Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6878/the-gadget-show-live-april-2013-technology-in-the-uk

While AnandTech is predominantly a website catering to the US crowd, not everything that gets released ends up in the rest of the world – China and North America are normally locations 1 and 2 on the list of ‘where do we ship our product to’.  I come from the UK, which is somewhere in the middle between a US release and a never release.  For example we do not get Rosewill here, and no matter how much I look at the Vizio Thin + Light as a possible laptop upgrade, I will have to import one (with 20% import tax) or buy it when I am next over there. 

The EU market, compared to most, deals with a lot of different problems than selling in the US, and while the Eurozone as a concept should make it easier, the UK is one of the non-Euro currency countries, which makes it harder.  On top of this, we also have our own home grown talent – companies and entrepreneurs that want to invest, market, or find distribution channels.  In some eyes, CeBIT is becoming more of a distribution network than any actual new hardware release announcements, but it is this type of local event that occurs all around the world.

On Tuesday I went to an event hosted by one of the UK’s over the air television shows, The Gadget Show.  For our non-UK audience, the Gadget Show is not an enthusiast based technology broadcast – it deals with lots of different technology, showcasing some of the big names as well as home grown devices, and their application to the real world.  The Gadget Show Live is an extension of this, for companies and entrepreneurs to showcase their wares to first the professional crowd (investors, resellers and media), and then the general public over a multi-day event.  The location for this is the NEC in Birmingham, a well known location for this sort of trade (+public) show.

Most of what the big names in the tech industry are selling here are not new – they have been announced globally and nothing from them is that surprising, except how long it has taken for a product to get to the UK.  Much like some films, it might be sold in the US or Asia up to 6 months before here and often the UK firms have EU offices that distribute the EU allocation based on markets.  It is all very complex stuff, even in our modern age of internet sales.

But the local business or entrepreneurs trying to get investors, put their name onto the scene, show off their wares and perhaps have something interesting up their sleeve is what I went to see.  While there was *a lot* of junk at the event itself (like automatic cat litter trays or energy drink promotions), a few items piqued my interest from both a technology and a reality point of view.

I hope I am right in saying that most of us have been to that one ‘ride’ in a theme park or museum, that attempts to emulate a roller coaster or a car ride, with images on every wall along with the sensation of wind in the hair.  The IglooVision concept is almost similar to this, except you are in a large igloo shaped dome with a PC and a first person shooter game.

In the marketing video above (much better than any one I took at the event), the gamer sits with a keyboard and mouse to enjoy the experience.  The version igloo had on display at GSL was a little different.

Let me set the scene – you are holding a gun like device with a sensor on it, and are standing in the middle of the igloo with a large field of vision screen showing Crysis 3.  There is an analog stick on the gun to strafe, but where you point the gun is where the screen will be looking.

The system uses five projection screens in the roof of the tent to broadcast the image you see, and anything outside the field of vision is black (otherwise you could look behind instantly).  If you turn 10 degrees in a direction, the system responds by moving the image around the inside of the tent and you are facing the new direction.  It sounds and looks amazing at first, with the minor downside that actually you are just rotating in a small tent.

The hardware under the system is actually quite interesting from our point of view.  The part which makes the IglooVision system theirs is the depth at which they integrate the system in to the rendering pipeline.  So on the base of it all is a system powered by an AMD Eyefinity card that outputs the image to five Mac Minis.  The Mac Mini’s have information about where the gun is pointing, and calculate how much of the original rendered image has to be shown on its projector.  The other difficult part of the equation is making the game recognize the difference between strafing and turning with the new input methods.

Obviously this is all still very early prototype stuff.  Ideally Igloovision would have it all minimized into one PC to power the five projectors, and make it work on any title possible.  I was told that the bulk of their code deals with OpenGL, but due to recent media coverage in the UK, NVIDIA have had interest and the company is dealing with NVIDIA and APIs under NDA to help improve the system.

My critiques came in a few parts – one was the resolution/quality (the overall output was only 720p), second was the frame rate which was around 20-25 FPS, and the third was the lag. Much like the problems Oculus has with head turning, IglooVision has the same here, and there was a noticeable lag in the system.  Talking to one of the team at the event, the fact it was an early prototype was repeated often enough that they know it is an area to work on!

IglooVision itself have marketed this technology for entertainment other than games, such as at Festivals or corporate events to promote products (with and without the motion sensing).  The company has 8 full time staff, and was initially funded through independent investors.  They have sold their system to at least one client, and as such are feeling the pressure of deadlines!  While the system overall is not one for the home, I can see use at LANs in terms of the gaming market.  Good luck to them, I would love to see it finished.  This is essentially what we should have had with the Wii on day one!

