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ggreig: (Western gentleman)

Or, Reinventing The Torch.

In Doctor Who, the Master’s signature weapon is the Tissue Compression Eliminator, which kills by shrinking the target to the size of a doll (the scale of the doll is, for some reason, never specified). It’s mostly used by the Master as played by Anthony Ainley in the 1980s, and in those stories takes the form of a thick rod with a bulb at the end that opens, crocus-like, to fire a red beam.

However, it made its first appearance in the Master’s very first story, Terror of the Autons, in which Roger Delgado’s Master wielded a rather more stylish version resembling a cigar, and fired by pressing with the thumb:

The Ainley period Tissue Compression EliminatorThe Delgado period Tissue Compression Eliminator

Knowing I was going to be attending a Doctor Who convention and would be expected to dress accordingly, it occurred to me – before last season’s revelation about the Master – that a) I had the beard for the part and b) had always fancied a jacket with a Nehru collar. A bit of hair colouring would convert my largely white beard to the original Master’s two-tone badger-style goatee. Couldn’t do much about the hairline.

What I couldn’t easily accept, adapt or get hold of, however, was the Master’s TCE, so I thought about building one.

The Core

My first thought was to buy aluminium tubing and telescope short sections of it together, but it proved difficult to find sizes guaranteed to telescope and although the prices were reasonable for the amount I wanted, minimum order amounts were – less so. I headed out to the nearest hardware store and inspiration, of a sort, struck. Toilet roll holders – the sprung, plastic sort – would do the job for a few quid.

I bought a handful of black ones on the spot to experiment with, and ordered some silver ones from eBay. The black ones were noticeably better quality, but using a silver one as my base would give me a much better finish for the sliding section than I could possibly have achieved using paint. I also found I could fix some if its issues by opening up a big enough hole in the larger end to work the weedy spring out and replace it with a stronger spring from one of the black ones.

The Circuitry

Having found something that could form a good base to work on, the next thing to consider was what to put inside it if I wanted it to appear to work. Well, electrically that’s not hard. What I would need would be a power source, and something that would light up when a switch was closed. It’s a torch!

Circuit diagram for the Tissue Compression Eliminator

With appropriate circuit board to mount them on, I could fit seven LEDs (arranged hexagonally, with one in the middle) within the diameter of the toilet roll holder. A bit of browsing at Proto-Pic turned up what I wanted; a 1" circular protoboard. I did have to trim it down a bit to fit, but it gave me a good starting point. I also got some Super Bright Red LEDs. I already had resistors to hand, and a small selection of switches which happened to include a suitable one.

The circuit couldn’t get much simpler and was easy to throw together on a solderless breadboard just to check everything worked. Then the tricky bit was to work out how to wire it up in practice, cram it all inside a toilet roll holder without breaking anything, and provide a way of activating the switch.

Building The Shell

It was obvious the LEDs would have to be mounted inside and at the front somehow. However, a single toilet roll holder was neither long enough to represent the TCE, nor would it be possible to mount the LEDs inside its broader half – there would be nowhere to attach them, and that space also contained the spring. Even if that hadn’t been the case, it would have been very tight and might have necessitated cutting down on LEDs. This is where the black toilet roll holders came into play.

By cutting the bigger part of a black toilet roll holder to a suitable length, and then sawing a slit along it, it was possible to prise it open and fit it as a sleeve around the silver one. This again gave the right colour without the need for painting, and it made it possible to extend the length of the TCE with a double skin – an inner, un-slit tube simply stacked on the front of the silver one, and a slit sleeve embracing them both. The slit tubes would require filling later to cover the gap, but again a good structural foundation was in place.

With the idea for the extension of the muzzle established, the problem of where to mount the LEDs was solved, as they would go inside that rather than the body of the main holder.

Planning The Interior

With that settled, the next most obvious decision was that power would have to go at the other end, so that it could be easily inserted and replaced. To power the LEDs, I wanted a 6V power supply. Within the space available, that meant I’d need to go with with several watch batteries, but I managed to get an AAA battery holder that fit nicely inside the thinner half of the toilet roll holder, and found that LR44 watch batteries would fit nicely within that. Taping four 1.5V LR44s into one slightly bigger 6V battery with insulation tape and adding a longer spring to the battery holder to hold them in place solved the power supply problem.

With both power and light source at least notionally sorted out, the tricky bit was how to connect them up successfully, with a switch in between that would be activated by the narrow end of the toilet-roll holder being pushed in.

