Archive for the ‘gadget’ Category

I want one of these. There’s more here; the sheer coolth of a USB-based PCR analyser is hard to beat. Even if the potential for Wakefield-scale contamination fuckups is not to be denied.

In general, I’m trying to get up to speed on things biotech. it is true that, so far, cyberpunk has been a strategically undervalued source of science fiction, politics, and general weirdness – we keep thinking we’ve got to the end of computers and networks, only to find there’s more weird out there – compared to biology and nanotech, which has been a bit jam-tomorrow, always promising the revolution in five years’ time. I suspect this is changing, not least in the light of this and this.

That’s going to be quite a boat trip for one little robot, if not a giant step for mankind for quite a while. We might have to declare Titan a planetary nature reserve, if they don’t do it to us first.


OK, back from eComm in Amsterdam; here’s something interesting. Besides all the stuff I was meant to be following for work, we had a presentation from a group of the sort of media-arts types who get a lot of coverage on Bruce Sterling’s blog; in fact the whole gig was faintly Beyond the Beyond-esque when it wasn’t Charlie Stross-esque. Notably, two projects struck me as emblematic of a certain kind of thinking.

The first one was the Isophone, which is a mashup of a flotation tank and a telephone. The idea is that you sink into yummy sensory deprivation while talking to someone else in the same condition; it looks like this.

the isophone, with user

Maybe it’s just me, but having to take phone calls under a state of total sensory deprivation is not my idea of fun. I couldn’t help imagining some sort of nightmarish prison call centre, a whole pool full of them.

Then there was Mutsugoto. Let the official description speak for itself.

Mutsugoto is meant to be installed in the bedrooms of two distant partners. You lay on your bed and wear a special touch-activated ring visible to a camera mounted above. A computer vision system tracks the movement of the ring and projects virtual pen strokes on your body. At the same time these pen strokes are transmitted to and projected on the body of your remote partner. If you follow your partner’s movements and your strokes cross, the lines will react with each other and reflect your synchrony. Special bed linens, silk curtains and other aspects of the physical context have been designed to enhance the mood of this romantic communication environment.

But what are the civilian applications? As they say.

Go on, this is basically a sex toy, isn't it?

Well, I think we can probably guess. Anyway, I found both of them depressing; it also struck me that too many of these projects are all about sucking information out of the virtual space and representing it on a piece of hardware in private space. Basically, a gadget that reads out Twitter feeds, that you’re meant to think is your friend. Further, once you get rid of the microphone, pointing device, keyboard, webcam, etc, you’re basically watching TV on your own. It’s read-only communication into the private realm.

The suit faction in this field, oddly, works the other way round – the M2M (Machine to Machine) community in telecoms, the big IT types, they’re all more interested in getting data from the real world and representing it in virtual space. Basically, it’s all SCADA applications – monitoring the current status of CO2 pipeline valve number 58634. Flowrate, direction, valve setting and temperature, please, and when did you last have your grease changed?

What seems to be missing from this as an artistic project is sending stuff into the public space. A lot of data gets captured from the public space into the private space; CCTV is one version, promoting your demo on Flickr and taking photos of the cops is another. Nothing much seems to be sent back, though; can’t we have truth-screamer robots that run about yelling out under-reported news? Of course, if you or I were to encounter one we’d probably dropkick it into a handy canal. Splosh; “Hey there! CitizenMediaBot is sinking!”

But it would at least be fun, and more fun than gazing at a waldo that turns puce when #drivel is trending again. I suspect there’s scope for this with things like Layar, who were also presenting. Then, we’re deep into the Strossosphere; “what do we want? Brains!” indeed.

Just to explain my absence, first of all I’ve been changing ISPs – you may recall I promised to give Virgin Media the push. Bogons Ltd – Internet for the Clueful were tapped after the normal exhaustive procurement process, and I spent last Sunday afternoon setting up an ADDON ARM8200 modem/router to work with my existing WRT54G WLAN box. I was hoping to use ZIPB, but eventually settled for renumbering the WRT54 (although, as the modem seems to be a Viking one, this might show the way).

