Test Air Quality with the EMF Badge

 The air here seems ok

The air here seems ok

One of the (many) wonderful things about the electromagnetic fields event I went to was the badge that everyone was given. This was an embedded device with a nice colour screen and a powerful processor that just happened to be a mobile phone as well…… I thought I’d turn it into an air quality display. So I 3D printed a case and make some modifications so that I could fit an air quality sensor and a battery to power it on the back of the badge. This is the back of the badge:

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The hardware construction went fine, and I had the badge and the sensor exchanging messages quite nicely. Then I tried to write the software and it all went wrong. So I gave up and decided to enjoy the event instead….

However, I’m not a quitter. So, after a lot of fun and games, I’ve finally submitted my air quality app to the badge store for the emf badge. You can find it in amongst the other apps in the store here. It seems to work a treat and I can wear it around my neck with pride. Although I guess this would probably look a bit silly around Hull, where a lot fewer people seem to be wearing emf badges than there were at the event.

Anyhoo, one significant (at least for me) takeway is that if you want to use the serial port in MicroPython in binary mode (i.e. not have the driver mess around with carriage return and linefeed characters), you can use a special option to request this:

sensor_port = UART(2,9600, bits=8, mode=UART.BINARY, parity=None, stop=1)

This option is, of course, undocumented on the MicroPython pages for the UART class, leading to endless hours of “fun” for developers (like me) who spend ages wondering why their binary checksum values are all wrong…..

Heading Home

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We were up bright and early and on the road home by 8:00. The whole event was fantastic from start to finish. They say the next one will be in 2020. I’ll be there.

There is also talk of “electromagnetic pulse” events being organised in the gap between the “fields” events. It would be great to set up one of these in the Hull area.

Anyway, time to head for home and then to get the Air Quality sensor working with the badge…..

Day 3 of Electromagnetic Fields

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Achievement Unlocked: Shower Ninja Level now at Master. Take a large waterproof bag for clean clothes and dry towel on the way in and dirty clothes and damp towel on the way out. Leave boots outside the shower cubicle, facing outwards so I can just step into them on the way out. I'm really getting the hang of this camping lark. Of course, it’s not rained at any point…..

Having settled into something of a routine the realisation is dawning that this won't go on forever and today is in fact the last day. Wah. I resolve to go to lots of sessions and get the badge air quality sensor working. 

After a great session on LoRa networking, and another on the scary way that you can hack into car keys, I went to some that were all about how the event itself. First up was a session on the making of the emf badge. It turns out that making a complete mobile phone device is actually quite tricky. Kudos that they actually managed to make it work. The next session was about power, amongst other things.

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This is the power distribution to the tents in our area of the camp. There were a bunch of “Tardis” booths that contained nothing but distribution boards and, I suppose, a whole bunch of fuses and whatnot. These were connected to a backbone that was powered by a bunch of great big generators spread over the camp.

After the talks and another abortive attempt to get my badge to work with the Air Quality sensor, we went for a wander into the “Null Sector”. This was a seemingly haphazard collection of shipping containers that held, well, interesting stuff. The best time to see it is at night - of which more later - but there were quite a few things to take a look at, including a container from MSRaynsford that contained a kind of steam punk workshop with a laser cutter and some lovely things for sale. I ended up with a useless box (which I’ve always wanted) and a wifi controlled StrandBeest. Of which more later.

After some more coding we headed for the closing ceremony. Rather sad. There was enough content for several weeks I reckon, I wish there had been more of me to go to all the things that I know I missed out on.

The good news was that we still had the evening to enjoy, including some electric car racing that was great fun to watch. I was also able to practice my panning technique as the cars whizzed past.

 I have no idea why there is a Christmas tree on the back…

I have no idea why there is a Christmas tree on the back…

As the night came down we ventured back into “Null Sector”. They had buttons you could press to send out great big gas flares, art installations, an RFID powered treasure hunt and a powerful laser light show. I did the best with my little camera, but the shots don’t really do the setup justice.

 Lasers and gas flares

Lasers and gas flares

 Mostly lasers

Mostly lasers

Then it was time for bed for the last night under canvas.

Day 2 of Electromagnetic Fields - Starting with Furby Hacking

 Good morning...

Good morning...

