.

zts_charger_2

So there you are: these tips will make you the light of the charge brigade, or something like that. If the above seems terribly complicated, then that’s just because I’ve gone into some detail, but I can summarise it more succinctly:

  • Buy lots of good batteries – more than you need – and a good charger
  • Use a good tester to weed out dead batteries from your stock

And if it seem expensive, that’s because I’m a believer in buying good quality stuff infrequently, rather than rubbish on a regular basis!

Take control of those little packs of power, and they will be your friends, rather than letting you down in times of need. This system has worked well for me now for some time; some of the suggestions must be useful to others!

P.S. In fact, this could be the first draft of the upcoming bestseller, Getting Things Charged. GTD enthusiasts will recognise many of the elements: gathering all your batteries into a limited number of in-trays, processing, sorting, clear labelling, periodic review… it’s bound to be a hit!