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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.