Shower Ninja Level Zero: Stand fully clothed in a shower booth and press the water button "just to see if it works". Then wonder why all the clothes you're wearing are now soaking wet. And have nothing to put wet clothes into. Oh well; the good news is that the shower was clean and the water was nice and warm. 

After breakfast it was time for some more sessions, starting with "Attacking Websites for Educational Purposes Only". The exploit that was explained was specific only to an elderly version of the PHPBB bulletin system that was released for a short time a while back, but the talk did bring home how vulnerable a site can be.

Then it was time to attack something a bit more cuddly, with a fantastic session on Furby hacking. From modest beginnings, intercepting Bluetooth messages containing firmware updates, the speaker ended up showing how to take complete control of the device, downloading sound and graphics into the hapless cuddly toy. It was so impressive that, not surprisingly, I've gone and bought a Furby device to play with. Such are the perils of connected sessions and Amazon's Buy it Now button. 

Next up was a really good talk on podcasting. I've never podcasted, despite apparently having "The perfect face for radio". However, after this talk, that set out why you would do it and why it is such a good idea, I'm strongly tempted to give it a go. 

 Building the badge al-fresco

Building the badge al-fresco

By now the emf badge had been released and it was back to the tent for a bit of assembly and testing.  I had a plan to connect an Air Quality sensor to the badge for no particular reason, and in an uncharacteristic piece of forward planning I'd actually 3D printed a case for the badge and attached a sensor and a rechargeable battery to it. Now all I had to do was connect up the wiring and write the code. This meant that session attendance had to take a bit of a back seat, although I did manage to catch part of an awesome session about converting photographs to poetry and another which went into scary levels of detail about how easy it is to hack RFID car keys. 

 It turned out that the bar was a good place to set up base camp and start developing

It turned out that the bar was a good place to set up base camp and start developing

After gatecrashing an Arduino session and hijacking a soldering iron for a few minutes I got the cabling wired up to connect the sensor to the badge and then my software worked first time. 

I always get nervous when that happens. My theory, which has been validated many times, is that any given project requires a "pound of flesh" of effort, and if it seems to be going easily that's because there's something nasty lurking round the corner. It turns out that my nervousness was well founded. Although I could get values from the sensor and display them, when I tried to turn the program into an application to publish in the app store for the badge it all went horribly wrong. I was sure it was something stupid that I'd done, but it was very hard to work out what. So, after a while I gave up and went for a wander down to the Hackaday tent where they were showing off hacks. There was a chap there with an amazing barrel organ made using laser cut panels. I also got to have a really good chat with the man behind the RC2014 project

After tea (pizzas this time) we headed for a special showing of Hackers, a deeply silly movie from 1995 that was one of the first on-screen portrayals of hacking. It was great fun and lovely to be part of a huge audience that shouted "Hack the Planet" at every opportunity. The presentation was followed by a question and answer session with the director of the film who gamely entered into the spirit of the thing, even down to judging the best hacker costume. Style tip: the more LEDS the better....

 A message for our times. 

A message for our times. 

After that we took some pictures of the fun and games going on in the Null Sector, and took a walk around the camp. There are various "villages" set out for particular interest groups. You could spend your entire time at the event just going round and seeing what they are doing. 

 Hardware hacking by moonlight

Hardware hacking by moonlight

 Across the camp

Across the camp

Day 1 of Electromagnetic Fields

I’ve not done any camping for over thirty years. After my previous experiences with horizontal rain, sleeping bags frozen solid and forgetting the tin opener, I reckoned it would take something rather special to get me under canvas again.

 Home for the next three days...

Home for the next three days...

Turns out that EMF is something special. Electromagnetic Fields is a techie festival in a field. And it is awesome. There are technical tracks, there are crafting tracks, there are things that have been done “just because we were told they were impossible”. You have to stay the night in a tent, but it turns out that in good weather and with working toilets and showers, camping is actually quite fun. Particularly if you have mains power in your tent.

 They had these "Tardis" devices all over camp supplying power...

They had these "Tardis" devices all over camp supplying power...

We arrived on site bright and early and picked a spot that looked sensible. Pro tip number one: Lay your power cable from the supply before you pitch your tent, otherwise you’ll find that your wire is six feet too short and have to move everything. However, with that hiccup out of the way, and having made the decision that the fact our tent looked like a “lean to” owing to some curious asymmetry in its inner workings was not going to significantly impact on its integrity, we established base camp and had a look around.

