Thanks to AWS, I have a new home on the web…on a box in a rack somewhere in Virginia, USA (not far from where I used to live). Best of all it’s free.
A perfect storm is growing in Asia – a combination of growing individual wealth, lowering cost of access to smartphones and lack of fixed infrastructure. In coming years there will be a sustained boom in mobile digital services such as we have not seen in western markets.
In these markets prepaid dominates and subsidised phone purchases are vanishingly small. People hold onto handsets for much longer periods and a phone will often be handed from person to person a number of times before finally being trashed. The price point for new phones has to be low – much less than US$250 for mass market appeal.
Many smartphone retailers have responded to this with low cost Android handsets; indeed, many are Asian based. Until recently Apple has been notable for ignoring Asian markets (except to access low cost manufacturing). They have (quite rightly) been following a halo brand strategy in western markets – designing objects of desire and positioning themselves as the premium option. Customers in developing markets also see Apple products as desirable but Apple has priced their wares out of reach for most.
However a number of recent announcements shows that Apple’s focus may be shifting.
In recent months Apple has opened iTunes to many new markets in Asia and other developing markets for the first time. Of course, what use is a digital storefront if you don’t have any customers using your hardware?
I have been anticipating a cheap iPhone for Asia though I had not expected it until sometime in 2014 or 2015. However the growing rumours are that Apple will announce such a device this year.
A little while ago I was interviewed on the radio here in Australia about ways in which people are using their phones that the tech pundits never anticipated. I spoke about the phone increasingly becoming an intersection point for the real and virtual worlds; a kind of remote control for more and more things in your life.
I explained how at our house we have come to be using our mobile phones to let ourselves into the house, something which I set up as a kind of joke (“Siri, let me in”, “I’m sorry, I cant do that Dave”) but has become so useful we no longer bother fishing the keys out when we get home.
We have accomplished this to date fairly simply by combining some off the shelf home automation hardware with a little web scripting know-how. Our phones have a shortcut on the home screen, which opens up a web page that’s only available on our local WiFi network. Among controls for lights and appliances, this page contains a button to unlock the door. Pressing the button sends the command back to the computer running the PHP script which in turns sends the command through the x10 home automation controller to an x10 unit wired to the existing remote door-release circuit, unlatching the door for 3 seconds before it again locks.
About as simple as could be. Or could it be simpler…?
I very recently bought a Samsung Galaxy S3 which has inbuilt support for something called NFC, and I have been thinking about some of the applications we can expect to see from NFC technology in the coming years. NFC (Near Field Communication) is a new technology that uses low-power radio to pass information across short distances, a bit like the RFID technology that has been around for years (think holding your building access card or fob against a panel to open a door) but with the ability to pass more complex information with greater security. Some of the applications we are likely to see coming with NFC include tapping your phone at a grocery item to pick up product information, tapping another phone to pass over a picture, tapping a movie poster to get session times (yay, no more bloody QR codes), tapping at the register to buy a can of drink….or tapping your front door to open it.
To provide secure access through a door you would usually require two things: a lock and a key. With RFID the lock is a reader mounted near the door and the key is the RFID tag or card. The RFID tag contains an antenna and a small amount of storage. When brought close to the sensor the RFID tag is powered up via induction and transmits back to the sensor the contents of it’s storage – usually an encrypted password that the sensor system has listed as allowed access. It’s a lot like the traditional lock and key, however unlike a normal key the lock doesn’t need to be replaced when a key is lost; the sensor system can just be updated to prevent that tag from having access in the future. And just like a physical key, if you don’t have it on you when you want to get in you’re stuck.
An NFC system presents an opportunity for a solution where both the lock and key are ‘smart’. Like the RFID system the reader at the door can check to see if a specific tag has access or not. However the extra smart bit is the NFC enabled mobile phone, which can contain an app that stores the relevant code encrypted on the SIM card. When the mobile is tapped at the reader the mobile NFC passes over the code stored on the SIM and the reader confirms access. If the mobile phone is lost the code can be remotely wiped from the phone. Similarly to provide a new person access is a simple as remotely providing their mobile with an access code securely over the internet.
As a first step I have taken a simple approach that builds on the current system. I’ve encoded an NFC sticker with the URL for the local webpage that sends the command to open the door. When I tap my Samsung Galaxy S3 to the tag the mobile opens the URL, unlocking the door. One of the implications of this system is that any NFC enabled phone could tap the tag to be pushed the same URL, though this is not really an issue since the page is only accessible on my local WiFi network. While not an ideal solution it does provide me with the tap-to-enter experience now while I work on the more challenging solution using an NFC reader at the door.
Some resources for trying this at home:
Douglas Adams once observed that intelligent aliens traveling to Earth might assume from their surveillance that the car was the superior form of life on the planet. I think he was almost right, though I suspect they would mistake the traffic light as the top of our planet’s pecking order, as the pulse of life in every major city is defined by the commands issued from these oligarchs.
