Technology, Humans, Music and Magic

As most people who know me will be aware, I love technology, and I love music. The two have been intertwined in my journey, since I was a teenager. From the outside it might seem like a cold and expressionless way of making “sounds,” rather than music. I’ve recently come across a few videos that to me really articulate some of the magic that can happen when music and technology collide…
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Arduino + ESP8266 hacking

This post is quite a deal more technical than my usual fare. I’m doing this as a write-up of some of the learnings, in part to share with participants at the OzBerryPi IoT meetup that occurred last night.

I’ve recently been investing some time into a project using Arduino as a wifi-enabled energy monitor.

I had an hypothesis that open-source hardware such as the Arduino and related chips like the ESP8266 wifi chip were approaching the point where someone like myself, with a reasonable degree of experience in web development, might be able to build a low-cost embedded electronics project (and potentially, down the track, product).

Here are a few key learnings from the journey so far…
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Robots at TED

Anyone that’s gotten to know me reasonably well is aware of my love of robots. There’s been a feast of stuff on TED recently on the topic—below are two standouts for me.

Raffaello D’Andrea: The astounding athletic power of quadcopters

I love the way they use the metaphor of athleticism to create some new ways of looking at how these robots work. Some really impressive work, esp. the adaptation to losing two working rotors!

Rodney Brooks: Why we will rely on robots

I’m not sure I’m totally sold on the idea of a heavily robotic supported future, but this is definitely food for thought.

Mazda’s approach to sustainability

Reading “Mazda SkyActiv is a novel approach to fuel efficiency; will it work?” over at Autoblog Green got me thinking. The article outlines how Mazda is eschewing hybrid and EV technologies (in the short term) to instead focus on light-weighting and efficiency.

It’s an interesting approach. I’ve written before about the “hyper car” concept outlined in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. Whereas the Lotus vehicle I was responding to in that post was just a concept, it’s interesting to see a mainstream brand like Mazda (which seems to be a bit more prominent in the Australian market than the US based on the Autoblog Green article) taking this approach to market. (It’s interesting to note that Audi have also announced a carbon-fibre project using an Australian partner.)

Autoblog Green ask if it will work — indeed, will it sell more cars. I think it’s actually a reasonably smart approach. The jury is still out on EVs and hybrids and the specific technologies that might “win” the race (including hydrogen fuel cells). With EVs taking a little while to gain traction in the market, there is a strong argument to holding off significant R&D expenditure in this area until the market is more mature.

(That said, I still think that electric vehicles will end up being the technology of choice, regardless of power source. And it is definitely important that some manufacturers lead the way, as Tesla and Nissan, among others, are doing.)

Regardless of which technology gets up, the measures that Mazda is exploring will all be relevant. And in the short term, with consumer uncertainty (and the high relative up-front cost of hybrid and EV vehicles), focusing efforts in this area can only provide benefits to the Mazda brand. That is to say, for those customers that aren’t ready to make the switch to EV/hybrid, the fuel efficiency benefits would likely be of appeal (and therefore to have an impact on sales). But it won’t be long before Mazda will need to start investing more heavily in alternative fuel/power train technologies. I’m sure, however, that they are keeping a close eye on developments and will be ready once a dominant approach appears. Definitely one worth watching…

Where is my robotic companion?

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I bought this t-shirt from Threadless some time ago — it was a tongue-in-cheek reflection on all the fanciful things that we saw in movies and cartoons as a child growing up that hadn’t quite come to fruition yet. It seems, though, that the second item on the list — that of the robotic companion — may be pretty close at hand.

I’m not one to make predictions, typically (even if it is new year’s day) but a couple of things that have recently come across my radar have got me thinking that the age of the robotic companion is coming — probably in about 5 years time we’ll see the first commercial versions.

What are the developments? Apple’s Siri is probably the most mainstream. This is natural language recognition and response in a consumer-grade mobile phone. Yes, internet assisted (much of the processing is done by much more powerful computing hardware than the phone). Yes, it’s early days yet (anyone that’s used Siri will be well aware of it’s limitations).

But what’s so special about Siri? Haven’t we had voice recognition on phones for some time? Siri is more than just recognition of pre-defined commands — it incorporates natural language processing, which is a real leap forward in my view.

In 5 years’ time, talking to our phone will be as natural as touch gestures are today, I suspect. This will in part be aided by the continuation of Moore’s Law, as Mark Pesce recently reminded us:

By 2020, some of us will be walking around with a teraflop in our pocket, interpreting our speech, watching our gestures, and effortlessly handling sophisticated social transactions – invisibly, continuously and tirelessly.

