Devices and Networking Summit Day 2

And so to day two of the summit which features more impressive tech followed by a nerve jangling train ride and late night return to Hull. Now read on....

Keeping Control of Security and Privacy in a World of Devices

In this session we had some talks on different aspects of security. First up was a discussion of techniques to address "man in the middle" attacks, where a bad person interposes themselves between you and the person you are talking to. This technique of intercepting and relaying messages is particularly dangerous in a world where people are happy to use the nearest open WiFi connection with no thought of security. Then we moved on to a fascinating discussion of how we can remove the faces of "innocent bystanders" from photos that we take when we are out and about. This is a surprisingly tricky thing to do and led to a great discourse about how privacy can be managed in the wild.

The Next Big Hurdle

The next session I went to took a high level view of the development process, with the goal of working out how to make properly useful devices, both now and in the future. This is something that we are not terribly good at today, but with increasing levels of complexity and a greater range of uses than ever before, it is important that we make sure that the devices we surround ourselves with aren't more frustrating for us than they are worth.

The talk was placed in the context of producing something really useful, a way of allowing blind people to navigate around cities on their own. The project uses bone-conduction headphones which relay navigation advice generated by a smartphone. The most impressive thing about this for me was the intent to build a system that works even when the user is doing something else. In other words the user would be able to carry on a conversation even while finding their way around.

Home Networking

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this session, but what we got was some very good discussion of the problems faced when you connect households to the internet. Things have moved on from the early internet where a home had one computer and one wire to the router. Nowadays there will be many devices connected via WiFi and a huge problem diagnosing what has broken when things fail. I saw the results of an interesting study looking for reasons why home networks fail (a hint: it's usually the WiFi connection) and some very interesting ideas about moving the home router into the cloud.

Lunchtime Demonstrations

During the lunch break they had demonstrations of some really neat stuff. I wandered around with my camera and took some pictures.

This is a way of making 3D rapid prototype printing even more rapid. Rather than printing out a filled in model the printer produces a 3D outline. There are a number of technical challenges to address here. The printer needs a larger hole in the nozzle to print thicker strands, the output has to be carefully cooled as the models are built and the slicing software has to be re-written to drive the printer in a completely different way. Very clever.

These are Picco devices. Tiny miniature screens that you can use to send playful, or useful messages to folks you know.

Inside each tiny device is an .NET Microframework powered processor, a WiFi interface, SD card and display unit. The devices and their 3D printed cases were created to explore product development as much as invent new kinds of interaction. Very clever and great fun to play with.


This picture shows some prototype "Disruptive Display" devices. These provide a completely new kind of display medium that "remembers" what light you shine onto it. By using light sensitive transistors in the construction of display drivers you can make a display which can be triggered to retain the level of light that is falling on it at a particular moment. The way I saw this, it meant you could make a wall display that you could "program" using a video projector whenever you felt like changing the scenery. The display doesn't really "remember" anything, each individual pixel retains their setting. You could also use this to "paint" with a torch, and then flick a switch and create a new picture.

There were also folks showing off circuits you can draw, some amazing touch devices on flexible materials, devices that can create radio signals entirely in software, posters you can vote on and a networking system for servers that can reconfigure its topology dynamically  to match the use case. You can find details of all the projects here.

Micro Datacentres and Cloudlets for Mobile Computing

The final presentation of the day was from Victor Bahl, who talked about the way that the cloud is becoming part of the way our machines work. Heavy duty tasks such as face recognition reap a huge benefit from cloud computing. The results are obtained more quickly and place less of a load on the batteries in the mobile device. But of course to use the cloud your device must send the data to be analysed and then get the result back, which depends on fast data transfer.

In many applications it is particularly important to get responses back quickly. Introducing a few milliseconds delay into the loop can make the difference between life and death for a video game player.

Victor talked about the way performance can be improved by streamlining the protocols used to send requests and also how large monolithic data servers were not the complete answer to the problem. Instead he described how smaller numbers of servers, "cloudlets" are now being deployed. These provide high performance local resources and reduce network traffic.

I wasn't able to stay to the end of this session because we had to grab a cab to the station. I had a tight schedule for the journey back. When I organised the tickets I thought that an interval of twenty five minutes would be plenty of time to get from the Eurotunnel train to the Hull one. Of course I was making the assumption that everything would run on time, which turned out to be mostly right. But it did mean for an exciting sprint across a tiny part of London.

Thanks so much to Microsoft Research for Inviting me. It was a great event and it was lovely to catch up with some folks I've not seen in a while.

Devices and Networking Summit Day 1

Note: These are my recollections from my track through the proceedings and are a bit subjective - but of course completely right :). I hope you find them an interesting read.

The summit proper started today. The first two Plenary sessions set an amazing standard to get us started. Very thought provoking, not just in the context of what people are doing, but also why the are doing it. And what can go wrong.

Opening Remarks from Peter Lee

The first of the sessions was from Peter Lee of Microsoft Research. He described how research and development work together, telling the story of a research group who devised a technology that used an array of 9 microphones to focus on a single speaker in a noisy environment. When they saw this the marketing department first asked for cheaper microphones, then for only four of them, and finally an ability to work with minimal calibration.