It was around two minutes before I heard someone say to me “You’re Rob Miles aren’t you”. Turns out that I am, and that the techie world has a good quotient of Hull University Computer Science graduates you are out there doing good things and remember the tall bloke who talked a lot about C#. Rather more surprisingly was that the second person to say this, thirty seconds later, was also called “Rob Miles” and was giving a talk in the afternoon. Which of course I was going to attend. I just hoped he’d maintain the integrity of the brand.

The camp is huge, with three large stages for talks, four hardware labs for, well, hardware, and a bunch of other places to go and do stuff. There are themed areas around the site, with different makerspaces and interest groups all over the place.

 The best instructions you can get at the start of any event

The best instructions you can get at the start of any event

The first session was the opening one, which brought home the complexity and difficulty of creating a very well-connected village in the middle of a field. Everybody in the emf organisation does it for the hell of it, and it seemed like this year the setup had been more hellish that usual, with failing tent suppliers, hillsides and all manner of other things turning up to cause hassle. Not that we’ve noticed much not working; the only real disappointment being that the badge; a very interesting piece of technology that we all get to play with, is not ready just yet.

Anyhoo, after the opening talk the session tracks started. The great thing about emf is that at any given time there are two or three sessions that look really interesting. The bad thing about emf is that at any given time there are two or three sessions that look really interesting, and you can only go to one.

After a brief look at the Air Quality Sensor workshop being run by Southampton University (and someone else going “You’re Rob Miles aren’t you”) we caught a lecture on a tele-presence robot by Libby Miller. It was a great talk, emphasising the ease with which you can create a something that works well for remote interaction and guaranteeing a peak in sales of a certain Ikea lamp which was used as the basis of the device. I’d love to build one. The instructions are here if you fancy making one to: https://github.com/libbymiller/libbybot_eleven

After that, a change of pace with a session with the fascinating title “101 Hacks for Late Soviet Water Towers”. The presenter of this session certainly leads an interesting life, which involves buying a water tower in Latvia by mistake for five euros and then finding out that you can save your five pound membership fee of the British Water Tower Appreciation Society (http://bwtas.blogspot.com/) if you actually own a water tower.  Which almost makes it a profitable option, assuming you want to join the society as cheaply as possible. The tower is very tall (higher than a Space Shuttle) and not likely to fall down any time soon, which is good. It needed a door to make it harder for people to climb to the top and fall off, and doesn’t actually hold water at the moment, but it all made for a very enjoyable story told in a very engaging way.

 After a burger lunch (very nice) it was time for my namesake to talk about the dangers of Artificial Intelligence. If we make a device that is clever enough to be useful, will it also be clever enough to be dangerous? It was a timely talk, what with the rapid advances in the field and the tendency of humanity to rush into technology without thinking about the consequences.

Then it was time for some hard-core hardware, in the form of a very detailed description of the creation of silicon devices that contain more than just transistors. It turns out that we can put all kinds of sensors directly onto the silicon and even make them small enough to be swallowed and take pictures during their journey through our system.

Next came a description of algorithmic light displays. I've been doing these since my discovery of Neopixel technology and my wedding lights of many years ago. However, the speaker was operating in a slightly different league, with huge displays containing hundreds of lights. There was some very interesting content about gamma correction and the proper use of randomness. Very interesting.

By now my brain was pretty much full for the day, but there was just enough space to take in a description of the project that is recreating one of the first ever stored program computers, the EDSAC project

After that it was dark, which made it a perfect for tying some Light Painting/Light Writing. Everyone else turned up with proper camera on huge tripods. I just had my tiny Sony camera and a table top tripod. However, after literally shaky start, when I fell over onto the grass after setting up the camera, I got some pictures that I'm not too unhappy with. 

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We got some nice looking results with some tiny lights on strings. But then a chap turned up who just happened to have hundreds of leds on a pole. Electromagnetic Fields is that kind of place. And the pictures got even more fun. 

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After that it really was time for bed. So, after picking our way through guy ropes and power cables we found our way to our tent and turned in, the best kind of happy-exhausted and with the prospect of even more fun and games tomorrow.