How To Press The Switch

I had a small press-to-close switch that would fit inside the narrow end, and was about the same width as the battery holder. I could mount it (and the resistor) at the positive end of the battery holder, and hopefully attach some sort of plunger to the far end of the toilet-roll holder that would come down and press the switch closed when the smaller tube was pushed into the larger one.

I considered other alternatives, the main one being conductive paint on the outside of the small tube being brought into contact with more on the larger tube, but whenever I thought about reliability, I came back to the plunger option. Paint would have been very prone to wear and tear, and (as the conductive paint is black) painting over it to restore the silver look would reintroduce connectivity problems and spoil the look.

However, a plunger presented problems too. It had to be long enough to press the switch, but not so long that it would cause mechanical problems by pressing too hard – a tricky measurement to make confidently inside a tube and out of sight. It had to be broad enough to be sure of hitting the switch, and to prevent it being easily knocked out of alignment, but narrow enough to avoid catching on the lip of the narrower tube, and getting caught up in the spring. Finally, it had to share the confined space with the wires connecting the power end of the assembly to the LEDs, without fouling or putting strain on them – or doing the same to itself.

The solution I came up with was to build a plunger that was fixed at one end, but had the other end sprung.

Building The Plunger

In order to accommodate a spring with the least hassle possible, I started with an old modelling paintbrush for the shaft of the plunger. It was roughly equivalent to a piece of narrow dowel, but with the advantage of being already hipped. I measured things out and cut it so that I could just slide a small spring on, and the broad part of the paintbrush would hold it in place. Then I built up each end with Sugru and a circle of plastic card to fix things, provide flat surfaces at either end, and make the plunger robust.

Making one end of the plunger sprung provided a couple of benefits. It allowed for a soft press on the switch, so that it didn’t matter so much if I didn’t get my measurements quite right; and it prevented catching on the lip of the narrower tube from being a problem – if it did occur, the sprung tip would flex slightly until it just slipped in, rather than getting stuck.

The most worrisome part was getting the wiring to share the same space. Ultimately, I just drilled holes through the ends of the plunger for each wire, with enough space to let it move fairly freely, and hoped.


Parts before assembly - click through for full sizeHaving – more or less – worked  out all the parts necessary, it was time to try to bring everything together. I’ve not done a lot of soldering in the last 25 years, so creating a circular array of 7 LEDs wired in parallel kept me busy for a while, and worried about short circuits, as there wasn’t a lot of space to work with the wire I had. Connecting up switch and resistor on a little piece of protoboard and connecting it to both the battery holder and the wire that would connect to the LEDs was challenging within the space available too. Both of these went well, though, and I used more Sugru to fix the switch assembly firmly in place (and provide a bit of additional insulation) at the positive end of the battery holder.

Where I messed up – though I didn’t discover it until later – was the simplest part of the soldering. While connecting a wire to the negative terminal of the battery holder, I overheated the plastic and managed to break the connection between the metal terminal and the spring holding the battery in place. I tried to keep testing everything was still working at every stage, but I missed this and had some worrying debugging of connections later on with a multi-meter when stuff just didn’t work! When eventually discovered, a combination of conductive thread and paint remedied the issue.

I fed the wires through the plunger, with excess that could be cut back once I knew how much slack would be required to attach the LED assembly but allow the battery holder to be pulled out for inserting or removing batteries, and I drilled some extra holes through the stationary end of the plunger to allow me to fix it in place more firmly with thread or wire. I tried thread first, but it was too fiddly and difficult to get right, so I fell back on aluminium modelling wire – and another layer of Sugru to fix the LED assembly in place and avoid short-circuits!

TCE nearly complete

Finishing The Exterior

As already described, the exterior of the barrel was to be built up with parts of the black toilet roll holders. With a bit of specialist super glue for awkward plastics, these went on firmly and the large lengthwise gaps left by slitting them and the smaller circumferential one between the two sections were filled with black Sugru, which I then rolled on greaseproof paper to try to get a reasonably smooth surface. The result wasn’t perfect, but good enough if you weren’t inspecting it closely. The interior of the barrel was painted silver.

The butt end, where the battery holder was inserted, was covered up with a cylindrical rubber ferrule (sold for the foot of a chair), which was just right for the job of a battery cap.

Finally, I added a a bit of copper trim – two strips of plastic card covered with Bare-Metal Foil and attached with the plastics super glue. One covered the join between the two sections of black tubing nicely.

