Notes from NotCon: Hardware

06/08/2004

Well, anyway, since I’m up I may as well finish off my coverage of Sunday’s NotCon. After the Geolocation panel (my notes), I joined the Hardware panel. Over the entire day I self-consciously avoided all the political panels because they just looked like they’d be incredibly frustrating, confrontational. Ironically I decided that I wouldn’t find the Blogging panel quite as annoying, but more on that later in the day… The Hardware panel comprised of talks by James Larrson, Steven Goodwin, Matt Westcott, George Wright and Anil Madhavapeddy and was a really mixed bag of the sublime and ridiculous.

There’s something uniquely nostalgic about British geeks – their fetishes for the computers of their youth (the BBC Micro and the Sinclair Spectrum in particular) seem to overwhelm their future-thinking impulses time and time again. I can’t say that I’m convinced that this is a good thing – it makes me wonder about how British geekhood views its own chances of creating new technologies that actually can push things forward. Maybe they feel it’s just not possible any more? Maybe they think no one will take them seriously…?

That’s not to say that Matt Westcott’s illustration of new hard and software trends on the Spectrum isn’t impressive or entertaining. He illustrates connecting the tiny computer to hard disks and compact flash, talks about the demo scene and the “only project on sourceforge for the Sinclair Spectrum”. He ends up with a streaming video version of the Chemical Brother’s Let Forever Be video (directed by Michel Gondry). All good fun – I just can’t help but feel that it’s a little bit of a waste of a talented man’s time.

James Larrson’s piece was similarly random – but here at least the whole thing was clearly a bit tongue in cheek, and his presentational skills were so good that someone should really give him a TV-series of short introductions to crackpot inventors. He’d be awesome. The project he was talking about was based around using a BBC Model B from 1982 to measure the changes in state of the mayonnaise, bread and prawn components of a Marks and Spencer prawn sandwich – and using that to tell the time. I’m not going to go into too much detail except to say that he’s managed to get the accuracy so good that now the clock only loses/gains up to four hours in any given day.

I didn’t get the name of the next guy – I think it was the Reverend Rat – but he was showing how you could radically extend the range of Bluetooth devices. Apparently by soldering it together with an antenna he’s extended the range from ten metres to the rather more satisfyingly non-personal 35 miles (and more). His main planned use for this particular piece of tech seemed to be to stand on top of Centrepoint jacking into passer-by’s phones. Or that could have been a joke. Funny chap. Cool though…

Then we got to the three talks that were actually about the way technology might evolve: Steven Goodwin’s piece was on hacking around with your house and TV to allow you to control things long-distance (including recording TV on demand and stream it back to your computer via – I think – e-mail), which wasn’t really particularly new in principle but nice to actually hear from someone who’s doing it throughout their home. [If you're interested in this stuff, then the O'Reilly book Home Hacking Projects for Geeks could be a good read.]

Then George Wright talked about Interactive TV, why it wasn’t the web and why that’s a good thing (in his words). The language he used about the platform’s restrictions (no return path in many cases, exhaustive centralised testing on the platform required before it any product can be rolled out, no literature to support development, completely limited to broadcast companies etc) doesn’t fill me with hope for the future of iTV – particularly when compared to the possibilities of the future ever-present fat-piped non-broadcast-limited, massively flexible and responsive web – but he did make a good case for convergence not being the point. We’re still talking around this stuff behind the scenes and I’ll let you know if we come up with anything interesting.

And finally – and my particular favourite of the session – Anil Madhavapeddy talked about using camera phones as ubiquitous remote controls / mice. There were some lovely aspects to this – the ‘ooh / aah’ bit coming when he demoed applications with ‘robust visual tags’ that look a bit like the 2d bar codes that the camera phone could recognise and manipulate. So you’d come up to a some kind of public terminal, turn on the camera phone, arrange it so that you could see the control you wished to manipulate on the phone’s screen, and then press the equivalent of a mouse button – at which point the control on screen could be moved around just as if your camera phone was a mouse (via Bluetooth or Wifi, I assume). It sounds over-complex from this introduction, but some of the immediate benefits were clear – the same tags could be used as static encoders of commands in paper interfaces that you just printed out, there’s a built-in mechanism for manipulating money via a mobile phone that opens up lots of possibilities for exchanging or buying things, etc. etc. I’m going to be keeping an eye on this stuff, it was fascinating…

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about the Hardware panel at the moment. I have to head off to a thing at the RAB on the “21st Century Radio Listener” for work. I’ll talk about the next session on MP3s and Mash-Ups later in the day…