Category Archives: Prototyping

Can we make a social network? For real….

It is 6am and I’ve woken up a little early. The sun does funny things in Scotland. It doesn’t get hot like the most of the rest of the world and while it forgets to get up in the winter, it forgets to go to go down in the summer. So it’s been light for a few hours… And I started to think about this: What is a social network? I’m asking this question because I’m going to build one or rather I’ve started to build one and now I want to tell people about it. Building social networks is something I’ve been doing all my life in the real world – as have you. At some point in the mid to late 1970s in the blistering heat (15C) of a long hot summer my best friend in the whole world, Toby, and I became ‘blood brothers’. I think we struggled a little with pricking our fingers to actually get blood, but we knew that the blood marked the friendship of the highest kind. We formed a network from the exchange in blood. Or at least, we formed a bond over the idea that we could exchange blood. That exchange marked us as special. We were a new form of kin.


Some forty years later at the very moment I’m writing this post, I have on my twitter account around one thousand five hundred and twenty five ‘followers’. That’s seems a lot – particularly as before twitter being followed was either a little creepy, or marked you out as having a particularly special relationship with a god.. my this one and a half thousand followers is nothing like Katy Perry who has seventy million followers. SEVENTY MILLION. That’s, like, nearly ten times the number of people who watched the Doctor Who Christmas special! How does someone do this? For me I have no idea who all but twenty five of my followers are but I imagine they are sitting there waiting with baited breath on my every 140 chars that comes through my fingers onto the screen. …

And that’s just twitter -what about facebook?


Real Madrid footballer Cristiano Ronaldo has overtaken Shakira to become the most followed person on Facebook.


Said the BBC in March 2015, as apparently the footballer Ronaldo has over one hundred million likes. That’s a LOT of likes. I’m not sure I’ve liked that many things in the world in my forty four years of existence – and I like a lot of stuff (marmite, beer from barrels, fish in batter, swimming in the north sea, The Tiger That Came To Tea, France and the colour coding on resisters – beach towels with colour codes from resistors would be AMAZING.. but I digress, sorry).



But what does having that many people follow or like you really mean? For toby and I, long before the web or of having heard of social networks, at a time when a friend was invited to your birthday party and a like was something less than a love, our network of two was sealed in an ancient bond that could never be broken. At least until we went to different universities, got jobs, got married, moved countries and had kids…But I’ve not become a blood brother with anyone since and that’s quite an amazing thing.

That physicality and cultural significance of an (albeit interpretation) ancient ritual made our friendship special. Blood is a precious limited resource and only one person got to be my blood brother.

The web has enabled us to escape the limitations of the physical world. Friending someone or liking something is all very easy. There’s no contract. No precious resource. No end. No friction. It’s all so very easy. But it all feels a little bit hollow. Sometime in the late 1980s I shouted “all back to mine” in the local pub when my parents were on holiday. I was seventeen and it was more than a bit scary having most of the village of Benson (population 4,000) walk the one mile to my parents’ house at midnight. I didn’t know anyone so I mostly hid upstairs and waited for them to leave. It was dawn when they did and I spent the rest of the day clearing up and realised that cigarette burns were hard to cover up… That the house was broken and that I was pretty much doomed. What would happen if Ronaldo did the same? All back to my facebook page for an after hours party? Would there be any mess to clear up? Would anything happen? Would it be any point? Would it create any difference in the real world – the world that Ronaldo and his one hundred million likes occupy?

My point being is that physical social networks are very very different to digital ones. Duh! Of course they are I hear you scream. Yet you say this, but most of what we’re doing with IoT technology is building one thing that can connect to the web. Rather than building networks that are powered by and ARE the web, we’re simply adding dead nodes to an existing system. My call to action is to design entirely new forms of physical networks that are a part of, and not an aside to, the web.

Have you thought of building your own bridge between these worlds. Could we make physical/digital social networks that the Internet of Things (or the web with things as I continue to call it) technology can enable? I don’t think that connecting household appliances to the web is particularly social, exciting or interesting – do you?

So why not build our own physical social network. Which we’ve done. Or at least we’ve started to do. And I’ll share this with you here.

We have built the world’s smallest social network. It’s a network of small till-roll printers that are connected to the web powered by the amazing Electric Imp. We’re calling them Tap Writers. Because you tap at a screen and it comes out on paper – on all of the rolls at the same time. It’s changing a printer from a printing appliance into a social media device – where paper is the media rather than Facebook’s or Twitter’s screen. This limits resources (Katy Perry and Ronaldo would run out of paper pretty quickly if they had this network). We’ve created a social feedback mechanism by having a single button that you tap as a form of ‘receipt’ – a deliberately ambiguous interaction that is neither a ‘like’ or a ‘thumbs up/down’. It’s simply a response that is printed across the small network. We’ve installed seven in small shops, cafes and a yoga centre in Dundee. And we’re watching to see what happens. We want eight in a network and are looking for the next place in Dundee to join.