The End Result

The completed TCEThe completed TCEThe completed TCE, lit upThe original, on-screen TCE

The final picture shows the original, for comparison.

ggreig: (I Need Dis)

A Harvard University human motor systems test that attempts to guess your age knocked 16 years off me today!

The test is based on how quickly you can click on dots on the screen – it’s a bit like that eye-test where spots of light are shone on the inside of a hemisphere and you have to react to them. I wouldn’t say my reactions are particularly good, so why did I do so well?

I think it’s because I was using a trackball. The basic assumption of the test is that you’re using either a mouse or a trackpad, although it does provide an “other” option as part of a survey after the test’s completed.

I switched from mice to trackballs a number of years ago – not sure how many, but long enough to have had to replace one. People visiting my desk hate using the trackball (so much so that I have a “guest mouse” for when people come by), and adjusting to it was hard. In fact, for the first week, it was physically painful as I got accustomed to an entirely new set of movements. After that first week though, it was full speed ahead and I’ve never looked back. A trackball’s quicker and more accurate than a mouse, and my burgeoning RSI from dragging a mouse around went away.

My trackballs are thumb-driven ones from Logitech; for some reason finger trackballs seem to be more popular, but I wouldn’t have thought they can be so quick and efficient and surely must suffer from some of the problems of mice. The thumb’s a “spare” digit from a mousing point of view, but it’s great for driving a trackball; strong, and capable of fast, sharp and quite precise movements.

If you don’t believe me, give the test a go and see how you do!

ggreig: (Default)

Sometime this month, I think I passed the milestone of 20 years of owning a PC.

I wasn’t particularly exposed to computers while I was school, nor even much at university. A friend had a BBC micro, on which I played Elite a few times, and I learned to write S-algol on the University VAXen. The closest I came to a PC was one Physics lab that required me to write a little Basic to control a stepper motor.

Then I did a conversion M.Sc. to Computer Science, and then I was unemployed.

After nearly a year of unemployment, the bright future of work as a programmer I’d hoped for looked like as though it might be escaping from me.

I thought I’d better do something about it, and with a loan from my parents and advice from my friends I bought a PC, to demonstrate that I was serious about these computer things. In particular I was grateful for the advice of [livejournal.com profile] flybynightpress, a Mac enthusiast himself, who advised me not to get a Mac but a PC, because the employment prospects were better. You tend to pay attention to advice like that!

That PC was a Viglen (pre-Lord Sugar), with a 386DX processor, 4MB of RAM, and a 125MB hard drive, with the (then) brand new Windows 3.1.

Sometime in June or July, I had a horrible experience when it stopped working. Completely. My first computer, bought with money I didn’t have, bricked. and with that horrible paranoia that maybe, oh no, maybe it was all my fault!

A technician had to come the hundred and something miles from Edinburgh to the glen where I was living with my parents on the west coast, with me liable for the several-hundred-pound cost of the callout if it really was my fault. That was not a happy wait.

Luckily, the motherboard had died of its own volition, and with a replacement fitted free of charge, that PC served me well for a fair while afterward. And a month or two later, I was employed as a programmer, albeit in a job paying only 65% of the average graduate starting salary of the time, and with the most horrible computer language in the world ever. And on a PDP-11/83, not a PC. Still, I’m sure my PC-ownership helped ;-).

Today, my Raspberry Pi arrived, both more and less powerful than that machine of twenty years ago, depending on how you look at it. Unfortunately a painful ear infection is making the thought of tinkering unappealing for me tonight; but hopefully the Raspberry Pi will be the gateway for others to follow in the career that the PC has let me enjoy.

ggreig: (Default)

Apparently the sonic screwdriver has been developed right here in Dundee! (Usual hyperbole applies, but it’s still an interesting development.)


Apr. 1st, 2012 10:02 pm
ggreig: (Western gentleman)

An Arduino UNO and accessories

Back in 1990 I was relieved to graduate with a 2:2 in Physics and Electronics, and the knowledge that whatever I was going to do next, I didn’t want it to involve Physics. A conversion M.Sc. to Computer Science came along, and having enjoyed the logical parts of Electronics, it turned out I was able to make a go of computing.

I think that probably the last time I had anything much to do with hands-on electronics was back then, when I created a voice-delay board for my Honours project; a project that would store up to eight seconds of speech at 8-bit quality, before playing it back.

For the last year or so, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of the Arduino (or a clone such as the Netduino, which allows you to use the .NET Micro Framework), a microprocessor with an environment of plug-in accessories that’s intended to make it easier for people – especially artists and designers – to achieve interesting things with electronics.

