Category Archives: Hardware

London Technology Week 2015

I cant believe it has already been a year since the last London Tech Week! As usual, my company generously gave me a day off work to explore and broaden my mind to the latest tech trends. Lets see what the London Technology Week 2015 flagship event had to offer.

Out with the old, In with the new

One of the really noticeable difference this year was the lack of 3D printing – I failed to find a single stand! Last year I couldn’t turn a corner without bumping into 3D printing machines, they seemed to have gone out of fashion completely this year. Instead every other stand was talking about IoT or more specifically how their product is online and can be controlled via smartphones or talk to other equally smart devices to work together seamlessly.

Now I wouldn’t say IoT is a particularly new concept, but I would say that 2015 is the year where it entered the mainstream language. Previously, you would probably buy a new washing machine based on its ability to clean clothes whilst using minimal amount of energy and power. Today, if the washing machine cant be remotely turned on from your smart phone, you will probably look past everything else it can do – this is of course a little tongue in cheek, but not far off the truth!

While there were many excellent IoT themed products on show, two catch my attention, not because they were the most advanced but because they attempt to solve two issues close to my heart.

1. Keeping track of small children

The first is Lineable – a smart band your children can wear to help alert parents if their child wanders off too far from them or track them down when lost. What is really exciting about this project is that it was crowdfunded (here) – and now it is using the power of the crowd again (see below) to help track down lost children!

lineage
Lineable wristband

The concept is very simple, the band will connect to the parent’s smartphone via bluetooth – if the child moves out of range, your phone will alert you. They claim this is approximately 20-30 meters, but will decrease depending on environment.

 

If your child is lost, the band will also send out a unique identifier to all phones with the lineable app installed. This information will be uploaded to the central servers and can be accessed by the parent of the child. The success of this will then of course rely on the number of people who download this app and have bluetooth turned on all the time – hence power of the crowd. While this is a massive short coming, you have to applaud the makers for coming up with such a wonderful initial prototype. The band itself is priced at only $5 so should be no brainer for any parent. The app itself will be free so even if you are not a parent you could still download it and help in the movement.

2. Keeping heating costs down!

The second IoT product I wanted to call out was openTRV. Some of you will know I am  passionate about keeping my energy costs down having recently invested in a NEST. However, my current NEST setup is only able to sense the temperature of one room in my property. This means I still have to manually adjust the valve control of each radiator individually as some rooms are hotter/cooler than others. openTRV attempts to solve this problem by having a smart radiator valve attached to each individual radiator. Each Valve will attempt to learn the usage pattern of that particular room and adjust temperature accordingly. Each Smart Valve uses a couple of standard AA batteries and will automatically open or shut the flow of hot water to its respective radiator.

openTRV
One of the founders of openTRV with their prototypes

Currently their prototype feels early stage and they are finalising the end product.  I think the perfect end goal for them will be when they are plugged into the open APIs from all the major players (NEST, Hive etc) and push additional information to the central boiler control – i.e. these devices essentially act as additional input sensors for NEST. Their target price will be £10 for each valve, which would cost me £70 for all valves to be replaced at home. This would seem like a no brainer if their claimed savings of upto £300 a year is achieved, although I would think this is much less if you already have a NEST/Hive solution, but still cheap enough to be worth a punt.

Nest-security-Cam
NEST security camera

It will be great if we get to a stage where every device in the house is able to communicate to each other via a set of open standards. Just today, NEST announced their various products will be able to talk to each other – i.e. the fire alarm will inform the thermostat to shut down the boiler if it detects carbon monoxide. In addition, they will also be bringing out a security camera which will hopefully leverage the thermostats motion detection! To that extend, I hope major players like Google/NEST can help drive open standards for IoT in the home and allow other devices to work with their in house devices. Lets all hope they are able to do this before Apple gets here and try to lock us into their ecosystem even more! (Apple fanbois incoming 3, 2, 1 ..)

Big Data needs Big Databases

There were many many talks about Big Data and Big Data Scientists at various London Technology Week 2015 events. But I wont go into these here, mainly because I am bored to death talking about about how cool Big Data is and how it will enlighten you to all of life’s mysteries. Instead I have recently grown a curious interest in large distributed databases. Ofcourse you cant talk about this subject without bringing up Hadoop. My limited interactions so far have been through Hive which is the de-facto tool for Hadoop.