The second is Boston Dynamics’ “PETMAN” project:

According to Gizmodo, Boston Dynamics expects to deliver PETMAN to the US Military as early as this year (2012). Given that, I suspect that the video that has been released is probably of an older variation of the technology, so is probably even further advanced in the lab.

The third is the advancement of facial expressions in robotics. See, for example, Actroid-F:

While the latter two examples are still in the research and development phase, and are clearly going to be extremely expensive, as is often the case with these things, these early developments will no doubt trickle down into consumer-level products shortly after. I’m putting a stake in the ground and saying 5 years (though it might end up being 10).

But in either case, at least one of those “damned scientist” wishes is just around the corner…

Follow-up: TripIt confirmed bug

Just a quick update on the whole TripIt debacle.

The TripIt support team were very good in responding to the problem. While I didn’t get any money back, they didn’t throw me any legalese/boilerplate response, and took the issue seriously. Kudos to Ruth, the support rep who was my primary contact, for handling this well.

They responded by offering me an upgrade (worth $49 in $$ terms, but pretty useless to me in the context of what has happened, as the primary issue is the fact I no longer feel like I can trust the application) and looked into the matter.

The first suggestion was this was a daylight savings issue with my phone, (as a few folks have suggested to me personally or via Twitter) but I pointed out this didn’t seem to make sense because:

  1. The earlier flight on the same day is also displayed as AEDT and this is displaying correctly as 6:15am (as per the web-based application).
  2. The support team asserted that “in Australia and on April 3, 2011, Daylight Savings Time ended and I believe because the last flight (Virgin Blue 885) coincided with that date”, which was incorrect. The flight was for April 2 at 7:15pm and flight time was 1 hr and 15 mins, meaning I would have arrived in Sydney before 9pm on April 2. DST didn’t end here in Australia until 2am on April 3, well outside the range of that particular flight.
  3. Even if the flight did cross timezones, the departure time should reflect the timezone of departure, not the destination, so this still should not have happened.
  4. I confirmed the bug in both Melbourne under daylight savings (when the error occurred) and in Sydney (upon arrival the following day) outside of daylight savings — which suggests that it was not an issue with the settings on the phone, as the problem should not have exhibited before or after the timezone change, according to this explanation, but it clearly occurred in both timezones.

After this response, the team looked into it further and found:

It appears that in our system, for Melbourne, Australia, our system had the April 2 date listed as the end of Daylight Savings Time for EST.

I’ve immediately filed a ticket with our engineers to make sure that daylight savings time is properly picked up for Melbourne to fix this issue going forward. I’m also having our engineers double-check all timezones in Australia.

So the issue was confirmed as a daylight savings issue, but not related to my phone or setup.

While I still don’t think that particular finding fully explains the issue (if it clicked over on April 2 instead of 3, why was the first flight time on the same day correct?). But at least I’m glad that identifying the issue may avoid future issues for other TripIt users.

Reflections on Flavour Crusader at Social Innovation Sydney

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I’ve just gotten back after running a very short workshop session to test the Flavour Crusader application at today’s Social Innovation Sydney meetup and I wanted to take a short moment to “braindump” (more than reflect) about the session while it’s still fresh in my mind. (See my previous post for more background on the project.)

First up, thanks to everyone who participated in the workshop — we really appreciate the feedack. And I’d like to especially thank the volunteers that helped Sharon and I facilitate the session — Angela, Miream, Penny and Tony especially. And also thanks to Michelle and Kate for creating the space in which the session could occur.

While we (obviously) haven’t had a chance to really dig into the more detailed reflections, even the top-level feedback that came out of the session has been really helpful.

About the prototype

For those that weren’t able to attend, if you have an iPhone, feel free to preview the web application. Please bear in mind that this is a very early prototype outlining only some of the core features that have been discussed/considered. In the vein of the “lean startup” the aim is to deliver a “minimum shipping product” to get early feedback and verify/validate design directions before progressing further. It is not fully accessible (we are rapid prototyping using HTML/CSS and JavaScript, but have not tested widely) and today we identified some issues running on Android devices, so your mileage may vary. Adding the app to your home screen on the iPhone and launching from there will give you the best experience.

There is a feedback mechanism inside the application, so please feel free to send us your thoughts and suggestions if you do use the application.

As mentioned previously, the session today aimed to evaluate how well the application, in it’s current form, supported people in the following scenarios:

  • You are on your way home from work and thinking about cooking a dinner with fresh, local produce
  • You are planning a dinner party on the weekend and you want to base it on fresh, local produce
  • You are in a store choosing your fruit and veggies for the week and you want to find out if something is in season

This approach is broadly aligned with the “Can do” phase of Les Robinson’s Enabling Change model. (We’re also giving some consideration to some early social features for the application, especially to create the sense of “Satisfaction” to support sustained adoption. And of course days like today are in part about building “Buzz”, “Invitation” and “Trial”.)