For this week off, I dug out the gas soldering iron I’ve had pretty much unused for ages, ordered a bunch of interesting sounding parts and, driven by visions of having a robot zipping about the place autonomously and chatting to people, I set out to see what I could achieve.

To avoid disappointment straight away, you possibly won’t be astonished to hear that there’s nothing to show you!

However, I did have fun tinkering with electronics and simple programming.

What you see in the picture above is an Arduino Uno (top left) connected to my PC via a USB cable and sitting on a base that also holds a breadboard for experimentation. Surrounding it are three “shields” that can be stacked on top of it and controlled by it. Going clockwise, they are an Ardumoto shield for powering electrical motors, a Voice Box shield for synthesising speech, and an EasyVR shield for voice recognition. Also in shot, some tools including a Portasol Technic butane-powered soldering iron, and an SRF02 Ultrasonic range finder.

I’ve tinkered a bit with each of them – enough to be sure I can get them working – but spent most time on getting the Voice Box shield to talk. This required some soldering to attach the ”headers” (the black strips of connectors that allow the shield to be stacked on top of the Arduino) and a couple of screw connectors that speaker wires could be pushed into.

In the process I found that I could still solder stuff, but wasn’t very good. Also that the gas soldering iron wasn’t very good for recovering from bad soldering events, so it’s a good thing I was just a bit untidy and didn’t have any real disasters.

Programming the Arduino is done in a simplified version of C++, based on the Wiring platform, with some of the structure of your program pre-defined and hidden from you to make it easy to get started. It has its own IDE, originally developed for the Processing language. Arduino programs are called sketches, and they control the behaviour of the pins around the edge of the board, which you connect other components to (such as the shields, or standard electronic components).

Personally the first thing I did was look for a plugin that would allow me to work in Visual Studio rather than the Arduino IDE, and luckily there is one. Despite the claim that “serial tools are far better than Arduino”, I did find myself dropping back to the Arduino IDE on occasion for the tool that observes the serial output from the Arduino, as some of the output wasn’t appearing in the Visual Studio version, even though I knew it was there. Also some of the UI idioms it uses weren’t entirely at home in Visual Studio – adding a new Project from the Project menu, rather than the File menu for example. Apart from those quibbles though, the Visual Micro plugin gave me an environment I was happier working in.

The Voice Box shield turned out to be simple to program to. Using standard Arduino library functionality, you create a software serial port that will use two pins to talk directly to the SpeakJet chip on the Voice Box shield; then you send arrays of numerical commands to that serial port. That’s it, as far as technical stuff goes.

Where the work arises is in figuring out what those numerical commands should be. There are some general commands for such things as volume, speed, and pitch, and then more specific commands that represent phonemes that can be used to build up your speech.

There is a helpful program that will do some of this work for you, based on a dictionary of words that other people have already created. If the dictionary doesn’t contain the words you want, however, you’ll have to build them up one phoneme at a time. This applies to perfectly normal words that you’d expect everyone would want an electronic voice to say for them, such as “Exterminate!”, so get ready to spend some time looking up numerical codes for phonemes.

I spent less time with the EasyVR voice recognition shield, so don’t have a lot to say about it at the moment, except that it maintains tables of words it can recognise and the pre-defined words worked perfectly well for me. I haven’t yet investigated customising it, but working within the limitations of this and the Voice Box, I hope it’ll be possible to build up simple dialog trees.

I got the Ardumoto shield to drive the motors on a Dagu Magician chassis. They appear to be a bit weedy, so I don't think they're going to drive that Sevan's Dalek I have lying about, even though it looks like the Magician chassis would fit beneath the skirt, but it’s a start.

So if everything works, why haven’t I achieved more? Well, you may have guessed, but everything working fine separately is not the same as everything working in unison. Although there are quite a lot of pins controlled by the Arduino (6 analogue and 14 digital), inevitably some of the shields want to use the same pins for different purposes. The next step is to do something about this, to which end I’m looking at the Go Between shield from Mayhew Labs; and if in future I want to add many other components so that a robot can interact with the outside world, I will probably end up looking at a Mux Shield.

In future, I might like to play with a Netduino in order to get a nicer programming environment, but I started off with an Arduino because it’s more widely used and supported and I wasn’t going to be faced with the possibility of having to write my own support libraries for shields before I really knew what I was doing.

