Getting in touch with the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things involves making objects smart by giving them the ability to communicate with the outside world. We’ve been prototyping – and we’re pretty pleased with the results.

The Internet of Things (IoT) was one of the core themes at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show.  For those who aren’t familiar with the term, IoT involves making objects smart by giving them the ability to communicate with the outside world.  This means that your fridge could tell you what is available to eat for dinner, your car could tell you where it’s parked and your sandwich maker could tell you that is unloved, disillusioned and alienated. And so on.

This month I’ve had the opportunity to get the soldering iron out and install a bit of digital chattiness into some of the ‘things’ we use in our stores.  Like Nick’s Christmas Robot Project, I’ve been using an Arduino for the main control board. This has the advantage of being a) very cheap b) difficult to break c) easy to program and d) very extensible.   Extensibility is probably the biggest benefit since there are a large number of readymade circuits, such as WiFi and Bluetooth modules, that are ready to be ‘plugged in’. Then all that’s left then is a bit of simple electronics, which can be picked up pretty easily by looking through some of the examples online.   If anyone’s interested, we could run a couple of workshops that would get you up and hacking pretty quickly.

Now that the soldering is complete, and three wreaked prototypes later, I’m actually pretty pleased with the results. The next step will be concealing all the snazzy looking electronics inside a rather plainer little black box. I’m using our office Makerbot 2 3d printer to help me to do this.

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It’s interesting to reflect that this could be the future of consumer electronic products. That is modular electronics, housed in a customised case that can be 3d printed specifically for the purpose in hand.  We’ve already seen the start of this trend with the popularity of multi-purpose boards like Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Google’s Ara has taken this a step further, by creating what has been described as a ‘Lego’ phone.  But equally some experts argue that the cheapness of hardware could also negate the benefits of hardware customisation, so his approach may never be economically viable.  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime though, grab hold of an Arduino and a WIFI module, integrate it with something bizarre and tell us all about it!   In the words of Bob Hoskins ‘It’s good to talk’*

*Especially if you are a sandwich maker.

2014: The Year Of The Robot!

Is 2014 the year of the robot? Read on for our opinion.

I’ve been waiting for this year for a long time! Finally… FINALLY… I’m sensing that this is the Year of the Robot. I’ve been promised this year all my life from the earliest TV shows to the latest Robocop movie so I’m glad it’s finally here.

Google’s purchase of major military robot maker Boston Dynamics is the marker. Combining the Big G’s powerful algorithms and those ominous walking machines means that all the component pieces are now ready to be built together.

At the other end of the spectrum of robotic technology are the hobbyist components that can be formed into home-brew robots.

I spent my Christmas break building a 4-wheel drive robot that combines a Raspberry Pi with an Arduino control board. The Raspberry Pi is being taught to follow a red ball using its HD camera, and compares that to an image of the red ball it has stored in memory. It works out the difference between where the red ball is in the viewfinder and its ideal image, and send commands to the Arduino to move the 4 wheel drive motors in such a way that it ‘thinks’ will align the two balls. If the ball in the viewfinder is too small, the robot will move forward. If too large, backwards. If too much to the left, a right ‘spin’ is applied, and so forth.

Neither the Raspberry Pi or Arduino are powerful computers, but they are cheap, can run off batteries and give a complete whiteboard on which to experiment. The limit is your imagination – all you need is a sense of how to program. Those of us with some programming experience can even teach the Raspberry Pi to program itself – using the original robot control program to learn and write out adapted source code which it then proceeds to run. Adapting and evolving as its environment changes, the robot will learn more and adjust as it gains experience.

At the powerful end of the scale, I think it’s only a matter of time before robots reach ‘sentience’ – that is, a sense of their own existence. Once we get there, I’m quite sure a whole moral landscape will be encountered; a landscape that starts with the question: Do robots dream of electric sheep?