So how does it work? Mike’s been playing with the till rolls connecting to Imp using a bit of code from instructables. An amazingly powerful feature of Imp is that it handles Http messaging and it’s super straight forward to have all of the printers connected in a network. So this is great technically. Yet the thing that got me most excited is the scalability that Imp provides. With so few components in the TapWriters and the cost and scalable tools Imp has for mass production, we’re almost ready to go live with a product… a physical social network that connects people through paper…..

It’s quite exciting to have a social network. Next up we want to take it international so we’re heading to Mexico City to install another eight there with a Spanish translation built in.

So watch this space as this early trial has made me decide that we need to further this and we need to look at how we can design for physical, human and real networks – that are limited by resource and therefore force us to make choices about who we want in our network and what and when we say things. They do I think take the Internet of Things into a much more social space that I’m calling the Web With Things.

Want to take part in this experience? Get in touch – we’d love to talk to you about what we’re doing. Over the next twelve months we’re going to further this and build a number of physical social networks to find out if we can do this and what it will be like. We’ll share the results as we go and let’s see where this takes us… I promise if you join us I won’t be asking for any of your blood but I might be asking you to get physical with a few of your friends.


Review: Raspberry Pi B+

Pi Love!

P B+ Vs original

I’m not very good at looking after things. I’d like to be better, it’s just that I’m not. The roof on my house needs a few more tiles, my car needs a service, my bike is sitting in our cellar with more than an ample covering of iron oxide on its chain, and my laptop looks like it’s been used to dig my potatoes on the allotment that I do in fact look after pretty well. My neighbour across the street from me, on the other hand, is incredible. Not a tile is out of place, his many cars are spotless (his weekends mostly seem spent in blue overalls caressing what ever needs caressing on the underside of his vehicles) and his children cycle on shiny steeds that look newer than the day they were unboxed several years ago. It’s about love. I don’t particularly love the things around me. They’re functional stuff to do the things they are designed to do. For my neighbour, there is a lot of love in the things that he owns. A ‘Zen and the Art of Maintenance’ philosophy that I don’t have, and he does.

What, you might ask, has all of this to do with a Raspberry Pi, in particular the latest release of the Raspberry Pi B+? It’s simple, and it comes down to a very basic human instinct – the human instinct of love. The Raspberry Pi is the most loved computing device that we know of. A deep love. Not the lust the populace feels towards the latest shiny offering from Apple, but a kind of love that we Brits reserve for red telephone boxes, Routemaster buses and Ordnance Survey maps. We love Raspberry Pi. People who have no idea of the difference between Mac OS and Windows know all about the Raspberry Pi. My dad phoned me on the day it was released to tell me all about it. I didn’t mention that I was one of the many who crashed the RS website at 6am on 29th February 2012. My dad used a computer once in 2007. And the love is still there. When I spoke at Microsoft Research’s Think Digital event for a thousand school kids in December 2013, over a third put their hands up when asked who owned a Raspberry Pi (this might be because it was in Cambridge and it was a ticketed event for students who were considering computing as a further career – but impressive nonetheless).

The love goes beyond our nationwide interested is goes deep into the community that Pi have built.

And Pi listen to this community. They have listened in incredible detail to the grumblings from a dedicated community of people in love with their Pis. This community is Pi’s strength. It points to a sophisticated Twenty-First-century business model that could only exist in a world that has grown up with and through web 2.0. It’s a robust business model that I am absolutely certain will ensure that Pi will grow from strength to strength in the coming years. This is a business model with the power to change a single capacitor on a circuit. A capacitor that has been a notorious problem for the community. A single unit costing a few pence has caused the death of many of the first release of Pi.

When RS asked me to review the latest Raspberry Pi B+ I had to call in a big favour from our resident creative technologist and all round brilliant hacker, Ali Napier. Ali lives in a wonderful tech cave that would, if we lived close enough to Gotham City, have Bruce Wayne knocking on the door asking to borrow a charger for his utility belt. Ali’s tech cave is about to get a bit of a make-over, but we’ll leave that story for another day. Ali took the B+ into his cave and started to play. Now Ali and I are big on physical computing. It’s what we live and breathe. We’re huge fans of Arduino and in particular the Yun, and we’re completely in love with Electric Imp and everything it can do for the Internet of Things. We’ve dabbled with Pis – we’ve set up Minecraft and road-tested Scratch – all the things that are at the heart of the original and current mission. In our home town of Dundee there is a fantastic code club supported by Dundee Contemporary Arts and Brightsolid  But we love it to be able to go beyond the screen and get into the physical world – to make the web physical. With this in mind, let’s get into the details that Ali’s uncovered.