The group duly delivered and their technology became part of the Kinect sensor, one of the fastest selling gadgets in history. And the punch line of the story was that the academic paper describing the techniques that were used was subsequently rejected by a journal as having limited practical application. Such is life.  

Research is hard work, and non-linear. Peter talked about another research area which is chancging the way we use computers, voice recognition. He described how for the first ten years of this century the rate of errors in recognition remained stubbornly at around 20%, despite the best efforts of researchers in the field. Then, suddenly in the last few years we've seen a massive improvement in performance down to an error rate of around 7%, to the point where conversational translation is now going mainstream.

And the outcomes of research are not what you expect. One popular use for speech recognition/translation turns out not to be about talking a foreign language, but simply being able to see what people are saying if you are hard of hearing.  Very interesting stuff, and a great context for the ongoing discussions about ideas and the application of them.

Feedback Control and the Coming Revolution: Raffaello D’Andrea

Raffaello D’Andrea has done some really amazing things. From helping to design the next wave of robots to help Amazon to fulfil orders to making incredible juggling drones. He talked about how machines can be made to learn and adapt, and that it is probably not fair for us humans to make fun of clumsy robots. After all, it took several years for us to lean how to walk and move around with out breaking the furniture.

The Kiva robots and the flying machines that Raffaello worked on are both built with an ability to learn by practice and then over their lifetime continuously adjust to changing as they wear. This makes for properly useful technology, building on the original feedback mechanisms used to keep steam engines running at constant speed under different loading conditions. 

Feedback is a trick where you take the output of something and use it as an input. In the case of the steam engine the idea is that the faster the engine runs, the less steam it gets, making it stabilise at a particular speed. Slow the engine down by making it work harder and more steam is injected to bring the speed back up. But the problem with feedback is that it can be fiddly. The wrong amount of feedback can produce a wildly oscillating system or no movement at all. And combining two stable, feedback controlled, systems does not always end well. Although - strangely - the converse is also true. Two unstable systems can be combined to create a single stable one.

Raffaello said that he considered feedback to be a necessary evil, in that it made systems work, but should be used sparingly and with proper understanding of the potential for instability. He also voiced concern about the possibilities for problems when connecting large numbers of systems together. From a mathematical point of view it can be shown that this will lead to massive, unpredictable events every now and then. And considering that the Internet of Things is going to lead to a whole new connected world, this is something we need to think about.

Functional Materials and Process Enabled Device electronics

This was a fascinating and wide ranging session made up of presentations from a researchers in a number of different areas. There were talks about polymer batteries, printing electronic circuits on flexible materials, energy harvesting and even weaving electronics into material. Any session that contains the phrase "Infrared spectroscopy woven into socks" has got to be a good one. And it was.

Rapid Device Prototyping

After lunch it was time for a session on rapid device prototyping. The starting point was TouchDevelop, a development environment that is a great place to write and share code. You can create TouchDevelop programs on any mobile device and share them all around the world. And now TouchDevelop has an embedded presence too. Your TouchDevelop code can be downloaded into an Engduino device.

The Engduino is based on the Arduino platform, providing a whole bunch of sensors and coloured lights and software libraries to control them. There's emulation of the as part of the TouchDevelop framework, which makes it very easy to create programs, and they are working on simple network deployment of the compiled programs.

If you're looking for a quick and easy way to start coding, TouchDevelop is a great place to start. You can start writing code on your phone on the bus, and then complete the program on your PC later in the day. The code is all stored in the cloud and is dead easy to share. And the Engduino is a great little hardware platform, with plenty of connections including leds, accelerometer, magnetometer, Bluetooth and an SD card. 

Organic Seminconductor Science: Professor Sir Richard Friend, University of Cambridge

This was the final plenary keynote of the day. The focus of the talk was science, nature and power, with a great discussion of how solar cells work, how to make them better (and print them), and the fundamental science behind energy capture. There are some fundamental physical reasons which limit the amount of energy you can capture from sunlight, but this session gave a great description of how we can make solar cells which are better, cheaper and easier to make and deploy. Really fascinating stuff.

We rounded off the day with dinner on a boat trip down the Seine which was lovely. Great food, great company, great technology. What's not to love?

Hello from Paris

 Pointing the fat lens at the tower

Pointing the fat lens at the tower

Well, this is nice. I'm in Paris for the Microsoft Devices and Networking Summit 2015. A chance to look at some very interesting embedded stuff. In Paris. What's not to love. The hotel is just down the road from the Eiffel tower. So of course I headed over there.

I took the stairs

 Not a bad place to reach your steps goal....

Not a bad place to reach your steps goal....

I love the Eiffel tower. Fantastic place. And great for photographs too. If you want to see full size versions of the pictures you can click through to the images on Flickr. The conference starts tomorrow. Can't wait.

 I love these telescopes

I love these telescopes

 View from underneath

View from underneath

 Not a bad view from the balcony

Not a bad view from the balcony

 Very nice reception

Very nice reception

Just got back from a great reception on the 11th floor of the hotel. There were splendid views of the tower from the balcony, and huge glass windows that let give you a great view of the surrounding neighbourhood - but proved quite hard to walk through. Even though I tried. Talk about making an impression.....

I'd love to have stayed longer, but it turns out that I'll be updating module descriptions for the rest of the evening. In Paris. Such is life.