Robots in the lab

Hacking lab equipment to make it programmable is a good first step toward lab automation.

ModularScienceAutomatedCentrifuge

An automated centrifuge at Modular Science — click here for instructions to hack one yourself.

In the new issue of BioCoder, Peter Sand writes about Hacking Lab Equipment. It’s well worth a read: it gives a number of hints about how standard equipment can be modified so that it can be controlled by a program. This is an important trend I’ve been watching on a number of levels, from fully robotic labs to much more modest proposals, like Sand’s, that extend programmability even to hacker spaces and home labs.

In talking to biologists, I’m surprised at how little automation there is in research labs. Automation in industrial labs, the sort that process thousands of blood and urine samples per hour, yes: that exists. But in research labs, undergrads, grad students, and post-docs spend countless hours moving microscopic amounts of liquid from one place to another. Why? It’s not science; it’s just moving stuff around. What a waste of mental energy and creativity.

Lab automation, though, isn’t just about replacing countless hours of tedium with opportunities for creative thought. I once talked to a system administrator who wrote a script for everything, even for only a simple one-liner. (Might have been @yesthattom, I don’t remember.) This practice is based on an important insight: writing a script documents exactly what you did. You don’t have to think about, “oh, did I add the f option on that rm -r / command?”; you can just look. If you need to do the same thing on another system, you can reproduce what you did exactly.

Read more…

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iBeacons, privacy, and security

The technology is at risk of dying off — and that would be a shame.

iBeacons and various BLE technologies have the potential to shake up many established ways of doing business by streamlining interactions. Although there are potentially many uses for iBeacons, much of the initial discussion has focused on retail. (I’ll follow up with some examples of iBeacon applications outside retail in a future post.)

As I described in my initial post in this series, all an iBeacon does is send out advertisement packets. iBeacon transmissions let a receiver perform two tasks: uniquely identify what things they are near and estimate the distance to them. With such a simple protocol, iBeacons cannot:

  • Receive anything. (Many iBeacon devices will have two-way Bluetooth interfaces so they can receive configurations, but the iBeacon specification does not require reception.)
  • Report on clients they have seen. Wi-Fi based proximity systems use transmissions from mobile devices to uniquely identify visitors to a space. If you take a smartphone into an area covered by a Wi-Fi proximity system, you can be uniquely identified. Because an iBeacon is only a transmitter, it does not receive Bluetooth messages from mobile devices to uniquely identify visitors.
  • Read more…

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Four short links: 23 April 2014

Four short links: 23 April 2014

Mobile UX, Ideation Tools, Causal Consistency, and Intellectual Ventures Patent Fail

  1. Samsung UX (Scribd) — little shop of self-catalogued UX horrors, courtesy discovery in a lawsuit. Dated (Android G1 as competition) but rewarding to see there are signs of self-awareness in the companies that inflict unusability on the world.
  2. Tools for Ideation and Problem Solving (Dan Lockton) — comprehensive and analytical take on different systems for ideas and solutions.
  3. Don’t Settle for Eventual Consistency (ACM) — proposes “causal consistency”, prototyped in COPS and Eiger from Princeton.
  4. Intellectual Ventures Loses Patent Case (Ars Technica) — The Capital One case ended last Wednesday, when a Virginia federal judge threw out the two IV patents that remained in the case. It’s the first IV patent case seen through to a judgment, and it ended in a total loss for the patent-holding giant: both patents were invalidated, one on multiple grounds.
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The crowdfunding conundrum

Miscalculating funding thresholds can sink your startup.

There is widespread consensus that crowdfunding is a boon, an egalitarian means for bringing products and services to market without relying on banks, venture capitalists, or established financial angels. Myriad platforms now allow entrepreneurs and folks with a little (or a lot) of cash to get together without the red tape and angst that so often accompanies the soliciting and procuring of startup funds.

But that doesn’t mean crowdfunding is a panacea. In fact, observes Scott Miller, CEO and co-founder of Dragon Innovation, Inc., crowdfunding platforms have an Achilles heel: an inability to deliver hardware.

“Over the past year or 18 months, we’ve seen a pretty disturbing trend in crowdfunding,” Miller says. “A lot of campaigns meet their thresholds, but they ultimately don’t deliver the goods. That’s usually not due to fraud — it’s largely because many of the people who launch these nascent companies don’t understand hardware. They may want to drive people to their campaign by posting a low threshold, or they may not understand the expense involved in getting a prototype to high-volume production, but in either event, they wind up with insufficient capital. So, when the time comes to actually manufacture their product, they don’t have enough money, and they can’t recover. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost as a result.” Read more…

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Four short links: 22 April 2014

Four short links: 22 April 2014

In-Browser Data Filtering, Alternative to OpenSSL, Game Mechanics, and Selling Private Data

  1. PourOver — NYT open source Javascript for very fast in-browser filtering and sorting of large collections.
  2. LibreSSL — OpenBSD take on OpenSSL. Unclear how sustainable this effort is, or how well adopted it will be. Competing with OpenSSL is obviously an alternative to tackling the OpenSSL sustainability question by funding and supporting the existing OpenSSL team.
  3. Game Mechanic Explorer — helps learners by turning what they see in games into the simple code and math that makes it happen.
  4. HMRC to Sell Taxpayers’ Data (The Guardian) — between this and the UK govt’s plans to sell patient healthcare data, it’s clear that the new government question isn’t whether data have value, but rather whether the collective has the right to retail the individual’s privacy.
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Ask Tim O’Reilly about the Internet of Things on Reddit

Join Tuesday's "ask me anything" session covering hardware, manufacturing, design, and intelligent devices.

Our new Solid conference covers a lot of ground: hardware, design, manufacturing, and, of course, software. At 10 a.m. Pacific Time / 1 p.m. Eastern Time tomorrow (Tuesday, April 22), Tim O’Reilly will take questions on these areas and how he sees them fitting together through a Reddit question-and-answer session on the IAmA board.

The best way to get to the exchange is through this page, which will post the link once it’s available, about an hour before Tim starts taking questions. Tim will be available to answer your questions about the Internet of Things, etc., for about an hour — we look forward to seeing you!

If enough of you join, we might even get a watercolor out of it.

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