Happy New Year!


Following Dan Power and Crysta Anderson’s lead, I’m going to kick off the new year with a look back at the most popular posts from 2010. So with barely a pause and not even a drum roll, the winners are…

1. My second CurrentCost development board circuit

Way out ahead at number one is the only circuit board I’ve completed and put to regular use. Still working fine, apart from a brief pause when the batteries ran out. Kind of regretting replacing the batteries just in time for the recent spell of cold weather!

2. Master Information Hub: Getting Started

Not a close second, but still respectably ahead of the pack, this post is one I regularly point people to the first time they use the MDM Workbench. Hopefully it’s helped a few people out this year.

3. New clock radio

Leading the pack is this surprise entry to the top ten. Unlike some Joggler owners, I still use it fairly regularly and, apart from the occasional experiment, I’m still using the O2 software it came with. I did give Jolicloud another go yesterday, to see whether a little bluetooth keyboard helps; nice, but just not quite fast enough to switch permanently. Might give MeeGo a try next.

4. Get off my hashtag

Had a really interesting chat at the last homecamp about tagging, so this is a subject I’m likely to return to this year.

5. Weather Underground + Mashup Hub + Pachube = orb food

Maybe it’s just me but I get quite excited about the potential that this kind of data mashup has. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen what you can do with enterprise data and software like Message Broker; now imagine the possibilities with open data and simple ways for anyone to manipulate it. (That’s not manipulation in the political sense of course!)

6. Master Information Hub: Social Bookmark Services

This follows on from the number 2 post, while the third in the series has some catching up to do and didn’t make the top 10. I also have some has some catching up to do; I hope to get to the next instalment early this year.

7. Liberal Democrats can’t win here

Politicians, gotta love ’em. I wonder how these graphs will look if we get proportional representation for the next election.

8. Home Easy ambient orb

All soldered together but not yet receiving that lovely data from the number 5 post. I’m currently pondering whether to just hard code things ‘for now’ or hack some more so that the three orbs could be programmed using the BlinkM sequencer.

9. Digital House Arrest

Politicians again. Really. Very. Annoying. I never did get a reply to my last letter to my MP, Chris Huhne.

10. Manifesto

Given that all politicians seem to be as bad as each other I was half tempted to stand as a RON (reopen nominations) candidate Anyone else up for a For The Win party next time?!

Highly commended: It takes two

Not actually in the top ten but this post about Hedge End twinning deserves an honourable mention for the great comments about Frome’s twins.

Happy new year!

Advertisements

Ambient ducks…


…and balls, and squares, and hearts, and stars! If you want to build your own amazing MQTT enabled duck, I spotted these LED lights in Homebase at the weekend which might be worth a try at £2.50 each:

No good if you want the full team of ducks but they look like they’d make decent ambient objects. I seem to have a collection of half finished projects already so I didn’t buy one… this time!

Weather Underground + Mashup Hub + Pachube = orb food


The hardware side of my ambient orb project is almost finished, so I’ve been making a start at the other end: getting some data to display. Top of my wish list is to display a basic weather forecast on the orbs, which looks like it could be nice and simple thanks to the very handy Weather Underground service. There’s a decent weather station nearby for current readings, and the forecast for Southampton has been pretty accurate so far, both of which are available through the Weather Underground API.

I could process the resulting XML on my home server but, having been doing some work with mashups recently, I thought I’d create a feed mashup instead. I’ve played with Yahoo Pipes in the past but this time I created a feed using Mashup Hub on Lotus Greenhouse:

So that screen shot is probably not all that helpful in understanding what’s going on; this style of graphical programming is fairly common these days but I would personally like to see more advanced ways to document and share diagrams like this. Still, this one is pretty simple, so here’s a quick overview:

  • The path at the top extracts the current temperature from the local weather station data
  • The middle path makes use of some very handy date functions in Mashup Hub to pick out entries 12 hours ahead from the forecast data
  • The bottom path does a lookup on the forecast conditions to replace a text forecast with a numeric code

Which all ends up being published as a much simpler piece of XML. I could just grab this XML directly and process it on the Arduino, or I could save some effort and convert the mashed up XML to an even simpler comma separated list using an XML to CSV converter written for the Pachube community. Well, now it would be trivial to create a Pachube feed for the weather forecast as well… so here it is

Perhaps not the most direct route for getting a weather forecast but I think it’s a nice example of how anyone can pull together data they are interested in without any programming, or a server of their own. I’m also quite please with the results of the forecasts so far; 13 C and clear tomorrow in theory!

Home Easy ambient orb


After a long wait, I finally have a TLC5940 LED driver chip, so I’ve been making a bit of progress on my ambient orb project. The LED driver works well with the little RGB PCBs in the B&Q disco light after a bit of hacking, cutting tracks to the original controllers and soldering a few wires on to the LED leads. The final ingredients are a Freeduino Nano to squeeze inside the box, along with a 433MHz AM receiver.