I’ve had a bit of fun, it’s not been too taxing of my electronics or programming skills, and it looks like more interesting things could be fairly easily achievable.

ggreig: (Technical Support)
Here's something for iPhone users with Windows Phone envy: why not run Windows Phone on your iPhone?

It's actually a browser-based demo of the UI, so it's not exactly "real", but it's a neat idea for giving people something they can try hands-on. (If it works - someone here tried it with an iPod and got the same message I did on a desktop machine - "your device or web browser isn't supported at this time".)
ggreig: (Default)
The old phone box in the Clachan of Glendaruel has been fitted with a defibrillator, the first such in Scotland.

This is where I grew up; Mum's house is just out of sight in that second photo.
ggreig: (Default)
There's a story on the BBC about a trainee surgeon in Scotland realising it's possible to print models of bones from 3D CT scans relatively cheaply, for inspection before surgery. Still a bit on the pricy side for personal use, but cool to see technology helping to make lives better.

Most Wanted

Nov. 1st, 2011 10:39 pm
ggreig: (Default)
Meant to post this nearly a month ago, but it's still interesting. What kind of tablet do people really, really want to have? An Android device? No, surely it's got to be an iPad? Read on...


Feb. 8th, 2011 10:39 pm
ggreig: (Microsoft)

A quiet evening just chillaxing with the Xbox 360...

...and the Kinect that arrived yesterday )
ggreig: (Astronaut)

I finally have a fully operational Windows Phone, following its arrival on Friday. The delay is not the fault of the phone, I hasten to say, it's due to unfortunate timing and mistakes made by the provider. I won't dwell on those.

Windows Phone 7The Windows Phone is supposed to have a pretty standard user experience regardless of whose hardware you've acquired, but in case you're interested what I'm typing in to at the moment is an HTC 7 Trophy, with 8GB of RAM. Memory is one of the key distinguishing factors between the phones on the market, although there are others. For work it was more important to get a phone promptly than get a memory monster, so we passed up the chance to wait for an LG Optimus 7 with 16GB. The HTC phone is physically prettier, quite like an iPhone.

Sitting on a bus bombing through the Fife countryside as I am, the feature I'm most conscious of is the onscreen keyboard, the only means of text input. I've heard it compares well with the iPhone, and a juddery bus is a pretty fierce test, but I do feel fat fingered even when not stretching its capabilities. What I really want right now is a stylus (which is easier to steer with the point held on the page than stabbing at keys that respond when you get near them), and what I want in a more stable environment is a Bluetooth keyboard; unfortunately neither are supported, as I discovered when I tried with my old keyboard.

It's true I'm not a typical user. I have a dumb phone myself, and wouldn't have that if I hadn't been given it. What I want is a PDA, but since most/all PDAs are phones these days, I'd better get used to it! ;-)

There's a lot to like, though. The touch is nice and responsive, and it will be interesting to see how the marketplace develops. Office is a handy thing to have a mobile version of, and at no extra cost (unlike the extra software I had to invest in for my Palms). Although I'm not really a gamer, the Xbox Live integration is a nice touch.

Standard stuff like mail was fairly easy to set up, apart from connecting to Exchange through Outlook Web Access secured by a self-signed certificate. The only way to get the root certificate onto the machine is to set up some other e-mail account on the device, mail the certificate to yourself, and install it from the e-mail message . Personally I'm a fan of paying for certificates for applications like this, but grrr! That was annoying. Once set up, each e-mail account has its own tile on the start screen, and they are accessed separately.

I wasn't quite expecting that, because other updates from the Internet are all collected into one place, under the People tile. Well, the ones that are supported, anyway - Windows Live and Facebook. If you use some other social media, like LiveJournal or Twitter you're out of luck - for now at least - and will need to use the browser or a dedicated app. I understand why it's not possible to support all the many and varied options out there, but not sure why something that's basically a social newsreader can't accept an RSS feed...

Browsing the Internet is quite cool (dumb phone owner, remember!), and the pinch zoom does make it possible to browse pages that would otherwise be a non-starter. Kudos to Apple for leading the way on that one - but having used it in anger, it's now quite clear that it's a sticking plaster. If you're developing a web site, and you want people to access it from mobile devices, do them a favour and design for mobile: don't just trust the browser to take care of it for you. It may work, but it'll be needlessly painful.

Bing maps with the built-in GPS are quite fun - not sure there's much to add to that, but there you go.