Workshop scenarios

To do this we set up three different “stations” in the room to provide a mock context for each of the scenarios outlined above:

  1. A “bus” where participants were encouraged to consider “on your way home”
  2. A “kitchen table” with recipe books and shopping lists to plan the weekend dinner party
  3. A “store” with a combination of local and imported produce

(I’m hoping that Tony’s photos will provide a visual illustration of the session — I’ll post some links here once they’re online.)

Each participant was given a sheet with areas to reflect on the process they undertook around each scenario, and participants that didn’t have an iDevice (or Android phone) were provided with one, or buddied up with someone who did. The aim was to get participants put themselves into these particular contexts and use the application to support them.

Today was a sort of prototype for the workshop format itself. I’ll be running it again in a few weeks’ time with my uni cohort (and potentially at other foodie events in the future), incorporating a lot of the learnings from today as well. The first lesson about the session format was “more time”: we elected to run a 30 min session, which is clearly not enough given the level of engagement participants gave us today. Next time we will allow for more time at each station.

Another was that with a (somewhat unexpected) large turn-out — we had over 20 participants in the room — we needed a way to allow for group discussion within each station. And thirdly, we found that when participants focused on the “reflection questions” we provided, they were less active thinking about the context of use — e.g. actually using the application. All great learnings to apply in future.

(If anyone who attended wanted to provide further feedback I’d love to hear from you in the comments to this post…)

Early reflections/next steps

One thing that seems reasonably clear, even from early “debriefing” of the session, is that Flavour Crusader’s tight focus on efficacy — that is, providing assistance in how to prepare and fresh produce, including deeper integration between produce items and recipes — is definitely the right path. The challenge with so many great ideas will be to keep that tight focus, and not try to implement everything!

That said, I’m really looking forward to digging in further to participant’s reflections — I’m certain that there’s some great nuggets in that feedback as well. Given the great level of participation, that may take us a little longer than anticipated! But I can’t think of a better problem to have 😉

FlavourCrusader at Social Innovation Camp

A little while back I put a call out for folks that were social media savvy and interested in food to do some interviews for a uni assignment.  The interviews went really well (thanks to everyone involved!) and I’ve been remiss in not reporting back on progress since then.

For my uni assessment I produced two reports and a set of design personas to support the development of the FlavourCrusader project:

  1. Local food production and cosmopolitan localism (PDF 99 KB)
    This paper examines some of the drivers behind the emerging trend towards local and organic produce and the related growth of farmers markets: sustainability, health and safety, quality and taste, and food as experience. It then explores local food production as a form of social innovation, considering its potential for expansion using social technologies.
  2. Report on design research with urban local food customers (PDF 157 KB)
    Reports on the findings of interviews with 5 social media savvy food lovers who purchase locally-produced food.
  3. Personas (PDF 1.7 MB)
    Design personas reflecting the user research and learnings from the initial report looking at local trends etc.

Since that work was completed, myself and the team at Zumio have been working with Sharon Lee, the project lead for FlavourCrusader, on a prototype of the core functionality of the application. The core focus of the prototype is a seasonal food guide and recipes, as these were the core elements identified through the interviews as being useful in a mobile application.

Next Saturday (26 Feb 2011) we’ll be running a session at the Social Innovation Sydney (SI Syd) event in Paddington to get feedback on this prototype. Sharon has done a guest post over at the SI Syd blog about the FlavourCrusader session.

As Sharon’s post points out it’s still very early days — we’re really just trying to provide the bare bones functionality to start getting feedback about what the issues/barriers are and where we should go with it next. Specifically, we’re trying to provide support for the following scenarios:

  • You are on your way home from work and thinking about dinner. How would you use the application to help you choose your dinner?
  • You are planning a dinner on the weekend, how would you use the application to help you plan?
  • You are in a store choosing your fruit and veg for the week and you want to find out if something is in season. How would you use the application to determine this?

There may have other situations where it might be useful, of course — we’d be interested to hear of those if you have any ideas.

Using it “in real life” is obviously the best way to test — so we’re really looking to understand how people go about these things and how, if at all, the app might help. So the session will involve a bit of fun role-playing as well as more straightforward testing.

Our hope is the session will give us an understanding of:

  • How well does the app support this process currently?
  • What frustrations or barriers are there?
  • What needs to be added for people to be able to achieve these goals with it?

In any case, if you’re able to make it down to SI Syd next Saturday — we’re hoping the session will occur just before lunch — I’d love to see you there and get your thoughts.