At the event I came across two other Database technologies, Tajo which is an Hive alternative and Brytlyt which offloads compute-intensive portions of the application to the GPU (bitcoin mining anyone?).

1. Apache Tajo and Hadoop

Tajo is an alternative to Hive – in fact, until today it hadn’t even occurred to me why I would need an alternative to Hive. It feels like I have opened Pandora’s box and now I feel obliged to rummage through all the Hadoop tools.

Tajo Logo

I found a good blog on the various SQL-on-Hadoop frameworks, it is definitely worth a read if you have time. In summary, whilst Hive is easy to setup and use, it is widely accepted to be slow due to the overheads of using MapReduce. Various alternative exists with varied degrees of enterprise support. Tajo is one of these and claims to be upto 10 times faster than Hive. Although as with all metrics, probably needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as different use cases will result in varied performance outputs.

Although Tajo is open source, it is mainly developed and supported by Gruter (who were at the show to introduce me to Tajo today). One of the major disadvantages mentioned in the above blog about Tajo is the lack of community and support outside of its native South Korea. In all fairness, this was very much aligned with my own experience today when I tried to speak with the representatives from Gruter. They hardly spoke a word of English and after 10mins of trying to get them to explain Tajo to me, the only thing I had learnt was that it was meant to be a faster alternative to Hive (I guess they got the main message across).

2. Brytlyt – GPU

Brytlyt produces a product called MakuluXtrm, its USP being its ability to offload compute-intensive portions of the application to the GPU, thus massively increasing performance of queries. Unfortunately they didn’t have any live demos available at the show, but the concept itself has a lot of potential. Given the amount of attention GPUs have been getting in recently years I can easily see how this could work if applied well.

Brytlyt architecture
Brytlyt architecture

Brytlyt’s representatives claim some impressive stats, which I wont quote here as I couldn’t find these claims printed on their website. Understandably they seem to be guarding their technology and giving out minimal information online, however this could also be their ultimate down fall as they are competing in a vast field where everyone is going open source. As a new entry into this field, I think they could do just as well if not better were they to open source their technology and offered their services to support enterprises make use of it instead.

Techlash (aka Technology backlash)

Finally I want to mention a very interesting talk given by Lord Wei of Shoreditch about a recent trend we are seeing of back lash against new technologies. The issue is that while Technology is improving society as a whole, there are vast amounts of people who are directly affected and often left behind. In the U.K., 35 percent of jobs could be replaced by automation in the next 20 years, a Deloitte study showed. That figure rises to 47 percent in the U.S., according to researchers at Oxford University.

A recent example of Techlash is Ububerer. Over an extremely small period of time it was able to disrupt the livelihood of cab drivers around the world. Hold on I hear you ask, didn’t Uber also create thousands of jobs? Indeed they did, in fact not just Uber, but generally it has been estimated that for every new Technology position filled, 7 other jobs are created on the back of that. While that is indeed true, you still have a large set of people left behind when a new technology comes along. We need to help those people transition or else resentment will set in and society as a whole will suffer as people find themselves out of work and relying on the state.

A real example of this happening close to home is the modernisation programme on the underground (UK), where the government is met with fierce opposition from the unions about driver-less trains and also closing of thtubee ticket offices. In this case, the transition plan offered is to retrain a lot of tube staff to be visible on the platforms helping passengers instead of behind desks. Inevitably new technology often means you need less people to do the same job. However Lord Wei argues that this doesn’t mean there will be less and less jobs, while technology means you may require less people in certain roles, it will also help create completely new labour markets which didn’t exist before.

Lastly, Lord Wei mentioned of some of the conversations he had with Google employees recently in California where they admitted in certain parts of the city they would not reveal where they work for fear of being beaten up. In some parts of those cities, the way the trend is going, technologist will be more hated than bankers! Its just as well we are not technologists working in banking – oh wait.

That’s a wrap, thanks!

Finally, I leave you with a random selection of photos from the event, see you again next year.

 

Nest Learning Thermostat

Google’s purchase of NEST for $3.2 billion last year made massive headlines across both Tech and mainstream media last year. So much was the shock at the huge purchase price for a firm that was hardly known that suddenly everyone is looking at IoT devices and in particular smart devices for the home.

