Category Archives: geek

Ada Lovelace Day 2012: Jamillah Knowles – Tech Hurricane!

My Ada Lovelace Day post is a little late as I’m currently experiencing lurgied brainfuddle, so I’ll get on with it!

JK on the crystal encrusted dog n bone

I’d like to give a big shout out to Jamillah Knowles: tech journalist, radio presenter, podcaster, blogger and student of AI, whom you might also know under her nom de plume as Jemimah Knight. Jamillah is a contender for the hardest working person on the planet. When we both worked at the BBC I could rarely drag her away from her desk / studio for a conflab & chips and since she’s moved on to work for The Next Web as their UK Editor she’s just as busy, maybe busier, as there’s lots of extra travel on top to report from far flung conferences and events.

Not content with just doing the aforementioned day job, Jamillah still manages to fit in her joyous weekly reportage on leftfield geek podcast, BBC Outriders, plus is a contributor to Global Voices Online and then somehow manages to fit in study for her BSc in artificial intelligence and human machine interaction, where JavaScript jousting is a sport for the fearless. I don’t know how she fits it all in and possibly does her sleeping whilst baking zeros and ones in the Knight Patisserie. Anyways, be thoroughly impressed! Top tip – don’t get in her way ;-)

Cyberspice being interviewed by Jamillah

Jamillah interviewing Cyberspice for Outriders at Maker Faire UK

The business of Making / Makers’ Guild at the Crafts Council

For most inventor / makers taking the decision to move from being creative in one’s spare time to doing it for a living is a bit of an expensive gamble and rather daunting. If you’re self employed for the first time, providing a service or going into product manufacturing there are so many questions to ask when taking those first steps, such as: how much should you charge and how does one factor in all the research and development time, what about all the cost of all components, tools and kit (like those giant tin snips)? Plus legal headaches around contracts, agreements, insurance, liability and IP, oh and don’t forget sustainability, thoughts around open source, robustness, longevity and fit for purpose-ness that fun new technology practices bring… Arghh *brainspoldes*! And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, there’s yet to evolve a go-to resource for UK Makers get the answers or advice to these pressing questions.

Components

Personally, I’ve been following links and tips from the myriad of inventors sites (& ignoring ‘inventor promoter’ scams!). For standard business info there’s Business Link & HMRC. I’ve also found my local business enterprise club has some good workshops and seminars on sole trader issues, tax and marketing. Plus if you’re close to London, the British Library Business Centre has some really good free and paid for workshops, seminars and surgeries. There’s also funding and support from initiatives such as the Technology Strategy Board, NESTA and Kickstarter.

Starting a Business for Dummies

So in July I was really pleased to hear about the launch at NESTA of Makers’ Guild ‘a membership organization to support and promote ‘Makers’ of all flavours from artists to technicians, from coders to crafters’, which has been founded by Rachel Coldicutt and Fiddian Warman. It was good to go along and hear talks from fellow makers, inventors and founders, plus chat to like-minded people. They have a website and I’m looking forward to when they have time to populate it with some more info – that wasn’t sarcasm, it takes time to build these resources up, what with having a life, etc, so I wonder if it might be an idea to give a shout to the maker community to get behind it and to submit their fav links, biogs, articles and some guests on the forum to get the ball rolling? [Gah, that’s me with my ex-BBC senior producer hat on]

Anyway, last Friday I went along to the Maker’s Guild’s next event: ‘Makers’ Money – the business of making’ at the lovely Crafts Council offices, where the Makers’ Guild put on three talks by inventors/makers who were getting on with the business of commercially making or supporting makers.

It was really inspiring to hear some personal stories, so if you’re an inventor, a maker or interested is what’s going on in this area, look the following entrepreneurs up!

First up was Jane ní Dhulchaointigh of sugru (patented as Formerol) which is a multi-purpose variant of silicone that is rather like modeling clay and can be used for making, modifying and fixing things – I’ve seen it at Maker Faire, but haven’t had a play with it yet. It’s had rave reviews, TIME Magazine listed sugru alongside the iPad as one of the top 50 inventions of 2010. Jane is as former product design student of the Royal College of Art, where she experimented with mixing various materials together such as bathroom sealant and sawdust, which lead to her realising the potential to develop a useful substance. NESTA Creative Pioneer and angel funding gave her the opportunity to start a business, fund development, design and do user trials. The first 1000 packs sold out in 6 hours and now sugru has customers in 76 countries and a factory in east London. Jane hopes to break even in a year or so.