Anyway, that was fun…of a sort, and the upshot is that Phorm can still bugger off and I now have considerably higher IP bandwidth. And then I vanished down a wormhole in the work-life continuum for the rest of last week, so no blogging for you, which is just as well because I was mostly thinking about SIM-based authentication systems and related OSS-BSS issues. And you wouldn’t want that.

I recently bought a copy of Mobile Python, Scheible and Tuulos’ guide to Python for Nokia S60 devices. First up, I’d like to point out that Scheibe and Tuulos adhered strictly to the well-known titling convention, Programming Book: Really Long Subtitle You’ll Forget And Have To Fetch Your Copy To Cite It. No wonder they decided the URL should be That aside, to business. Mobile Python is one of the best tutorials on Python, never mind mobile, I’ve yet seen; it scoops the pot for conciseness and action-oriented goodness, whilst being almost alarmingly economic with the stuff it includes. You’d be surprised how little you actually need to explain the core concepts.

There are plenty of good examples, and there is a suitably fun attitude to mistreating mobile phones; it’s also eye-opening how well the Nokia development team did in making the APIs to interesting stuff like location, digital cameras, messaging, and telephony simple and pythonic. The authors also did well in explaining complex concepts like double buffering graphics, and in having the gall to include scary cool things like how it would interwork with the Arduino microcontroller board, as seen in the new version of the RepRap, and with a robot.

On the downside, there is no excuse for calling your website – that’s more than a little Nathan Barley-esque, to my mind. Neither can they do anything about the bloody awful code-signing procedure Symbian and Nokia insist on you going through; if you ever wonder about that chilling effect lark, it’s successfully put me off brainwashing my mobile just yet. Fortunately, I see that somebody’s hacked the damn thing.

Big SD cards

Zawinski reports trouble with a 4GB SD card and a Treo 700p gadget. I am not very surprised, although for other reasons. Earlier this year, I was offered a Qtek S200 Windows Mobile PDA, and I transferred a 1GB Mini-SD loaded with photos, Stone Roses and Steely Dan songs to it. Within the week it had somehow managed to destroy the card and everything that sailed in it. Not the gadget I had before, nor a HP 6915w, nor a USB cardreader in a Mac could even detect the card’s presence. Caveat emptor.

Celtel terminates its roaming charges between East African markets. Now, SMS credit transfer is a currency acceptable across East Africa. How long before this is recognised? How long before more operators start interworking? GSM airtime – the African single currency. You heard it here first.

I’ve expected a lot of good things from Nokia’s decision to open up to software developers. They’ve been putting more and more stuff in open source, up to and including chunks of the Series 60 OS itself, and have provided a lot of tools, APIs, etc, not to mention a version of Python for S60. The latest is a Linux web server that runs on a Symbian S60 device.

It’s almost painfully cool – hey! Linux! On a phone! A phone that’s a web server! – but I have some misgivings about its fitness for (as they say) purpose. There are good reasons, after all, why one doesn’t usually serve web pages from a desktop computer. Specifically, the nature of a web server is essentially a big hard drive with just enough intelligence to dish out pages, with high reliability, and as close in network topology to the requesting party as possible.

This last is the killer. Even consumer DSL or cable service usually don’t offer sufficient uplink speed to serve much – you need either to fork out £lots for an E-1 line, or else share a big connection with others. Which is as good as saying “just pay for hosting”. Now, even on the latest HSDPA cellular links, the uplink is 384Kbits/s when available, and zero when you go under a bridge. Even full HSPA won’t really cut it, with uplinks in the 1Mbit/s class. If the speeds some of the TDD crowd – 2.9Mbits up, 5 down – materialise, that might be enough, with the caveat that it can’t be relied upon due to the nature of any mobile radio.

What you really want is a good WiMAX link like the ones Urban WiMAX Ltd are marketing in London as a wireless E-1 and higher service. But they are using fixed outdoor aerials.

But – in essence – why would you want to serve web pages from a mobile device anyway? These are the days of Web 2.0, after all, service-oriented architecture and AJAX. All that good stuff. Take this, for example. YouTube, the video-sharing site, is offering a mobile-optimised uploader – now, uploading video on GPRS will be purgatorial, on vanilla UMTS or even HSDPA tiresome, but on HSPA or beyond, probably faster than consumer ADSL service. And it only needs uploading over the bottleneck of the radio access network once.

(Note: a version of this appeared earlier at