When I first saw the NEST in photos, it was love at first sight. I knew from that moment on that I definitely wanted one. I looked around at its competition before purchase, but in reality for any true techie out there NEST was the only choice. Hive was a decent alternative, but its belief that users want full control and don’t trust computers to manage the home feels a little dated, like the warriors of days gone by trying to hold on to their empire by offering a compromise.

For those who haven’t heard of NEST, The Nest Learning Thermostat is a programmable thermostat that learns what temperatures you like, turns itself down when you’re away and can be controlled from anywhere over Wi-Fi. Lets take a walk through the main topics.

Aesthetics and Controls

When the unit first a2015-01-22 23.11.50rrived I was shocked at how small it was. I don’t know why but I had expected it to be the size of a clock and hoped it would play centre piece on my living room wall. As you can see from the photo, far from being large it fits very nicely in the palm of my hands.

In fact after a while you realise it tries to be very subtle about everything it does, 99% it will sit quietly in the background without any display. Nice touches include when you first get home, it tells you that it went to auto away mode and helped you save x amount of heating hours. Additionally it senses when you get close to it and will light up its display ready for you to use.

You will no enterwifidoubt have noticed that it doesn’t have any keyboard, which isn’t a big deal apart from first use where you have to enter your WiFi details. All input is done by spinning the outer silver wheel and clicking enter to each character. However anything after initial install can be controlled via your mobile app or browser.

Installation and Costs

At time of purchase, the NEST unit was £250 which I had placed an order for well before Christmas. Unfortunately due to various backlogs with the third party company where I had placed the order it didn’t arrive until late Jan. Which is extremely annoying as I felt I had missed out on using NEST for a vast part of winter. Lesson learnt here is to always buy directly from NEST.

My installation (free through third party) was done professionally by a qualified electrician, but there are plenty of people who choose to do this themselves and there are enough guides online to help you should you be brave enough. Although the process is relatively straight forward, you are messing with electricity and gas, not a good combination unless you know what you are doing.

In Europe, N2015-02-05 20.23.59EST Thermostat is bundled with a Heat Link.  This does two functions as far as I can tell, firstly it transforms the voltage from 240v to 12v to safety connect with the thermostat. Second it has a wireless connection which allows your thermostat to be placed anywhere in the house without a wire connection. My old thermostat talked directly to the boiler, but now has been rewired to go through the Heat Link instead.

Scheduling and Learning

It is called the nest-scheduleNEST Learning Thermostat because its main selling point is that it will learn the schedules of its household and optimise heating to match. The first week of usage it will be in learning mode, it will detect when people are around and remember what temperature was set at each part of the day. It will then use this schedule to the subsequent weeks, making tiny adjustments each time users over ride its scheduled temperature. I assume it has some algorithm which smooths out the extremes where I want the room really hot to dry my clothes :)

web-app-scheduleThis worked so well that in all honesty I never bothered to check what its programmed schedule was once. I was never cold and majority of the times I was away from home it would turn down the heating for me. In fact, I only started looking at its programmed schedule (as a result of what it learnt over a month) when I was writing this blog. It was fascinating to see the habits we developed as a family, notably the temperature is set slightly higher in early evening when my wife gets home and then drops slightly when I get home (I used to turn down the heating when I came home – cheapskate)! It was also clever enough to break from its schedule if it detects no one is home and goes to auto away mode.

Cost saving

NEST is great with telling you how much energy it has saved for you, makes you feel really proud to have brought it. It does this daily when you get home but also you get sent a monthly energy usage report which tracks how much energy you use compared to all the other NEST users in your area. This is a great as it really helps to drive home the idea that you waste too much energy if you are in the top 10% of energy spend.

I used to leave my heating on all day during the winter, so with NEST I believe I am saving 6 hours of heating each day during winter. Not sure how long it will be before I recoup the original £250, but realistically it would take more than one winter.

Even if it doesn’t save me money I still love it! It looks amazing, gives me something to show my guests and saving me money is a real bonus. I look forward to Google / NEST bringing out a whole host of IoT home devices in the near future which I hope will all talk to each other and provide me with a truly smart home.

