"Alloy" wheels for the Hull Pixelbot

OK, they're not really alloy. Although you could cast them out of shiny metal if you wanted. I'm going to have a go with some metallic filament I've got lying around.

Anyhoo, I've spent some time today improving the Hull Pixelbot wheels. They've been simple disks for too long. They now have a specially designed rim which turns a simple elastic band into a workable tyre (and the band doesn't seem to come off) and the rim is actually narrower than the wheel. And, the wheel now has holes in for lower weight, a better 0-60 time and faster printing.

I've just to do one final test on the finished design and then I'll put them on GitHub.

The Hardware Hacker

I first came across Andrew "bunnie" Huang when I had a Chumby.  I used to read the Chumby blog and he made some excellent posts about the ins and outs of dodgy SD cards. He's got a fantastic perspective on the business of making stuff, with special emphasis on how things get done in China.

He's written a book all about this, which I'm really keen to get a copy of. You can get a taste of the content on the book site, which seems to have a different chapter from the book each day.  I've read a couple and really enjoyed them.

If you have any kind of interest in how things are made, or if you have ever fancied having something made in Shenzen you should have a read of this book.

Penguins and Reliable Systems

It's lovely to see research work in Computer Science getting the recognition it deserves. The Dependable Intelligent Systems group at Hull has been doing some lovely work connecting the behaviour of penguin communities with reliability issues concerning regenerative braking systems on electric cars (among other things). Yes. Really,

There's a great report of the work here.

Playing Uncharted 4. Or vice versa.

It usually takes me a while to get around playing video games. I've still got a copy of "Batman - Arkham Asylum" for the Xbox 360 in its shrink wrap. Must get round to firing that up.

Anyhoo, I've started playing "Uncharted 4: A Thief's End" properly this weekend. It's very, very, good game. In fact it's like taking part in a movie. The production values are sky high, everything is polished to perfection and I'm really enjoying it.

These games are so clever that they can play themselves. And during some of the gameplay I'm wondering if that is what is happening, and I'm just watching. When I'm jumping around and hitting all the hand-holds, or shooting with unerring accuracy, it sometimes feels that the game is doing all the work and just leaving me with the impression I'm in charge.

I remember talking to someone about game development using the Wii Motion Controller. They were talking about how they managed to implement a particularly complicated gesture the player could make. They said something like "We just look for when the controller goes nuts, and assume the player is making that gesture". And nobody had ever complained about this.

I guess at the end of the day, when you write a game you are after giving a good experience, and one way to do this is to give the illusion of being in control while the game runs. I know it's the same with Forza 3. The game is giving me an impression of driving, and leaving out lots of control issues, not to mention the awful consequences of making a mistake. 

Having said all this, the game is hugely impressive and shows, yet again, just how much of a cinematic feel that modern games have.

Rip Off Britain

Apparently household insurance is important. I'm not keen on living in a box, although the single is awesome, (out of date pop culture reference alert) and so every year I've been paying a chunk of money to Legal and General so that if anything terrible happens they'll come round and sympathise with me whilst explaining why they can't pay me any money.

This year I took a proper look at the renewal price and it seemed a bit high. So I did a bit of digging and discovered that I could get equivalent cover for around a quarter of what I've been paying.

I rang up the company, was told that mine was a special "Rainbow" policy that was not arranged directly by the Legal and General. I think it's called Rainbow because I'm the crock of gold at the end of it.

Anyhoo, after 25 minutes on hold and being cut off, I finally manage to find a person to talk to. He asks if I'd like to cancel the policy. I ask him what he would do in my situation. We both agree to cancel the policy.

I'm not saying which company I used to sort out my new insurance, but apparently I can now take a cuddly toy to the movies with me for free.  I'm pleased that I've saved some money, and cross that I've been paying so much over the odds for all these years. I'm now going to carefully examine all my other policies and whatnot to see if I'm being ripped off by any of them too.

It seems that the phrase "valued customer" is now as outdated as ones like "liars don't prosper" and "manners maketh man". Life eh? 

I Robot on BBC Drama

When I was growing up I read a lot of science fiction. And pretty much my favourite author was Isaac Asimov. If you've never read any of his stuff, I envy you. You've got some great stuff out there to discover.

His stuff is brilliant. You can say what you like about the writing style (some of it hasn't aged particularly well) but the ideas behind it were always top notch. He was particularly good when writing about robots, and will go down in history for his "Three Laws of Robotics" which is becoming increasingly relevant today. Seek out his stuff. Read it. Enjoy.