I guess the key question has to be, would I get one with my own money? Well, I've been waiting a long time for a device that I would be satisfied with as a worthwhile upgrade from my venerable Palm Vx. I've always said it has to be a convergence device, at least to the extent that it will replace not one, but two of the devices I carry around with me. The Windows Phone doesn't quite do everything my Palm can; most notably it's missing a database solution like HanDBase, though that's surely just a matter of time. It's the first time, though, that I've played with a device where I think "This might be the one". It's got decent potential as a PDA; it's a phone; it's got a camera that's comparable to the one I was using up until last year; it doesn't have the capacity to carry my music collection, but then neither does anything else except the high end iPods; finally, it's actually pleasurable to use.

Rather a powerful point in its favour is that it's part of the Microsoft ecosystem and will work with my other devices with a minimum of hassle; and I have the option of developing for it without having to buy a Mac, although I'm a bit disappointed it would cost me $99 p.a. just to be able install an app directly onto my own machine. Admittedly, that would also allow me to distribute it through the Marketplace, and earn megabucks (ahem), and do likewise for the Xbox, but still.

So the answer is maybe, but a more definite maybe than any previous device. May be interesting to see what emerges over the next few months.


Sep. 14th, 2010 08:38 pm
ggreig: (Blockhead)

I got back to Scotland from a holiday in California visiting [livejournal.com profile] msinvisfem last week. I saw a lot of interesting stuff, so there’s a lot to write about, but based on previous experience – and about 12GB of photos and videos to sort through – it may be a while before it hits the blog here.

Outside the Microsoft Store, Mission Viejo, CAIn the meantime there’s one thing it’s quite easy to write about quickly, so I’ll start with my trip to one of the first Microsoft Stores, at Mission Viejo. There are currently only four physical Microsoft Stores, all in the States, so while the chances of me buying something off the shelf were pretty slim, it was an interesting opportunity to visit and see what there was to see.

The store bears a distinct resemblance to an Apple Store, though a bit more warm and welcoming with varnished wood in place of the sterile lab look. The staff seemed interested and helpful, although being British and just there for a look, I was mostly more keen to dodge them than interact. The hardware was nice to look at, but difficult to arouse much enthusiasm for when I’m not in the market at the moment, either personally or at work, having just got a touchscreen laptop at the start of the summer.

There was one young guy I spent some time chatting to though, who was demoing something I was surprised and pleased to see: Kinect for Xbox 360. If you haven’t hear about it already, it’s due out in a couple of months and it’s a way to interact with the Xbox 360 without a hand-held controller. That’s a big deal for the Xbox, which will help it catch up with other less sedentary game machines such as the Wii, but it’s also a big deal full stop if it’s actually good; bringing sophisticated real-time computer vision into peoples’ homes (also voice control and facial recognition, though those have appeared in home devices such as phones and cameras before). That’s impressive, and – assuming it’s successful – not so much catching up as leap-frogging other consoles.

It’s an impressive technical achievement, but is it really much different in terms of play from a hand-held controller? I’m not really in a position to say definitively, but the difference is that it’s (quote) “full body play” (promotional video). You only need one controller sat in front of the TV screen, and it will track not just the position of your hands or your feet, but can follow facial expressions too. Judging by the promotional video, it can handle two players at once. I don’t know whether more are possible.

I had a quick shot at a ten-pin bowling game:

Ten-pin bowling with Kinect for XBox 360

First of all, you get the machine to recognise you by positioning yourself on a red spot that appears on the “floor” on the TV screen. I had to shuffle backwards slightly to get “myself” on the spot. Once that was done, all I had to do was reach out my arm to the right to pick up a ball; and do what came naturally to bowl it.

I bowled six frames, and had no difficulty picking it up. In fact, in common with my similarly limited experience of bowling with the Wii, it might be a bit too easy; within that six frames I managed to bowl a turkey, which I’ve never heard of before and certainly never achieved in real life. However, it seems there may be room for greater finesse; the demo guy said that once you’ve practiced a bit with it you can apply spin – and all without a hand-held controller!

Six frames of bowling isn’t enough to give a comprehensive overview of Kinect, but it was fun and natural, and I’m quite excited about this development – both as an Xbox peripheral and as a significant achievement for applied computing in the home.

ggreig: (Topper)

There was an interesting story on the BBC web site on Thursday that didn’t seem to get the attention I might have expected, so I thought I’d post a reference to it here. A band called The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing has released a single on wax cylinder. The BBC story includes a five minute video about trying (and failing) to build a phonograph to listen to it with, and a little background on how the cylinder was made:

ggreig: (Saint George)

There’s a story on the BBC web site about steampunk style, which is worth a quick look.