OnePlus One and CyanogenMod review – Top 5 features

The rise of the Chinese smartphones has taken me by surprise. If at the beginning of this year you had asked me if I would like to buy a Chinese smartphone and throw away my HTC / Samsung, I would have laughed in your face. How quickly the technology place changes, I am now typing this blog on my brand new OnePlus One – a Chinese smart phone! Arguably the best Android phone on the market when it first came out. The best bit? It was only £260 for the 64GB version. A premium phone for a budget price.

IMAG2201-001IMAG2202

I haven’t felt so excited about a phone since the days of Nokia 3310 and Nokia 7210, this phone has truly blown me away. Remember it is more than 6 months old, it has taken some time to build its reputation to current levels. Imagine how good it was back when it first came out compared against the previous generation of Nexus and iPhone devices. It would have blown them away and even today holds it own well.

Unfortunately for OnePlus, it has had a lot of growing pains as a startup trying to fulfil the demands of a globally successful product. Initially it relied on a number of gimmick marketing strategies such as Smash your old phone on Youtube and its frustrating invite system as it couldn’t cope with the demand. On its forums you will find numerous complaints about its early releases such as yellow band on screen and ghost touches – most of these issues seem to have been address. More recently it has also added Pre-Order days where anyone can order the phone without invites.

However, for all its public relation problems, OnePlus has had amazing commercial success. This is one of the rare occasions where I have seen appalling customer service completely forgiven due to amazing product. OnePlus One is one of the most beautiful phones ever created, it is often quoted that it is the best phone you can buy per dollar value (like a boxer who is considered the best pound for pound fighter in the world). Amazing look and feel in additional to top spec functionality. How have they managed to achieve this? Probably saved a lot by not doing any advertising and relying on word of mouth instead.

OnePlus One isn’t just another budget Android phone, they have premium hardware and software features not readily found on other top end phones. It is important to emphasis that the success of the OnePlus One should be equally credited to its hardware and its OS – CyanogenMod. I would argue that each on its own wouldn’t be as successful. Lets take a look at my top 5 features on the OnePlus One.

1. Gestures (Double Tap, Torch, Camera, Music controls)

This has to be my favourite feature out of the box. OnePlus One allows its user to wake the phone by double tapping on the screen rather than using the power button. Similarly instead of spending ages trying to find the torch application, simply draw a V sign on the screen and toggle the flash light on or off! The camera works in a similar fashion with an O sign. Lastly if that wasn’t enough, you can use gestures to control music with play, pause, rewind and fast forward gestures!

To truly understand the power of gestures, take a look at this video

2. Battery Life

Battery life on the OnePlus One is amazing, I am surprised every single day when I get home from work to see that my battery is still above 50%. My old HTC would have died long ago if I didnt keep it on charge through the day. I no longer run any battery saving apps on my phone, no more automate task killers, no more keeping my Bluetooth and GPS off. Everything can be on all the time for maximum convenience – how it should be!

3. Privacy Controls

A less talked about feature of Cyanogenmod, but one I value highly. Privacy controls on the OnePlus One offer extra protection for sensitive applications. You can group all sensitive apps into one folder and apply a special lock on it (see below Protected folder, bottom left icom). These apps are now no longer visible, even in the main applications list. In order to access the apps, you will have to provide a unique unlock code for that folder (see second image).

4. Quick launch (PIE like feature) – left and right arrow keys

On screen navigation buttons is a personal favourite, but I know others don’t agree. However, what the on screen navigation bar provides in addition is Quick Launch shortcuts. Swiping up from the bottom of the screen will bring up a PIE like circle with three shortcut slots. You can choose pretty much any action you can imagine as shown below right. Personally I went for Take screenshot and Kill app. Both has been invaluable as shortcuts.

CM101-Quick-Launcher

The other killer feature the nagivation bar offers is the keyboard arrow keys – see below. Now this may seem a very trivial thing, but I cant stress the number of times in the past I have tried to use my fat fingers to get the cursors to the right place without success. This solves one of the biggest frustrations I have with the keyboard.

CyanogenMod-cursor-arrow-keys

5. Dynamic profiles – similar to Tasker

If you are not familiar with Tasker, I strongly suggest you invest £2 to download it now. It allows you to setup automated jobs for your phone, such as sending a text everyday on your way home to your wife or switching the GPS on when connected to your car Bluetooth. With the CyanogenMod’s dynamic profiles, it offers a subset of that possibility built into the OS. For example, it has the concept of triggers which allow different profiles to be set when we connect to our car Bluetooth. On trigger, we can set to override GPS etc similar with Tasker. However, it is not full feature like Tasker, for example it only has wifi and bluetooth triggers, and no location trigger.