Jane ní Dhulchaointigh of sugru

Up next was Christopher Pett of Makersco, who realised there was a niche for uniqueness and smaller scale production. This service grew from a postgraduate innovation research project at Goldsmiths College. His company makes life for makers and designers easier by taking ideas and designs from concept and working them up to prototyping, testing, analysis, production and supply chain management. They don’t take any IP from makers and work with UK manufacturers and suppliers. Makers also help with marketing strategy, brand guidelines and sales materials. Christopher also runs Pli Design – a sustainable furniture design company, specialising in bamboo.

Christopher Pett of Makers Co and Pli Design

Last but not least, was Mark Champkins, an inventor who started making things for his family business when he was a schoolboy. His company, Concentrate, is all about making accessories that help children concentrate and be more productive at school, such as a pencil case / water bottle hybrid and a bag that also drapes across a chair to make it more comfortable. He was lucky to build up a good relationship with a buyer at John Lewis who helped him hone his product ideas for their customers. Mark went on Dragons Den, not to get money, but for publicity, but he still got funding. He is also the Science Museum’s Inventor in Residence where he is doing a product range based on their archives. He’s also written a book on celebrity inventions!

 Mark Champkins of Concentrate Design

After the individual talks a panel Q&A discussion followed where topics such as open product licensing: digital to physical came up and the Awesome Foundation money awards were discussed (there’s a London chapter). A few people stood up and introduced themselves and their ideas, which was very relaxed, followed by a bit of saying hello to friends & making new ones before hometime.

Thanks to Maker’s Guild for organising & Crafts Council for hosting. I’m looking forward to the next event.

Ada Lovelace Day, 2011: Sarah Angliss, Intrepid Engineer

Ada Lovelace Day aims to raise the profile of women working in technology, engineering, maths and science by celebrating their work and hopefully creating new role models to encourage and inspire others to follow a career, study or a hobby in these disciplines.

Sarah & her speaking teapot

For Ada Lovelace Day, 2011, I’m writing about my good friend: the multi-talented artist, composer and performer, Sarah Angliss. Sarah is an engineer trained in electro-acoustics, music and robotics and also holds a master’s degree in evolutionary and adaptive systems. Her work combines technology with vintage sound equipment and intertwines spooky science stories and eclectic curiosities into the mix.

Clara!

She has also been a creator of sound installation pieces for events, exhibitions, and live shows since 1996, featuring robots such as Clara 2.0, the ‘polite robot thereminist’, Hugo, the haunting singing ventriloquist’s dummy, The Ealing Feeder a 28-note, polyphonic, electromechanical carillon and the somewhat scary crooning Edgar Allan Crow – whose eyes you must not look into!

Uncanny Valley: Edgar Allen Crow

On top of all this, Sarah has also led projects such as Infrasonic, as research project to explore emotional effects of extreme bass sound. Sarah is also a writer and gives talks about vintage technology oddities and poses questions such as “We know we can teach birds to talk and sing. But were birds ever used as primordial, feathered music recorders?” as discussed in her Radio 4 documentary “The Bird Fancyer’s Delight”, which aired in July 2011. Talks include her fascinating talk at TEDx Brighton, “Loving the Machine” which drew connections between two types of dance music which developed a century apart and were created by people were working to the relentless beat of factory machines.

Uncanny Valley: Hugo

Sarah performs as part of Spacedog with her sister Jenny, compere Colin, plus robot and human guests such as Professor Elemental. Their repertoire includes much spooky exploration into the depths of technology folklore paired with intriguing and inventive use of instruments such as the theremin, spangley water instrument and the saw. In their recent award winning Televisor show they “summon the spirit of John Logie Baird as they perform with flickering projections, created live on their working reconstruction of Baird’s original 1920s televisor”.

Spacedog being spookeh at BMMF party

There’s tons more stuff I could mention, so please have a peruse through her website(s) to find out more. A perfect afternoon out with Sarah would include having some tea & caek, some rummaging and tinkering in a bag of electronics components (as she’s always hacking at something) and plotting some electronics mayhem – the lady is a proper geek – hurrah \o/

Thinking Digital 2011, Sage Gateshead: Day 1

Thinking Digital 2011 was the forth annual melding of minds shaped into a conference that brings together what’s new in innovative ideas, technology and thoughts on life in the digital age. It’s run by the awesome Herb Kim and his Codeworks team and is held at the Sage, Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.