Starting with the outside

The physical improvements that B+ has over the original. Overall it’s just so much tidier. Given we’re into the design of products, it makes so much more sense to have the board mountable with far less board overhang. Put simply – it’s easier to put in a box. It’s overall footprint with an SD card in place is a good 20mm shorter in length and 8 mms narrower – meaning we can make the things we design smaller. This has been achieved by replacing the standard SD card slot with a MicroSD, lowering the profile of the audio connector (with composite video), and making the USB sockets flush with the board’s edge. There are good hardware improvements too; the four USB sockets, 40 GPIO pins (we like the way the pinout of pins 1-26 mirrors the original, which helps with forward compatibility of older code) and the doubling of on-chip RAM to 512Mb. With the mounting holes now in place it’s clear it’s designed to be put into things. Things that can connect to the web. We like that.

We also really liked the ease and speed of setup. Something the original took a bit of a weathering from its online community.

Let’s go into the software in a bit of detail.

Ali flashed up an 8Gb class 4 MicroSD with Raspbian by using the straightforward directions from the Pi site. It was a little slow, but until card reading tech is sped up, it’s what we’re limited to for now. This delay is very much made up for with the reward of perfect first time detection of Microsoft keyboard/mouse, HDMI monitor and internet connectivity. Ali tends to stick at the Linux command line, so we never launched the GUI – he’s always interested in what’s going on under the hood. Once Ali verified the Pi had picke up an IP address, he got straight into Aptitude package manager to install updates, Apache 2 webserver, PHP5 and ALSA audio tools. What we want to be able to do is make things that connect to the web. In other words we need to be able to simply control pins and create sounds. Both of which were incredibly simple to do. Ali deosn’t really ‘do’ Python, which has emerged as the language of choice for the Pi. Instead, as with Arduino Yun, he puts together a bunch of shell scripts and calls them using tools such as PHP or compiled C programs. Being able to manipulate GPIO pins directly from the OS by writing values to files that represent each pin makes for a very happy Ali! We checked out audio quality as well, writing a few sound files to the SD card and playing them using aplay. There were a few audible artefacts straight off, but this was easily cured by maxing the audio output using the amixer utility. In short, in less than an hour, we had all the tools in place to create a pin-or-internet-controlled audio player, which is pretty cool.
Raspberry Pi is an incredibly agile, simple and powerful device that can power the things of the web. Things that can move, play audio and light up our world. All of this for around £25. That’s pretty much perfect.


Me and my friend Ali give the Raspbery B+ a straight A.

Hacking in front of an audience – Met Office at the V&A

SXSW 2012

Timescapes workshop at NID

In parallel to the physical apps workshop, I had the pleasure to carry out a week-long workshop with a small group of incredibly talented students from NID. The workshop was organised around the theme “timescapes”. We spent 3 days discussing the subject as well as playing around with electronics, and 3 other days prototyping specific concepts.

The initial discussions led us to 5 different subjects namely:
boredom: uninteresting, redundant time vs moments of busyness that make us consider each second as invaluable
objects/physicality of time: mark of time on things – ranging from a cup of tea that gets cold after a couple of hours, up to buildings that physically change when left alone
natural time: aspects related to time in nature – its cyclical manifestations and different scales
waiting: idle time that involves the expectation of something that is about to happen as well as the frustration of not having it quickly or the comfort of not having to do anything
life time: related to different generations, memories and how the perception of time varies in different phases of life

After choosing a subject, participants sketched several ideas for objects that would make people reflect on this specific theme. Ideas were continuously expanded and filtered down until the fourth day, when one specific idea was chosen and the prototyping phase began. Images of the process can be found here. The final projects were:

Parallax by Dinesh Kumar, Neha Motghare and Sneha Ashok evolved from discussions about the conflict between boredom and busyness. The project challenges viewers to stand in a very specific position in order to read time accurately. The length and width of the clock hands are equal, but are oriented in such a way that the perceived length of each hand varies according to differnt view points.

Time window by Varun Prabhakar approached the physicality subject described above in an interesting way. The project attempts to incorporate a clock into the formal aspects of a window. The idea is to provide a new way of presenting time, in which hours are presented on the horizontal axis of the window and minutes on its vertical axis. This arrangement generates new a graphic composition at every minute.

The Crazy clock project by Virang Akhiyania aims to discuss the contrast between natural time (slow and cyclical) and constructed time (which leads to ever faster lifestyles). “The clock rotates crazily until someone passes by or stands in front of it. It then takes time to show the time: only when someone stands in front of it for a while is that its hands slow to the the accurate time.”