Isaac Asimov liked writing short stories and wrote a bunch of really good ones which explored the Three Laws and how they can be bent. And the BBC have just made a series of 15 minute drama presentations of the best ones.  They are really, really good.

Playlist Editor

Behold. After a couple of hour's work we have the first version of an M3U compatible (yeah - right)  playlist generator. You point it at a device full of audio files and you can select tracks for inclusion in a playlist you can then save. I love using Visual Studio and C# to put useful things together quickly.

Next step is to have a crack at decoding the track information so I can select music by genre.

The Mysterious M3U File Format

The music player in my car is quite good. I can plug in a memory card and load up a whole bunch of music. The player interface also talks enticingly about "playlists", but I don't seem to have any and there seems no way in the car to create them.

So I do some digging. After a bit of searching I discover that the car will accept playlists in the "M3U" format. This format can be exported from some music players and you can also find programs that will create M3U files. Which is useful.

But, me being me, I fancy writing my own M3U file generation program. So I do some more digging. It turns out that the format of an M3U file is a list of tracks in a text file.

That's it. No cunning schemas or encoding techniques. Just a list of names. The only fiddly bit is in the file extension which I think needs to be m3u for non-Unicode and m3u8 if the text is UTF-8 encoded. You can make it more complicated by adding directives (there's a good description here) but it turns out that I can start making these exotic sounding files with just notepad. I'm going to have a go tomorrow.

There's a lesson here folks, which is that in the Wonderful World of Computers(tm) it is quite frequently the case that something horribly complex sounding will actually turn out to be quite simple. Don't work on the basis that "it will always be too hard for me to understand". Every now and then something is as simple as the simplest thing it could be.

Misty Morning at c4di

Got up bright and early to go and work down at c4di today. I've got all my robots set up there now (they've got plenty of space, which is nice) and I wanted to work on remote configuration of robot settings.

I was up so bright and early that the car was actually frozen solid. And as I drove into town a clear bright morning turned into something a bit foggy. But this did make for some nice photographs when the mist cleared a bit. 

Some seagulls 

Some seagulls 

c4di looking shiny

c4di looking shiny

Light Pipes and Off Roading

I've been experimenting with some wheels I found on a different, lessor, robot. They are about the right size, and they give a Hull Pixelbot a nice "off-road" feel. They make turning a bit more difficult though, as the thick tyres are very grippy. 

I've also been playing with printing "light pipes" inside the shade for the pixels. The idea is to give better defined points for a camera to track the position and orientation of the robot. But I think the results are quite artistic too. 

Hull Pixelbot Seminar Fun

I've not taken an audience picture for a while.

And it shows.

Anyhoo, I gave my Hull Pixelbot seminar today. Great fun (at least I enjoyed it). Most everything worked and we had some great discussions about games involving the robots.

You can find the slide deck here.

I'm feverishly writing the howto guides and getting the software ready for the "big upload" on Friday.

It was great to see everyone, they do have lovely audiences at Hull.

HullPixelbot Fridge Magnets

I've spent a chunk of the weekend printing Hull Pixelbot fridge magnets. I just took the logo and fed it into Cura (the slicing program that I use for Una, my 3D printer) and after a bit of fiddling I managed to get a 3D object that works quite well.

Once printed I just have to rub a black marker pen over the 3D text to make the letters stand out. Although I wasn't as careful as I should have been, which has made them a bit smudged. Perhaps I can print a little mask to put over the text when I ink it.

Anyhoo, the magnets will be going on sale soon in aid of Comic Relief. I'm doing a lecture in rhyme again this year all about robots, accompanied by a bunch of dancing Hull Pixelbots.

Oh, and if you are in the university on Wednesday I'm also doing a Hull Pixelbot seminar thee too.

Must see Hull: Hepworth's Arcade and Trinity Market

If you're from Hull and you haven't been to Trinity Market in a while, then go.

If you're not from Hull, but you find yourself in our excellent city for one of our awesome City of Culture events, then go to Trinity Market.

It's down the end of Whitefriar Gate. You can get to it from Hepworth's Arcade or from the street. It's got all kinds of interesting stores and shops in there. Along with the staples like meat, fruit and sweeties (and, er, staples), it's also got a whole bunch of boutiques and an amazing vinyl store selling records that I actually own. There are quite a few places you can get a bit to eat too.

And in Hepworth's Arcade you've got Fanthorpes, a proper HiFi shop, and also a really good, traditional joke shop.


If you're a student wanting to show mum and dad some local colour then you could take them along.

If you are just in the market for something interesting you should definitely go take a look.