Have fun and enjoy the true power of Android

It is worth remembering that while you would void your warranty by rooting most Android phones, OnePlus almost encourages it and will not void your warranty! The OnePlus One can be used by your average consumer who just want it to work out of the box and by your enthusiasts who want to customise every little detail. There are a tons of customisation you can do not mentioned here. Do you own the OnePlus One or thinking about getting one? Leave a comment to say which feature you like the best.

Leap Motion Review – Gimmick or next generation computer control device?

Ever wanted to be Tom Cruise on Minority Report? I don’t mean jumping off high buildings or getting the best girls – I am referring to being able to control a computer in thin air using your hands! Well now you can (get closer to that possibility) thanks to Leap Motion.

Leap Motion is a controller that allows you to control your computer, (or more accurately provide another form of input) by waving your hands in the air and it will track not only your hand movement, but individual finger movements as well.

How does Leap Motion work?

Leap Motion senses how you move your hands in three dimensional space using two infra-red cameras and three infra-red LEDs. It allows you to point, reach and grab (picking something up etc) instead of clicks, taps, and drag-and-drops. Its tries to mimic how we interact with objects in real life.

leapmotionsqueeze
Grab objects on screen as if you would in real life

The internals of the device contains two monochromatic IR cameras and three infra-red LEDs. The LEDs generate a 3D pattern of dots of IR light and the cameras capture almost 300 frames per second of reflected data. The data is sent to the computer where it is analysed by the Leap Motion controller software using proprietary algorithms not disclosed by the company. It works in a similar fashion to the Xbox Kinect which also calculates the 3D position data by comparing the 2D frames generated by the two cameras.

leapmotioninternal
LEDs are positioned outer left, right and in the middle. The two “eyes” are the cameras
Leap Motion Accuracy

The first thing people usually think of when looking at Leap Motion Controller is Minority Report, the second is to draw parallels with Xbox Kinect. Remember the hype that generated when it first came out? Well a similar hype followed Leap Motion, and after the hype subsided a similar set of limitations were found.

The best app to test the device’s accuracy is the user training / Orientation app that comes for free. As you move you hand and fingers, you quickly realise couple of things:

  1. The area in which your hand is “seen” by the device is very limited, so you have to remember not to stray too far
  2. Fingers come and go! The app does a decent job of of capturing your fingers, but you have to really spread your fingers for it to pick them out otherwise it will get confused
  3. There is some lag between you moving and reflecting the movement on screen, its not a lot, but noticeable
IMAG1504
My hand as seen by Leap Motion device

The best use for this device (as was the case for Xbox Kinect) is simple movements rather than delicate ones. Repeated and crude actions such as fist open / closed is easy to capture, but don’t expect it to allow you to play an air keyboard any time soon.

Applications

Leap Motion does NOT work for everyday applications, it does not work for Windows / iOS out of the box. It comes with its app store in the form of Airspace – its same idea as iTunes store but for Leap Motion apps instead. It is an ecosystem which allows you to hear about the latest and coolest apps designed specifically to work with the device. However, I found that the majority of apps did not have many user reviews, reflecting its small user base and also found downloading from airspace extremely download!

The apps themselves fall into various categories, but I was most interested in Education, Games and Productivity. The Educational apps include exploration themes like Google Earth and also science based apps to dissect a frog or a spider. The 3D aspects of these apps were quite good and enough to hold my attention for 10mins. However to control some of the finer movements requires a lot of patience, so I think this isn’t kids friendly enough.

Productivity apps include creative design apps and also apps to help you control your PC / Mac. In fact, given the amount of gesture controls built into the Mac, it is no surprise that the vast majority of Leap Motion OS control apps are aimed soled at the Mac. In fact, BetterTouchTool which allows users to gesture control their Mac is the top rated app in Airspace. The Windows offerings were slim pickings and in reality very limited by small set of gestures windows recognises.

I tried out two of the best games available, DropChord and Blue Estate Prologue. The latter is a shoot them up style game where you are running round holding your hand in the shape of a gun and aiming at Mafia type figures. There is an action to reload the gun, but otherwise the controls are pretty basic. The game itself is actually great fun and visuals / music amazing. However, after initial 10 seconds I couldn’t help thinking the game would be so much better if I could just use my mouse instead.