TDC: Sage view

The conference is popular with thinkers, scientists, makers, entrepreneurs and academics, because it has a slightly different slant to it than your usual tech conference, but through the choice of speakers and topics, it pulls the audience into the conversation, the subjects are not arbitrary, but are relevant to many.

On reflection, last year’s conference seemed to surround the theme of ‘data’: your data, my data, our data – data as a commodity. Richard Titus, who spoke at last year’s conference declared ‘Data is the new oil’ which struck a chord with many of the attendees. This year’s Thinking Digital, for me, was all about sensing things whether that be health, resonating with others, brainwaves, robots or campaigns.

There’s rather a lot to talk about and even cutting my notes down loads, I’ve far too much to say – anyways, I’m splitting it into two posts: day one and day two…

I’m going to start with Walter de Brouwer, as I create wearable sensing technology that responds to input, so his talk really resonated with me.

TDC: Walter de Brouwer on medical treatment futures

Walter De Brouwer is the CEO of OLPC Europe; the European Branch of the One Laptop per Child Initiative, discussed the issues surrounding the future of healthcare and how as patients and relatives we can take charge of our own health. He spoke passionately about his personal catalyst for this – a traumatic experience involving his child enduring a stay in intensive care. How the experience of watching machines and nurses logging numerical data over time starts to familiarize the watching relatives with which measurements signify good news and which do not. Walter asked, ‘but why do we only take number measurements when we are dying?’ Indeed, we should be steadily ‘life caching’ medical data ourselves because the medical records our GPs keep are just a punctuated data stream- i.e. they’re very sketchy because they’re not regularly updated and compared, plus are also passed through different doctors over time. He stated ‘ the best way to create the future is to prevent it ‘ – meaning look after yourself now and invest in your personal data to interpret the signs of illness before they happen. Which I feel is pretty sound advice actually, seeing as most major illness’ are only usually picked up by doctors when they are in an advanced stage and hard to treat.

Having access to so much information on the web the patient is becoming a consumer and the do it yourself healthcare movement is getting bigger. We now have access to so many data capturing devices we can keep log of our own health readings, plus if would be totally logical to share and compare this data with our friends to find out for ourselves why some people are happier, healthier and have more energy than others – comparing lifestyles, what we eat, how long we sleep, etc. There is already a worldwide movement leading the way in this self-logging lifestyle, that’s The Quantified Self movement, whose mantra is ‘self knowledge through numbers’ and they log everything they can – for example: blood pressure, weight, exercise, cholesterol, heart rate, arousal and sleep patterns.

TDC:

Walter fully believes that the globalization of private medicine is unstoppable now and we can shop for the best practitioners who have the least patients, most time and do all your health running around for you – such as booking scans and regular health checks. This is all very nice, but relies on you having the income to fund this lifestyle, as it gets very expensive! This way of running healthcare probably works only for the top earners and of course probably isn’t inclusive to people on benefits or those on low incomes.

Anyways, if you have the income there is a plethora of choices open to ‘Cybercondriacs’ and full body scans are very popular, of course the price depends on where you go to get it done but ranges between 100-700 dollars, India being the cheapest place to go right now. But remember, as mentioned above you can keep your own records and use sensing apps to log them, though the challenge will be how do we and doctors analyse and hang on to all this exponentially generated data? Walter suggests perhaps not in The Cloud: ‘ The Cloud is like a public toilet for your records, you don’t know who’s been there before you!”

So in conclusion, Walter feels your health will become a number – the data is free to gather, but the interpretation by your doctor is not! As doctors begin to prescribe apps rather than meds for health they will become overloaded with data and we’ll need systems to cope with it all. Walter suggested that we may end up with systems similar to an already existing car maintenance system in the US called OnStar – which is a call centre diagnostic type of affair. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own health and should look at our lifestyles and those of our friends to compare what is good for us while we wait for someone to invent a 21st Century version of the Star Trek Tricorder – a complete diagnostic device!

Erin McKean has been a dictionary evangelist for 18 years and is now a founder of Wordnik, an online dictionary that hopes to redefine how we view and use dictionaries. Wordnik has the tag line / definition as ‘Wordnik is a place for all the words, and everything known about them’. It’s a place to find and log words and not just one definition, there are many ways to define and tag words, including sentences, images and statistics. Looking at the Community page http://www.wordnik.com/community, I find tons of words defined by lists such as new words, recent comments, recently favourited, random, trending and previous words of the day.