They are however really pretty stupid.
Many times I have sat in a line of traffic waiting for the green in spite of there being no other traffic using the intersection. On these occasions I wonder that surely there must be a better way.
It turns out there are efforts being made to make Traffic Lights ‘Smart’, and these typically centre on efforts to connect cars via wireless technologies (wifi, 3G etc) to each other and to a central network. Such a world would usher in a huge host of attending benefits:
- Predictive braking, so when the car in front puts on the breaks it announces to all cars following which then disengage the accelerator and start braking in anticipation of the driver doing the same
- Faster Emergency Responses as all cars on a stretch of road are warned via the network of an approaching emergency vehicle and can then warn the driver where to go to get out of the way – even before the lights or siren get in range
- Less traffic strain on existing roads, since due to predictive braking cars can travel closer together allowing for higher traffic density
- Better incident management, as traffic data is captured in real time allowing for identification and immediate management of trouble spots
- More effective infrastructure planning, due to highly granular traffic data
While this is all great and brilliant, of course the realisation of the above technology is greatly hampered by the huge number of industry participants and the lack of any standard or leadership in the area (efforts by BMW and Siemens notwithstanding). Experience from other similarly fragmented industries tells us that it will take years before a single technology is adopted broadly enough to make it worthwhile.
In the meantime however there is an opportunity to make traffic lights smarter even though cars are still dumb. Every traffic light installation today has a basic level of intelligence; induction coil sensors in the road pick up the presence of cars waiting at the intersection and inform the timing pattern of the lights such that while no cars are waiting on a crossroad the default route gets the green a little longer. I can see an opportunity to improve on this behaviour in two ways.
- Link sets of lights. By providing a set of lights (A) with data about cars passing over sensors at an adjacent set of lights (B), lights A can anticipate traffic coming their way and better time cycles of changing lights. This approach requires some physical networking of light sets and re-tooling of traffic light algorithms however would result in a significant (>10%) improvement in waiting times, carbon emissions, general sanity etc
- Give traffic lights the power of sight. There has been much advancement in the technology of video object recognition, much of this due to investment in devices such as Microsoft Kinect and Google’s Goggles. Which the idea suggested above at (1) would provide traffic lights with a degree of better visibility of coming traffic, equipping lights with cameras and the means to understand what they are seeing would allow a greater resolution and overcome limitations inherent in a sensor only solution – such as recognising and responding to bikes, pedestrians and traffic incidents.
The second solution has the potential to allow for even greater granularity in traffic management. Imagine waiting at a quiet intersection in the future where the lights give green signal just long enough for you to get through before the next wave of traffic approaches. There is room for highly significant improvements in traffic flow rates with such a setup, although it would have to take into account driver response times for starting and stopping. It also provides the benefit of additional sets of traffic cameras for transport authority monitoring of roads and incident recording.
Since the light cycle times become more granular in this solution it is important that drivers understand that they are being allowed to proceed under a smart lighting scenario; effectively they must not delay when moving through the intersection, as well as be alert to oncoming traffic. To signal this I introduce a new colour light located below the green. The flashing blue light indicates it is safe for a single car to proceed through the intersection without delay.
The beautiful thing about the smart traffic light solutions I’ve suggested is that no industry concordance is needed in order to make them work; a suitable technology solution from any player can be implemented by any forward-thinking council anywhere. It might become obsolete in 10 years when smart cars become predominant on our roads, but by then the solution would have paid for itself many times over though reduced investment in new roads and lower carbon emissions.
Something to think about next time you’re stuck waiting at the lights…
A year or so ago I was given a Revell model of the USS Voyager (thanks Rick). While I don’t have the patience and attention-to-detail for model kits, I had been looking for an Arduino project and thought this might be a nice kit to consider a multi-mode lighting system controlled by Arduino.
I’ve tinkered with circuit design for model lighting before to flash LEDs to simulate a aircraft rotating beacon, and had scribbled away somewhere an early design. However messing around witch matching capacitors and resistors to get just the right attack and decay curve is *so* much work, the option of just coding the behaviour into an Arduino controlled set of lights had obvious appeal.