For those who don’t know, the round/square bullet choice mentioned in the video really existed for a historical but ultimately unsuccessful multi-shot flintlock weapon, the 1718 Puckle Gun, although it  wasn’t aliens that the square bullets were for. It’s often billed as an early machine gun, but that wouldn’t quite be an accurate description.

ggreig: (Robot Maria)

...seems to be usable! I had previously tried the Windows XP version and decided that it wasn't worth the effort, but having recently upgraded my tablet to Windows 7 I thought I'd give it another go.

Yesterday I took my machine in to work and along to a technical presentation, and tried taking notes with it "live".

It's not as quick as "real" handwriting, because it doesn't get everything right and you do have to go back and make corrections, but there are few enough that it's not too painful.

And in a sense it is real handwriting, because unlike Graffiti on the Palm, you don't have to modifying letter forms for the machine. You just write in joined-up writing and the software will try to figure it out.

Mostly it does a pretty good job even straight out of the box, thanks to a lot of handwriting data collected and analyzed from previous versions of Windows. You can also train it though, to do a better job of recognising your own personal hand.

So, I think that handwriting is now a credible alternative for interacting with a machine that supports it. However, I'm not sure how likely it is to get much use. First of all, you do need specialised hardware, although you no longer need a special version of the operating system. More importantly though, the type of people who are likely to want a tablet are also  likely to have got used to typing, and are likely to be faster doing so.

I like writing on my geriatric Palm, because it feels more natural than typing, to write on a little "notepad". It also feels more creative. I'm not so sure that this is true of a tablet. Because a tablet is really a specialised laptop, it's bigger, heavier and more unwieldy, and you have to lie it flat to write on it; or lean it against a table-edge, which is what I did yesterday. Your hand rests on the screen as if it were a piece of paper, but of course it doesn't feel like one as the tip of the stylus slides over it. Not having done much manual writing for years, l also find that my hand gets a bit tired writing anything as long as this.

Yes, this post is handwritten in my own handwriting, with the tablet balanced on my left leg as l sit on the sofa half-watching a DVD. It works, but it's tiring; so TTFN folks. :-)

ggreig: (Ribart's Elephant)

I ran a session of Steam Elephants on Saturday – my fledgling campaign using a very slightly modified version of  [livejournal.com profile] ffutures' Forgotten Futures rules. I say fledgling, because it's probably still accurate; it's been running for about two and a half years, but infrequently, so we've not racked up a lot of sessions. However, given how long it takes me to start a campaign these days, I’m inclined to think I’ll stick with this one for the foreseeable. It feels fairly comfortable for me, seems to be going down well with the players and it’s got lots of potential. And there are fun figures for me to paint, when I get the time!

This particular session was a not-particularly-steampunky first though; the first game I’ve been involved in where we had a virtual presence.

I set up a spare PC with a web cam on a chair in the living room, and [livejournal.com profile] msinvisfemtook part from California. The times worked out fairly well; our regular start time of 3 o’clock was 7 in the morning on the west coast of America so it was early, but not impossible.

I took advantage of someone else’s trial and error in finding the best solution; Scott Hanselman has written a couple of articles about remote working with a more social side to it, and in the absence of a spare $5000 for a Roundtable camera, I went with his Skype video recommendations, which he uses for speaking to the family when on the road, and sharing a virtual office with another remote worker, setting up a dedicated Skype account on the spare, and telling it to auto-answer anyone on its’ friends list with full-screen video. As it’s an old PC and I don’t have the world’s fastest broadband connection, I didn’t try the High Quality Video Hack, although the camera would have supported it.

Picture quality was good enough anyway, and help up fairly well for the nine or ten hours of play. There were some problems with corruption of the picture and freezing, and the sound was not always perfect, sometimes requiring repetition; but on the whole, OK. In the post-mortem, it turned out that some of these issues might have been due to a virus scan starting up in the background on one of the machines, so maybe the problems we did have can also be avoided in future.

From the GM’s point of view, I would say it was a success. It wasn’t hugely different from having a player in the room. There were some practical issues regarding who to send out of the room at some points when secrecy was required (i.e. everyone else might have to move rather than the remote person, because the PC is not easily shifted) but nothing insurmountable. I was kept busier than usual just keeping things going, but that may not have been due to the teleconferencing – we had a good turn-out, which means more people to deal with, which means more work.