TDC: Erin McKean on online dictionary Wordnik

During her presentation she offered her thoughts on defining dictionaries and word usage, Erin introduced us to the term ‘skeumorph’, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “an object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artifact in another material” – to illustrate Erin showed us plastic garden chairs that were copies of retro wooden chairs which included a wood grain pattern on the plastic! Erin took us through the pros and cons of using dictionaries in both paper and digital form, such as the problem of new words not showing up quick enough and in the realm of learning she informed us that humans learn words by using them in a sentence, rather than by looking them up. I’ll be interested to hear what people do with the Wordnik API. PS, I was very much admiring Erin’s lovely dresses, so was very happy to find her blog A Dress A Day :-)

Conrad Wolfram, founder and CEO of Wolfram Research discussed the notion of ‘computation for everyone’ – where computation meets knowledge and is democratised so that everyone can use it. He’d like to see governments and organisations make their data more accessible and active online rather than just in papers.

TDC:

He’s keen to do this by creating new ways that we can visualise data and information and has come up with a computable documentation format (CDF), which uses techniques to show live data and make it more interesting to the viewer. You can play with examples of this on the Wolfram Demonstrations Project.

TDC: Conrad Wolfram on live data visualisation

Conrad is also passionate about maths and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) tuition in education and is leading a computer-based maths education summit in London later this year at the Royal Institution – wish I could get a ticket!

Nancy Duates of Duarte Design
showed us via some examples of her studies into cinema, how storytelling is the best way to communicate an idea in a presentation or speech. Her slides showed examples of how using a story framework (visualized as a square wave) showed how verbally alternating between an obstacle and then resolution (or negative then positive) sound bite resonates with the audience and builds up empathy – equating to persuasion = transformation with the listener.

TDC: Nancy Duarte on storytelling

She also talked about injecting passion into stories “when you say ‘I’ve an idea’ – you’re saying you want to change the world!” and noting how we physically react to others when we hear a story. Her three-point framework included the following stages:

1. Likeable hero
2. Encounters roadblocks
3. Emerges transformed

TDC: Nancy Duarte on storytelling

During Nancy’s two-year study of storytelling she discovered various frameworks including Freytag’s dramatic 5 point story structure which emerges as: exposition / rising action / climax / falling action / denouncement and how ‘tacking’ (sailing metaphor) your story backwards and forwards holds the attention of your audience. She analysed two powerful presentations to show how her square wave theory works: one by Steve Jobs, launching iPhone and the other Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech – each showed the square wave alternating between a downside/problem and a glowing resolution (what is, what could be). I found her talk fascinating and will definitely look back on it and consider her techniques when I next have a presentation to write.

Ewan McIntosh, CEO, NoTosh Ltd, told the story of the SNP historic election win this year which he co-directed, and they did it via a system that was designed to stop this happening! So how did the SNP win it? When the campaign started the SNP was 15 points behind Labour, but when it ended the SNP was 18 points ahead. They did it by using a ruthlessly planned strategy, much of it using digital media.
He told us “we don’t do enough listening in digital media” and went on to give us some of his tips on engaging voters of all ages, including:

1. Have a strategy – with detail, pace, leadership and be agile – “You don’t need to have a ‘plan’, or a ‘to do list’ but a strategy”

2. Share the same message – be consistent and have a meeting every morning and agree what’s going to be said that day – share the message and make it understandable by people

3. Learn to listen – find out what they like, don’t like and what motivates them -stay relentlessly positive online

TDC: Ewan McIntosh on SNP campaign

“So did digital win votes? Yes it did!” Ewan went on to explain that the ultimate reason for campaigning online was to get people doing stuff offline, which worked and it’s changed the way governments listen to people and that digital is absolutely key to stalking ambition.

Ewan summed up with ‘the SNP campaign has changed not only Scotland’s place in world, but also how government engages with people and how digital can be used as a force for change”. As someone who has done a lot of high-profile project management over the years for the BBC, I was really interested in how Ewan’s strategy panned out across the campaign.

Heather Knight of Marilyn Monrobot creates live robot theatre performances and is a researcher at Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute. Heather started by letting Data her Nao robot introduce her and do an amusing comedy performance, which included a little dance at the end.

TDC: Data

I couldn’t help but look up the Nao robot and discovered it is programmable in C++, C, Python, Urbi, .Net languages. Interestingly, it’s runs on Linux OS, but is cross platform compatible, and I read Aldebaran Robotics are going to open source some of Nao’s code in 2011 and for those who want their own a public version is aimed to be released in 2012. I noted in the Q & A that Heather was asked how much a Nao robot would cost, to which she replied about 12,000 Euros.