My goal for this project was to have a fairly complete set of lighting installed into the model with a button or other means of cycling through different lighting modes. The lighting was to include:
- running lights – these are steady-on red/ green lights located either side of the hull
- navigation lights – flashing white lights running through the hull midline
- cabin lights – white lights behind the windows in the hull
- impulse engine lights – there are two of these, the red light in the warp nacelles and a soft orange glow coming out of vents on the back of the nacelles
- warp engines – these are the long blue glowing lights along the edges of the warp nacelles
- deflector arrays – there are two of these – the main one has a blue glow around it, the secondary one a soft red glow
- hull spotlights – these pick out details on the hull, such as the ship name
- photon torpedos – these are pulsing red lights located front and rear of the main hull
In the end I came up with the following modes:
- Mode 0 – all off
- Mode 1 – running lights and navigation lights on
- Mode 2 – cabin lights come on in sections moving through both hulls
- Mode 3 – engines on. Impulse engines glow red and warp nacelles fade up blue
- Mode 4 – fire torpedos – the torpedo lights pulse in a firing sequence
- back to mode 0
A lot of other people have completed this exact model with custom lighting, however everyone seems to use LEDs for the blue warp engine lighting. I don’t really like this approach as it results in obvious point sources of light in the blue strip of the nacelle, whereas in the show the blue light is a more consistent intensity glow throughout. I was interested to see how effective electroluminescent lighting would be for this task. Electroluminescent lighting (EL for short) provides a soft, consistent light along the length of a wire or strip – picture those amazing costumes from Tron. EL wire comes in many forms including flat strips which seemed like a good fit for this project. EL wire isn’t cheap however (around $30 for a 1 metre strip), uses High Voltage (ouch when you touch it) and is an absolute pain to cut and shape as it is prone to shorting out.
After much trial and error I managed to cut blue EL strips to length and embed in the model nacelles – I think the result is pretty much bang on for the real thing.
Since deciding to host my own wordpress blog I have discovered the joys of comment management.
When I started I thought “Wouldn’t it be nice if I get some comments on my blog?!” Now I am looking for ways to make them stop.
It seems that there are many ways to use the blogsphere to promote your own site to increase eyeball traffic and therefore revenue from things like advertising. The tools developed to meet this need are the wordpress comment robot. This software utility takes away the burden of visiting people’s blogsites, reading their posts and leaving a comment and automates it all. Often the robot uses clever comment phrases that include some of the keywords from your own post to make it sound more legitimate, however more frequently they are very generic and clearly nothing to do with your post.
I get hundreds of these and it is tedious going through them all to hopefully spot the occasional legitimate comment…though the needle in the haystack metaphor comes to mind here…
Just for fun though I am going to publish each and every comment I get for this specific post so you can see the kind of crap that comes in.
So I spent a few hours pulling all its essential inside parts out until I found the guilty part.
First time fixing a washing machine. Saved us $1000 buying a new one but don’t know that I want to do it again…it was pretty heavy and I couldn’t figure out how to remove the inner drum from the washing tub (the big white thing behind the lid – its upside down with the motor sitting at the top there).
Which makes me wonder about waste in our consumption obsessed society. We were close to throwing out a good condition washing machine thats maybe 8 years old because of what sounded like a death rattle. We considered having someone repair it…but expected the repair bill for an 8 year old washing machine would be big enough to warrant discarding it for a new one.
I expect that many a household appliance makes its way to the tip in a very repariable state, discarded due to suspicious behaviour in the never ending quest for the latest and greatest.
Hopefully this story has a happy ending; I haven’t finished putting it back together yet. Then I need to test that it is still working
Of course there is always one or two parts left over…oh well.
I had been considering this project for a while: the ability to send a link to someone they can use on their smartphone to open our front door. Useful for deliveries or when friends or family come over while you are not home. For example I recently had a friend come and stay while we were away for the weekend, however getting a key to him was going to be a challenge as he lived interstate. In the end I left a key in the mailbox which is a terribly inelegant solution and not especially secure.
So I have now developed a script that allows me to send an SMS with a web link that when clicked unlocks the front door for a couple of seconds.
Obviously when designing this I had to think carefully about how it would be secured. I wanted to ensure it was well protected enough that the effort required to hack it was much greater than the effort required to just break in.
The solution builds on my existing x10 home automation which already has the ability to open the door via a set of controls on iPhone, which is already secured such that it can only be accessed while on the local wifi network or via a pin code to access the mobile web page. It works so well we now typically use our iPhones to open the door when we get home almost never bothering to fish out our keys.
When the destination mobile number is entered in the control page the php script sends an SMS (using directsms.com.au API) with a link. The link includes a randomly generated alphanumeric key which has already been stored on the database, along with the timestamp of when it was originally sent and when it was then used. The link has to be used within one hour or it will not work. After the first use it will continue to work to open the door for two minutes, after which it will no longer work.
Finally had a nice sunny day to take my Arducopter for it’s first flight!
It is not as stable as I thought it would be; most of the flying time I had it in ‘loiter’ mode which attempts to maintain a position based on GPS and altitude (using either barometer or sonar). Even so as you can see from the video it moves around quite a bit still – next time I’ll take my laptop to make sure it has a solid, accurate GPS fix before launching.
Three flights in total, the last one had a hard landing which flipped the quadcopter throwing a prop; all fixed in just a minute ready for the next flight in a few days.