Report on Barcamp Cambridge (UK)

In response to a query from foo camper Stephen Hsu about interesting people to meet with in Cambridge UK on an upcoming visit, I passed on the query in turn to UK foo Timo Hannay of Nature, who pointed me to Ian Mulvany’s blog entry about Barcamp Cambridge.

Ian did a great job of summarizing the talks, which I found to be a fascinating list, because of the focus on science and hardware hacking, two areas that (as you know if you read Make), are very much on our radar as an alpha geek birthing ground for the next generation of disruptive technologies.

Here are some of Ian’s summaries of talks that were on this theme:

Laura James, Alertme and the network of things

Laura James from spoke next. The company she is working for are creating a consumer product which attempts to open up the internet of things. By provide a set of relatively cheap sensor arrays connected to a hub that talks to a server the owner can set up whatever behaviour they can think of for the network. Sensors include motion sensors, accelerometers, light detectors and sensors that can switch. The technology is based on a very low powered wireless network protocol called Zigbee. The hub runs on linux with Python on top of it. The basic chip is small.

The first app they are trying to sell is a home security application. There was some interesting discussion about how one could match a component in the system to it’s abstract representation in the web interface. The question was “how can I tell which one is the hallway monitor?” to which someone replied, “it’s the one in the hallway”. “Ahh”, said the questioner, “you have obviously not lived in a house with children who like to move things around”. Luckily for such bedevilled patrons one will be able to write on the sensors. She said that they are interested in hearing novel ideas for how this kit could be used. Someone suggested that it could possibly be introduced to the bench and help with automating tasks, or with auto-data capture an enabling the open-notebook approach to science.

Simon Ford and bootstapping hardware hacking

Simon Ford then talked about Rapid Prototyping with Microcontrollers. I’ve never done any embedded programming, but Simon has created a platform on an embedded device that when plugged into a computer appears on the computer as a flash drive. Pulling executable programs on to this device allows them to run. He is also working on a web interface to the compiler for the processor. Right there in front of us he made the leds on the device blink. This is the “hello world” of embedded programming and it usually takes three days to get working. He made a very salient point; reducing the chain of complexity in a process increases the confidence in the result. When you go through a lot of steps then when you do get a result (such as a flashing light on a chip), you have an intrinsic skepticism. Every extra step is a potential barrier. By reducing the ‘hello world’ of hardware from a three day slog to two minutes you create a system that people can have a lot more confidence in. He wants to lower the barriers so that software people can extend their ideas to hardware, and hardware people can bridge the gap back to software. With Simon’s light weight system developing programs for embedded systems could become something that can be taken into schools or other environments and allow people with little experience of embedded programming to begin to explore this space.

Michael Dales and Quentin Stafford-Fraser, why two, no four, no eight screens are better than one

Michael Dales and Quentin Stafford-Fraser presented the work they are doing with Ndiyo. The Guardian has a nice article about what this non-profit company is doing. In a nutshell, multiple monitors, one computer. With linux as the OS the idea to be able to provide multi-seat internet cafes to the developing world in a box. To achieve this they use an on-chip video compressor that can then send the signal across either USB or ethernet. They demoed a working version of their system. It was very impressive.
The benefits are legion, not least of which is that this solution can provide up to a factor of 20 power saving over the traditional model of having a PC for every screen, per screen.

I really like the way this particular Barcamp seems to have worked out, as a single-track workshop. A smaller, focused event like this sounds great. Foo camp can be a bit overwhelming, with too much to see and do!