Heather’s other work has included a touch sensitive ‘Sensate Bear’ for use in hospitals to help understand non-verbal communication via touch.
She is interested in how socially accepted robots can be integrated into society and has done work with her performing robot in public areas to analyse how the public reacts to their performance and in turn how the robot’s personality can be tweaked to work with humans – the goal being to help machines understand human traits such as charisma and humour.

TDC: Heather Knight & Data

Heather also has a portfolio of digital art and is organising The Robot Film Festival in New York in July 2011.

It was a nice touch for Heather to finish on a story about her work on the epic Ok Go ‘This Too Shall Pass’ video, which the audience really enjoyed + a few added factoid morsels about the making of too. I enjoyed hearing from a female engineer very much and would like to hear more about Heather’s research with human / robot reactions, and also her digital artworks.

So that’s it, my epic and rambling round-up of some of Thinking Digital’s day one presentations and talks. I’m going to have a rest now before I launch into day two!

Opentech 2011, ULU London

Dorkbot talk Saul & Pete

(As usual) I had a fabulous time at this year’s Opentech 2011, a multi-stream conference that brings hacker, open source advocates, civil servants, open rights and other communities together to discuss, debate, chat and drink beer. It’s a great day of talks intersected with a fab geek social, it traditionally occurs at ULU in London.

Taken straight from their website intro: “OpenTech 2011 is an informal, low cost, one-day conference on slightly different approaches to technology, transport and democracy. Talks by people who work on things that matter, guarantees a day of thoughtful talks leading to conversations with friends.” It is certainly all these things.

Hard curves, soft electronics
Photo by @PSD

I gave a presentation titled “Hard Curves, soft electronics – code, tech and textiles” – at which I demonstrated some of my wearable technology pieces, specifically those made with LilyPad Arduino (an open source technology) sewable microcontrollers, sensing modules and conductive threads and textiles. These included Twinkle Starduino, I <3 0X0, Twinkle Tartflette and 'Yr In Mah Face', plus I mentioned some of my mbed work. I also discussed how e-texiles and the LilyPad help dismiss the idea that electronics are grey, sharp and cold. I also feel that the rise in tinkering with Arduino and e-textiles is a great way of encouraging girls / hobbyists / anyone to have fun and see beyond the stigma of electronics and coding being a dull and difficult to pursue.

Here's a link to my slides, plus one of the videos I showed during the presentation which demonstrated my ‘Yr In Mah Face‘ temperature / mood sensing t-shirt.

Talks I enjoyed this year included, a history and expose under the sheets of London dorkbot – ‘doing strange things with electricity’ from janitors Saul Albert and Peter Brownell. The session included some hilarious, bonkers and touching reminders from dorkbots of the past. The London dorkbot chapter was second to evolve, after New York being the first and has been going for nearly 10 years.

Paul Downey of OSHUG gave a lovely introduction to open source hardware, some examples of projects, events, plus various groups and people hacking tech.

Opentech: PSD on open hardware

Russ Garrett, spoke about the London Hackspace and gave a brief history of how it grew from small beginnings and venues into a very organised space today with at the time of the event, membership being nearly 300 people.

Open hardware questions: Russ

It was good to hear an update from Suw Charman-Anderson on Ada Lovelace Day: a celebration of women’s achievements in science, technology, engineering and maths – a subject very close to my heart.

Steve Goodwin gave a talk about digital archeology and the difficulties in creating and archiving retro technology. Steve concluded by showing his EMF emulator framework for a ZX 81.

A bit of light hearted and NSFW fun came from Jag who was inspired by his father’s knowledge of morse code, to play with it and come up with “an attempt to acquit extremely offensive & censured words using morse code, din & music”.

After the talks concluded, everyone made their way to the ULU bar to chat with friends old and new, plus quaff beer. Sadly the kitchen wasn’t open in the evening – I’m sure it would’ve done a roaring trade in its legendary curly fries. An awesome day – thanks to Sam Smith and all the lovely organisers for a very well executed day, the only shame is that I’ll have to wait till next year for the next one!

Ourduino PCBs
A couple of Ourduino’s beautiful PCBs.

Temperature sensing t-shirt (AKA: “Yr in mah face!”)

'Yr in mah face' temp-sensing t-shirt

At last weekend’s 24-hour Pachube Hackathon, I created an electronic wearable I wasn’t expecting to make! To clarify that statement, I intended to hack on a LoL Shield I’d recently soldered together (it has 126 LEDs = steady hands needed & much love to the soldering iron ;-)). Unfortunately, I’d mislaid an accelerometer to interact with the LEDs, so it was no go for that hack…

Spaghetti croc clip testing works!