So the hardware is mostly sorted, but what about the software? That I’m not quite so sure about. Here’s a vague list of requirements:

  • I want the orbs to work when they are connected to a computer directly via USB, or remotely using the 433MHz AM wireless
  • It should be possible to use the three orbs as separate ambient indicators, or together in more complex animations, like the weather beacon in Toronto for example
  • It should be possible to cycle through several ambient animations, such as a traffic indicator and weather forecast for example
  • The information the orbs can display should be easy to modify without reprogramming

My current thinking is that the home easy protocol might be sufficient to send information to the orbs. It is limited, but I think there is also a limit to how much information the ambient device can convey before it stops being ambient. If I have to spend time decoding what it’s trying to tell me, I may as well have messages on a screen. The other potential advantage of using the home easy protocol is the possibility of using home easy remotes to select the information being displayed. A simple protocol also means that simple devices could control the ambient display directly, without requiring an always on server in between.

That covers the wireless connection. My plan is to use the USB connection to send animation information to the device, since this is beyond the home easy protocol. For example, to indicate traffic problems; top orb is alternating dim red and bright red, middle orb is dim amber, and bottom orb is dim green.

Simples! Well, in theory. I’m still thinking about a protocol that would capture the kind of ambient animations that I’m after. If there were several single orb animations, and several multiple orb animations, how would these be shown? Automatically? Based on some notion of priority? Manually using a remote, even though this seems less ambient?

I would love to hear if you have any comments or suggestions.

Update: The disco lights are almost back in one piece, and glowing a bit like they did originally! Just need to solder on the wireless module and get on to the software side! (16 April 2010)

Living with polar bears


Well, the polar bears have begun their migration back north to the loft. It was my first experiment with an ambient device and the Christmas tree was certainly hard to ignore, especially when Jo complained the bears had gone off again! As a result, I updated the arduino sketch a bit to just briefly flash the bears off every three minutes when our energy use was high instead of turning them off completely. Still annoying apparently (kind of the point!) but the bears did manage to stay under arduino control all Christmas with only a few breaks on manual! A few observations now that the experiment is over:

  • I don’t think having a display like CurrentCost’s in the house makes a huge difference after the initial discovery phase. That’s not to say that the display is pointless: it is much easier than checking the meter, and the cost estimate is great, but after I found out what wastes the most energy, I rarely look at it. Is that the same for most people?
  • On the other hand, having a Christmas tree flashing when a lot of energy is being used is much harder to ignore! Not really an all year round solution but I’m sold on the idea of ambient devices. I hope to have a more compact one soon. It would be nice to have a simple indication near the front door as well for quick checks that everything is off before going out.
  • Energy use alone wasn’t enough information to tell whether the house was occupied or not. I had planned to leave the lights on automatic all the time, so they would turn on when we arrived home and off when we were out. A daft idea with hind sight because the fridge and central heating were enough to confuse the poor polar bears.
  • The arduino does a great job controlling Home Easy devices. I had it set up to send ‘reminders’ on a regular basis, which seems like a good way to make sure things are in the right state without any acknowledgements from the Home Easy receivers. (Also quite entertaining when the lights pop back on after someone turns them off with the normal Home Easy remote! I’m easily amused!)
  • This was the first project I ‘completed’ with the the arduino, and it was almost useful! Well, I enjoyed it at least, and it’s got me thinking more about the next project: the ambient orbs if Farnell ever ship the TLC5940 I ordered, or a wireless programmable thermostat.

B&Q ambient orb kit


It’s not quite the sort of do it yourself which B&Q is traditionally known for but ‘Lights by B&Q‘ is looking like a perfect ambient orb kit. I almost managed to resist getting one while buying paint for the bathroom, but it just looked too tempting…

ambient-lamp

Getting inside was easy, with just a few screws holding the back in place. Once in, there’s a simple string of little circuit boards glued to plastic balls. A bit of levering popped the first one off to reveal a set of three LEDs, and it looks like they’re soldered on in a common anode arrangement…

inside-disco-light

You could just ditch the RGB circuits completely and pop in a few blinkms but I’d like to reuse what’s already in B&Q’s handy kit. I think it should be possible to cut the tracks to the colour changing circuit and wire the LEDs up to an Arduino instead. The problem is that there aren’t enough PWM outputs on a single Arduino to drive three RGB orbs. Fortunately a combination of a TLC5940 LED driver chip, and the Arduino library to go with it, should solve that problem.

Here are a few other links which look like they could be useful for this little  project:

If I get the simple version working, I’d eventually like to get it working wirelessly. It would be much more useful if the orbs could be plugged in anywhere in the house rather than being connected to my home server via USB the whole time.

Update: not to be outdone, it looks like Homebase have a selection of (far cheaper) ambient orb kits as well now! (23 August 2010)