From the remote player’s point of view, I think it was more of a qualified success. Although it did allow involvement in play from a distance, the positioning of the camera meant that other players were disembodied voices, so it wasn’t as immersive as actually being there. One thing I got right with the camera was putting it on a long USB extension lead, so that it could be brought over to the table to show the position of figures. I wonder if there’s a better place to put it for general play, though. On top of the monitor is good for other players, because it’s easy for them to face the remote player when talking to them; but positioning the whole assembly naturally as if it were just another player meant the other players usually weren’t within the camera’s field of view. Finding a different location that would show more of the other players to the remote player would be an improvement. I’ll have to see if I can come up with an alternative place to put it.


Sep. 6th, 2009 09:27 pm
ggreig: (Robot Maria)

Due to Microsoft’s recent price reduction, and what seemed like a worthwhile deal at Curry’s (an extra wireless controller and a couple of games thrown in for free), I somewhat unexpectedly became the owner of an XBox 360 Elite last weekend.

Not being a gamer, particularly – though I don’t mind having the facility for games thrown in – I’m  more interested in the XBox for its capabilities as a Media Center Extender. In theory, at least, you can store all your digital media on your home network, and watch or listen to it through your TV, by way of the XBox. (There are stand-alone extenders that aren’t also games consoles, but they seem to be less available here than in the US, they cost nearly as much as an XBox, and the massed opinion of the Internet seems to think that the XBox is technically the best media extender anyway, so the choice was fairly inevitable.)

If I want to explore that possibility, then the next thing I need is a home network capable of transferring media information fast enough. Now, I already have Wi-Fi and it might do the job – but video would be pushing the capacity of a Wi-Fi network somewhat, and I’m not especially keen to have to run an Ethernet cable from the office upstairs to the living room downstairs so, remembering some mention of Ethernet through the power cables, I looked it up.

It seems there’s more than one system, but HomePlug appears to be the name to look for. I found a UK company that produces HomePlug products, and ordered a couple of Solwise 200Mbps HomePlug AV Ethernet Adaptor with Simple Connect & Mains Through. Try saying that without your teeth in.

Obviously while part of the appeal of going for something like HomePlug is that it should save the hassle of cabling, another part is that it’s a cool technical toy. Ethernet through the power cables! Obviously that is going to save the planet and stop all wars, instantly!

Unfortunately I have to report that it isn’t so.

The doohickeys duly arrived on Wednesday, and I rushed home to plug them in and enjoy the thrill of watching something that I could perfectly adequately have watched by using the built-in capabilities of the television, but doing so via the network from my PC upstairs! Please contain your excitement.

Today, thanks to a long Ethernet cable I was able to substitute in instead, I arrived at the definite conclusion that the reason that the picture – and the whole network connection with it – inevitably failed after a few minutes of watching was because the HomePlugs, despite being sold as suitable for AV use, couldn’t cope.

Maybe if you want to try them elsewhere, they will work for you, as they do seem to be a wee bit susceptible to “other stuff” on the power supply. Debugging my power supply is a step too far for me, though, so they’re going back. It’s a bit of a disappointment, as I really wanted them to work – obviously, as I was prepared to spend money on them. Looks like I’m back to good old CAT5 cable; I may have to do a bit of DIY to put it in, but it’s a lot cheaper, and it works.

For the moment, that’s it, and I can watch digital TV (which I could do anyway), listen to my ripped music (slightly more convenient now) and watch old movies downloaded from the Internet Movie Archive (not previously possible without burning DVDs); but the nebulous plan is to get a Windows Home Server machine at some point (maybe something like this one), put some real disk space in it and actually reduce the number of DVD boxes I have lying around.


Feb. 6th, 2009 01:24 am
ggreig: (MoonFrown)

A few years ago, I was given an iPod as a freebie. As I think I’ve mentioned since then, I think the iPod is not a great design (clearly a significant proportion of the population disagrees with me), but it does play music and I couldn’t argue with the price.

Four and a half years later, one well known flaw in the design brought itself more forcefully to my attention. The battery died.

Oh noes! What now? )
ggreig: (Wolverine)
I hadn't intended to blog about Synergy, a piece of software that I personally gave up on in (mild) frustration when it turned out to be more hassle to set up than it would have saved me.

However, I've found myself mentioning it to a couple of audiences over the last couple of days as a potential solution to problems they experience, so maybe it's worth mentioning here too.

Commence leveraging Synergy )

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