After spreading out all my spare LilyPad Arduino components and kit from my toolbox on the table at Pachube Hackathon, I decided on a new hack – a temperature sensing t-shirt! I spent some time writing and debugging the code before it would happily compile in the Arduino IDE. I then tested the code by uploading it to the LilyPad and connecting all the modules together with crocodile clips, and yay it worked!

Creating my hack: big heart cat heads

I’m very interested in interactive wearables and so decided to create a t-shirt that would use loop poll Celsius data from a sensor on the t-shirt and average them, then visualise the results. The tshirt uses sewable LilyPad Arduino modules and conductive thread to sew all the connections together.

I didn’t have much time left, once I’d got the code to compile and uploaded it, then tested everything together with the crocodile clips, so the designing, cutting out from fabric and sewing all the fabric and components together with conductive thread was a manic rush. No prizes for tidy sewing and elegant design I’m afraid, but a prototype conceived designed and built is less than 24 hours!

Creating my hack: big heart cat heads

So here’s the amusing concept scenario… imagine you’re a shy and retiring geek like me, who might find themselves in a social situation, such as a loud, crowded bar. The temperature sensing t-shirt I’m wearing has two cat heads: one green – the colour of cool, calm collected cat – its LED eyes signaling temperatures of less than 27 degrees Celsius, if the wearer were to say have someone at close proximity talking loudly at them, the heat from their breath would push the sensor Celsius average over this point and the LEDs would turn off on the cool calm collected green cat head and come on, on the hot, red, angry coloured cat head!

Creating my hack: early conductive thread sewing

This would be a signal to whomever is causing the angry red cat’s LEDs eyes to light up, to back off “You’re in mah face” or perhaps if the wearer is hot and embarrassed, to have a nice sit down in a corner with a cool drink of lemonade.

Creating my hack: woo done in the nick of time!

Creating my hack: back view, negotiating tracks of conductive thread

But seriously, my t-shirt is a fun proof of concept, I’m very interested in how sensing tech such as temperature sensors can have wider and useful usage. For example, in a society where more of the population is living to a ripe old age, then smart wearables such as temperature and other sensing modules can help older or disabled people, who might need their health monitoring constantly, carry on living at home for longer and keep their independence. Also, I can think of various lifestyle and sporting uses, such as comfortable sports clothes that would also have reasons to track data, plus smart clothing for people who work with extreme temperatures, chemicals or in harsh environments.

Me and my hack - yay it works!

Smart Fabrics 2011, Hotel Russell, London – Phreaking Fashion!

As a pre-conference warmer for Smart Fabrics 2011, on Monday I went along to Nancy Tilbury’s Fashion Phreaking workshop. Nancy’s has been working in wearable technology for 15 years and runs the Nancy Tilbury Studios, plus teaches MA at Kingston University.

Nancy Tilbury Studio examples

The session kicked off with an introduction to the studio, Kingston Uni MA and Nancy’s experiences in making wearable tech. She told us about how this area has swung in and out of fashion since she was studying. She recalled how in the past wearable tech examples were often clumsy and cumbersome and the fashion companies of the day weren’t keen to engage with it.

However, interest is now picking up in wearable tech and Nancy has been working with various clients and students who are interested in probing and uncovering future lifestyles, creating pieces in the form of benchmarks and prototypes.

In taking stock, Nancy says, “We’re at a point where we need to engage with science and science needs to engage with design to form hybrid partnerships.” She went on to pose “Why is the time now?’ and described that it’s because of what’s happening in entertainment, for example, Lady Gaga is working with many wearable tech artists *and* also people now want the skins of their life to be digital.

Blushing dress

We heard about and saw a range of themes on wearable tech from over the years since Nancy was a student. One theme, emotional technology, looked at the Blushing Dress: which had on the base a suite of sensors, plus one for the hand. As the wearer becomes emotionally aroused, the dress changes.

Mini Wink workshop

The rest of the afternoon was spent as a workshop and we split into teams of 3 or 4 people and created ‘Mini Wink’ pocket patches to sew onto shorts. The patches and shorts were constructed from recycled denim. The Mini Wink patches use LilyPad Arduino (a sewable microcontroller PCB) connected to a soft switch and circuit made from copper fabric. Once constructed you tap the soft switch on the pocket and the shorts would wink at back at you via misted plastic pyramid shapes containing LEDs. Each team was given a kit with a slightly different circuit to construct, which included a conductive thread sewing kit, copper pieces, LEDs, their coverings and a coin battery.