Sandesh by Sudhir Mor and Sivakumar T aims to solve a problem characteristic of rural areas in India. In these areas municipal water supply is irregular and untimely. People have thus to continuously wait for water to come in their pipes. After some tinkering, Sudhir and Sivakumar decided to hack a pressure gauge and connect it to a buzzer, which in this case is triggered by the movement of the gauge hand.

Paper Apps

RFID Reader for the Oxfam Curiosity Shop

Over the last 6 weeks a team of us from ToTEm have been rapidly producing a set of three RFID readers for the Oxfam Curiosity Shop, a popup shop in Selfridges in London that opens today. This Oxfam shop is entirely stocked with celebrity donations and vintage items, and 35 of the items are tagged with RFID tags. Upon scanning the RFID tag with our Reader, a video tale pops up on screens in the shop, told by the person who donated the item.

This system was trialled prototypically at a previous Totem/Oxfam event with excellent results, so for this outing we took the existing hardware, streamlined and repackaged it and scaled up the software to deal with several readers and many more videos. Some pictures of the resulting reader device are here on my Flickr stream.

detail of the illuminated part of the reader

How it Works
The basic principal is that an RFID sensor detects the unique ID number of an RFID tag, which is sent via bluetooth (radio) to the video software running on a computer behind the scenes. Meanwhile a PIC (programmable integrated circuit) chip detects that the sensor has been activated and triggers the clear acrylic part of the reader to glow brightly as feedback for the user. The software (running in Quartz) receives the ID number and finds the video associated with it, sending it to the monitor for playback.

How we Worked
The project has been a real team effort with lecturer Pete Thomas and myself (Roy Shearer) working on the physical design and production, technician Willie Henderson machining the housings, research assistant Mike Shorter programming the interface behaviour, IMD technician Ali Napier and head of product design Jon Rogers working on the software and Angelina Karpovich producing the video content. In order to deal with the tight timescale and the fact that we all have various other responsibilities, we pioneered an entirely text email based Gantt chart system. This basically consisted of an ever-evolving to do list assigned to dates and people! I actually think this worked surprisingly well, as it was immediate and easy to refer to across all our phones and computers, regardless of software. I won’t pretend that things weren’t missed, but I still think these were fewer than if we had used a more involved organisational tool. Lo-fi methods win for nimbleness yet again, I’d say.

The readers are now in use by the staff in the Oxfam Curiosity Shop, not to mention Annie Lennox, so do go and have a go – you have until the 14th April. Stay tuned for some video hopefully and a bit of coverage from today’s opening.

Annie Lennox and the reader

Curiosity Reader with Oxfam in Selfridges

Product team design and install the Curiosity Reader for Oxfam’s pop up Curiosity Shop.

** WHAT IS IT? **
The Curiosity Reader plays stories of donated objects to Oxfam’s Curiosity Shop.

** WHY? **
In 2010 the TOTeM team trialled a simple RFID story telling system in one of Oxfam’s shops in Manchester. The project, called Remember Me!, tested how consumer habits were effected by playing back stories of the second hand items donated to the shop – the incredible result coming back that sales increased by over 50% during the time that Remember Me! was on. So this time around, we got designerly and put in place a new form designed and made by Pete Thomas and Roy Shearer, and a new behaviour. Here’s a small iPhone Movie of Michael Quigley giving a demo – and a cameo of me in the mirror….

The Curiosity Reader is an RFID reader that links through bluetooth – taken from an Instructable by Tamberg to a computer playing video stories on a screen in the shop. Ali Napier from Digital Interaction Design here in Dundee did a great job of coding the viedo controller using a mix of Java Script and Quartz Composer For the Curiosity Shop A-list celebrities donated items for sale in the shop and we tagged and linked items to stories – a bit like the one from Annie Lennox – shown in more detail here in a blog by Andy Hudson Smith. .

** WHEN? **
The team: Chris Speed, Andy Hudson-Smith, Angelina Karpovich and Maria Burke will be down at the Curiosity Shop until the 10th April – and you should go check it out if you do a fine line in vintage.

Connection Boxes

Making a Printer for Totem

Wouldn’t it be great to link any object directly to a ‘video memory’ or an article of text describing its history or background?

That’s one of the provocations behind TOTeM, a research project exploring social memory in the emerging culture of the Internet of Things. As part of this, we are making a portable printing/stamping machine that will be able to leave a temporary QR code on any surface. The aim is to print these tags from your phone, and be able to read tags that you find with your phone, linking you back to the author’s video or text memory to do with the object or place.

In practice this is a not inconsiderable mechanical challenge, as I am oft reminded by Mike, but we’ve made good headway with a solenoid test rig (pictured above) and some custom marker-based print heads. It’s messy work. Ultimately, the printer will use the headphone socket of the phone as an output to the printer, the same method that Apple Karts used to control motors.

You can already contribute your memories and get printable tags at .