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.