Mini Wink pocket

It was a fun workshop; a great ice-breaker for meeting people and everyone who attended clearly enjoyed themselves. The session was followed by a fashion show of the Mini Wink pockets in action. During the Smart Fabrics conference reception drinks the Mini Winks were on display for all to see.

Team Twinkle Mini Wink pocket

Flashing away above is our Team Twinkle Mini Wink pocket!

Upcoming: Smart Fabrics 2011, London

I’m always on the lookout for interesting events that’ll help me develop my work and next week I’ll be going to the 7th annual Smart Fabrics conference in London on 4-6th April. I’m pretty excited about this as I’m hoping to see lots of innovation in fabric tech and inspiration for my future wearable electronics and artworks. What would be particuarly useful is some info on advancements in the durability of conductive threads, fabric and printed circuitry, plus I’ll be looking out for the latest news on sensors and lighting for wearables.

Electroluminescent me

Can’t wait to see some new creative applications and how e-textiles are being used in areas I haven’t really looked into yet such as medical and space tech and I’m hoping to be wowed by new tech in R&D and smart fabrics I’ll see in the future.

I’ll blog as much as I can and a try to find a Twitter stream for the event!

Conductive velcro has arrived!

Maker Faire UK, Newcastle

Busy Maker Faire UK
Maker Faire main hall – there were several other rooms…

On 12-13th March the third Maker Faire UK took place at Newcastle’s Centre for Life as part of their Science Week. I have no idea what it’s like to visit an American Maker Faire and I *boggle* at what the sheer scale of their events must be like as I hear that about 80 thousand people visit them! But, what I do know is that the UK Maker Faire is one of the best technology and science events you can ever visit in the UK. Why? It’s because Maker Faire is all about getting to participate and have fun, whether it be playing with sound, solder, a pinhole camera, bacteria, making a pie or knitting a neuron, the visitor gets to experience tech and science first hand, it’s participatory and not a sitting back and watching experience.

Maker Faire
The Room of 29 Things stand

This year, Maker Faire UK was twice the size as last year and if I remember correctly last year was twice as big as the first. I must say I’m pleased that Maker Faire UK has grown so quickly over the last two years and aroused so much interest, as technology and science certainly has the best toys. But seriously, it’s a brilliant way to encourage and nurture fledgling (and not so fledgling) interest in these subjects, I remember science certainly wasn’t so much fun when I was at skool and it’s also really, really important to encourage engineers and scientists of the future for all sorts of reasons. Finally, I’m also pleased it grew in size enough not to be in a chilly marquee, as I remember how chilly it was for the first Maker Faire UK ;-)

Space Science
Space Science ladies showing kids some fun stuff

I had my own stall this year, a bit of an undertaking as previously I’d been on the BBC R&D stand, but I enthusiastically set out with two trolleys, a rucksack and two bags (a slight mare to steer all that lot of ones own is an understatement) but I managed to make it to Newcastle for Friday set up day. I took three interactive LilyPad Arduino interactive sound artworks: Twinkle Tartiflette, I <3 0X0 and Twinkle Starduino, plus a selection of my electroluminescent wearables, including the Neon-Victoriana Queen outfit and crown.

Me at Maker Faire UK
Me and some of my electroluminescant / microcontroller wearables

My stand at Maker Faire
Sideways look at my stand

Hats off and huge thanks to the organisers and all the makers and hackers who put on such an inspiring show. I’ve tried to compile a list of inspirations, but as I was on my stand just about the whole show (except for running out to get lunch), I didn’t really get to view the rest of the show but I reckon my hacking heros Mitch Altman and Jimmie Rodgers must have helped a couple of thousand peeps have a go at soldering a blinking LED badge and the London Hackspacers (there were several other UK Hackspaces represented too) got up to mischief with Brightarcs’ tesla coils! At lunchtime I peered over the atrium to see tons of people having fun with Jam Jar and Curiosity Collective’s toys. Next to me were the Room of Things 29 with Bubblino and other exciting hacks, and on the other side Clockwork Zeppelin were inspiring people with their Steampunk jewellery workshop. I also saw my former BBC R&D colleagues totally busy with all their fab toys and could barely view Lush Project’s Lunar Lander and Bicycle Pong for players queuing up.