Blue Estate Prologue
Blue Estate Prologue

DropChord on the other hand was a game that truly works best using Leap Motion. It is a fast paced yet simple game which moves along with the beat of the music – reminds me a little of AudioSurf. This game really tests your ability to control your hands and after 10mins feels like you’ve been to the gym.

Leap Motion Causes Arm Fatigue

In the end, the biggest issue I have with Leap Motion device is fatigue. What Tom Cruise didn’t tell us was that it is extremely tiring keeping your arms up in the air all the time! Even with optimal position by resting your elbows, your arms feel like they are having a workout. After 20 years of using keyboard and mouse, I guess my arms are just not accustomed to all that effort required just to scroll the page or shoot a gun or dissect a spider.

Summary

Fun while it lasted, but for now just another gimmick – albeit one with a lot of backing and potential. I am going to keep mine for now, if for no other reason than to try out their impressive looking V2 software upgrade (due later this year) which should address all the issues I had with accuracy. However, I highly doubt they can make my hands any less tired.

Google Chromecast

Google Chromecast is a small, well priced and sexy looking piece of kit. It promises hassle free plug and play streaming functionality to your living room TV from a variety of devices such as PC, Tablet and Mobile – lets see if it can compete in this crowded market.

Chromecast unboxing
Chromecast unboxing
What is Chromecast used for?

As described by Google, “Chromecast is a thumb-sized media streaming device that plugs into the HDMI port on your TV“. It leverages your smart phone, tablet or PC to send your favourite shows, movies and music to your TV so you can watch online shows on the big screen rather than the tiny mobile screen. At the time of writing, various online channels such as Youtube, Netflix, BBC, BT Sport and Plex are all supported – but Amazon Prime, 4oD, ITV and Now TV are not yet supported.

How does Chromecast work

Why are some channels supported and others not I hear you ask. Well it is all to do with how this clever little device works. One could be forgiven by looking at the Google adverts that its the mobile or tablet device which streams the contents to the TV using wifi. Actually its much more clever than that.

When you select which clip(s) you wish to watch on your mobile phone, it will send the source of the clip to Chromecast. The Chromecast device will then stream the clip directly from the internet to your TV. The mobile / tablet becomes nothing more than a really fancy TV remote at this stage, allowing you to fast forward etc as if you would using the mouse on your computer. However this clever bit requires the individual channels to support the Chromecast APIs which most are now slowing onboarding but some are still holding out.

Clip from youtube streaming on the TV via Chromecast
Clip from youtube streaming on the TV via Chromecast
Chromecast remote control app as shown on my Android Phone - the picture is static on your phone, its just a nice background while your clip plays on the TV
Chromecast remote control app as shown on my Android Phone – the picture is static on your phone, its just a nice background while your clip plays on the TV

The other really feature of Chromecast is its ability to allow you to “cast” any Chrome tabs from your computer directly to the TV. This is a great workaround for certain channels which doesn’t have direct Chromecast support. However, streaming from Chrome browser only works for Chrome on your desktop PC and NOT from your mobile and tablet. There has been some work to improve this but at time of writing this does not yet work well.

My personal favourite use of Chromecast is to pair it with my PLEX server and use it to stream my collection of movies and TV shows which reside on my computer. Its so successful that I am going to have to find another use for my Raspberry Pi which was acting as the Plex client.

Aesthetics and Build Quality

As I mentioned earlier, Chromecast is a sexy little device – at least in the photos. However if like me you dont have a USB connection on your TV, then you end up with wire hanging out to the power socket which makes a mess of the simple look and feel. Although I cant really blame Google for this one, just myself for having an old TV :)

However, I do worry about the life span of this device, it runs super hot all the time, even when idle it is still hot to touch. I also wonder how much electricity it is burning up as I plug it direct into the socket it doesnt go off when the TV is on standby.

Verdict

Google Chromecast is a wonderful little device, I believe its ever growing arsenal of channels and content will make it unbeatable at its £30 price point. Add full support for Chrome Android browser tab casting and it will help Chrome cement its place as the browser of choice too.

Do you have Chromecast? If so, would love to hear what you think in the comments below.