Maker Faire UK
Curiosity Collective

For a taste of some of what was on show, here’s my little vidjo, it’s in no way comprehensive because I was busy on my stall most of the time and yes, there’s a lot of images of my work ;-)

A few thousand people came through the doors and I saw a queue wiggling nearly all the way to the entrance to the Centre for Life. A good percentage of the attendants were kids and I hope this event has inspired a fair few to nag their families to let them have a hack at something fun. Plus, there were many artists and hobbyists looking for tips and tricks, and I got asked a huge amount about where I buy my EL-wire and Arduino kit.

Mitch soldering at Maker Faire UK
Mitch Altman & Jimmie Rodgers, doing a bit of soldering prep

The following quote says something quite magical about Maker Faire UK; during Saturday evening dinner @Oomlout declared “It’s our two year anniversary – it’s two years since we all met” – it’s true, Maker Faire UK has brought together some brilliant people who were previously working disparately and who now stay in touch all year and help each other out with ideas, solutions and bits of kit – I’ve made some wonderful friends and co-conspiritors \(*v*)/

Mitch Altman sums it all up with “At Noisebridge Hackspace, SF, we have one rule ‘Be excellent to each other'” and I think the Makers and Hackers of the UK and beyond certainly are!

Oomlout stocks at Maker Faire UK
Oomlout stocks

PS, now that Oomlout’s crazy impresario has his new laser cutter I vote we make an Arduino catapult for the Oomlout stocks and have them in the Centre for Life courtyard – I’d pay to toss a tomato!

IMG_3502
Twinkle Starduino – my interactive musical artwork

My stand at Maker Faire UK
I <3 0X0 – Interactive & musical game

Farewell BBC Backstage

Mashed hacks

I can’t talk about leaving the BBC without mentioning the end of another era…

In another part of the BBC at roughly the same time I left, a fantastic project that I had the honour of working on, BBC Backstage, was sadly wound down after 5 years.

Backstage at Bristol Web Developers conf

If you haven’t come across BBC Backstage before, it was catalyst for the BBC (and consequently a model that inspired many other orgs and institutions) to open up its data to the world in many forms. This freedom of data and APIs kicked off much innovation and encouraged developers to discuss, share and make mischief in a very positive manner and with a community driven by a mailing list, geek events, projects, plus the wonderful sharing of fantastic talent, enthusiasm and creativity. The Backstage online area had a blog which has now been moth-balled, but is still available (though sadly a server migration lost accreditation to my 20+ posts), BBC feeds and API areas, it had the Wild West servers: a playground for creativity and innovative projects, plus an area to list project news. The Wild West servers were a place to develop many exciting ‘skunkworks’ projects that wouldn’t usually have a home to develop.

Backstage posse

It’s true to say that with anything new and innovative there were both ups and downs as the project leapt forward and tested all kinds of boundaries. I’ve seen a few heated threads on the mailing list, but challenging discussion always provokes more than one viewpoint. I always found the debates, however heated full of passion, interesting points and I learnt huge amounts from the combined views and knowledge of the community, plus some of BBC’s best thinkers. For me the highs were the power of the community, events like Mashed and projects such as RDTV – these outweighed anything that didn’t go exactly to plan and I consider Backstage a great success. I was terribly sad when the BBC powers that be decided that Backstage’s work was done.

Werewolf

Some key people involved in the start-up and running of Backstage were Ben Metcalf, James Boardwell, Tom Loosemore, Matt Cashmore and Ian Forrester. I could write reams on some of my adventures at Backstage, but handily my colleague, Ian Forrester, commissioned Suw Charman Anderson to compile an ebook capturing some of the history and stories from this fantastic era of creativity ‘Hacking the BBC, a Backstage retrospective’ and it’s available as a PDF to download for free.

Yipeeee, my hard copy of ‘Hacking the BBC – a Backstage retrospective’ has arrived!
Hacking the BBC - a Backstage retrospective

Maker Faire UK, Newcastle
Also, Jemima Kiss of the Guardian wrote a very good in-depth article on BBC Backstage, plus there are several blog posts from my former colleagues, Ian Forrester, Adrian Woolard, Ben Metcalf and Martin Belam charting the history of Backstage from different perspectives and eras.

I sincerely hope the spirit of Backstage carries on, I know I’ve made many, many, fantastic friends during my time working on Backstage and have learnt so much, including the maxim “seek forgiveness, not permission” – sometimes it really is the only way to innovate and get stuff done – even if you do get told off sometimes (quite a lot) ;-)

Yay, that's my number!

R&DTV Tim O'Reilly tweet