My working day typically consists of 6-10 hours of looking at a monitor, often switching between three different ones for testing and writing, as well as my netbook.  This is often beyond my usual forum browsing and web intrigue, as well as sport and general TV.  The danger is that overtime my eyes will degrade, much in the same way that writers can get RSI – it happens to a few users and it is not that pleasant.  Jarred is attempting to deal with his RSI with ergonomic keyboards, and companies like Gunnar are developing eyewear helping with long periods of looking at screens.

With these types of ailments, the solution comes from the family of a sufferer.  With Gunnar, the Co-Founders husband developed headaches and eye pain when dealing with his IT career.  These headaches and eye issues are often referred to as DEF (Digital Eye Fatigue) or CVS (Computer Vision Syndrome).  They reached out to a friend who was a former engineer at Oakley, as well as medical experts on the issue.  The solution is what we see today - a pair of glasses with an anti-glare coating that focus the light into the eye to remove the muscular work the eye has to do.  The optional tinted lens helps filter out blue light and reduce onscreen contrast as well, and the design of some of the available frames hugs the face closer than normal, reducing the amount of moving air between the eye and the lens.

Of course, on first glance almost all the AT editors thought ‘it’s just a pair of tinted glasses’.  So the quoted science behind their solution is the product marketing explanation – an eye normally blinks 12 times a minute, but when concentrating on a monitor this can reduce to 3 times a minute, drying out the eye.  Couple this with the copious amounts of time most individuals spend in front of a screen and the eye is continuously over worked and over dried.  Gunnars try to make the eye work less.

The glasses I was shown are both coated and tinted in order to adjust the high contrast background on most applications.  The lenses themselves also magnify slightly (a few percent, but noticeable enough) such that the user does not have to sit so close to the screen, and a pair of non-tinted ones were on show for graphic designers who require accurate color definition.

I actually have some knowledge of this – I had a high-school friend who had concentration issues when looking at black text on a white background.  The solution to his woes was a piece of colored transparent plastic, which he used in every exam with success.  I can easily see where this company is coming from.

Gunnar are already selling in the US, as private sales and under prescription, and the appearance at Gadget Show Live was to drum up interest among the UK media as well as source local distributors for their product line.  The lenses are essentially the same across the range with the same coating and magnification, with various tints and non-tinted available - it is all up to the style of the frame for the user.  They were mainly being advertised as Gaming eyewear but the company also encourages corporate entities to consider the health of employees that work in front of a computer eight hours a day.

Aside from the current sole UK retailer, pricing for the gaming range is expected to be £49-£69+ in the UK with SCAN as the initial etailer, along the same lines as a gaming mouse or keyboard.  Similar to what Jarred is doing with mechanical keyboards, I have asked for a review sample in order to see how much it may affect my IT life.  My vision has classically been perfect with great range, with minor red-green colorblindness and my inability to find things like keys or memory that might be right in front of me on my desk, but I would like to see for myself if they make a difference over an extended period of time. 

Cambridge University Eco Racing: Solar Challenge 2013

For those unfamiliar with the Solar Challenge, it is a 3000 mile biennial ‘race’ across the Australian desert with two main goals – fuel efficiency and speed.  By using as little initial energy as possible, the Solar Challenge pits energy efficient vehicles against each other to see how fast they can transverse this epic course.  One such team is from Cambridge University, present at the Gadget Show Live in order to promote not only themselves but also the event, to investors and the media. 

Clearly with the race being in Australia and in the desert, all teams use solar panels.  The current CUER design has competed in the past two challenges, and all the entrants have looked very similar – the race in 2013 has had a significant set of rule changes (such as 4 wheels rather than 3), and as such new vehicles have to be designed. All vehicles in the race must have a driver rather than an automated GPS system, and by using student power (which comes very cheap!), the CUER team explained the technology behind their vehicle for the upcoming event. 

I have some knowledge of solar cells, as it was a close cousin of my general academic area at university.  At the time of those lectures, solar cells were being touted at around 20-25% efficiency; currently the ones being used by CUER are up to 35.5%, which is astonishing for only a few years research.  These are expensive, made with space-grade Gallium Arsenide, and might not be the lightest available, but they sure are efficient.  In order to save weight elsewhere, we have a carbon fiber monocoque weighing only 30 kilograms but measuring 4.5m x 0.8m.

With the heat in the outback, you obviously need to cool both the components and the driver.  The team use 14cm Noctua NF-A14 FLX fans underneath the solar panels, as they provide the best CFM for the lowest power - ~30 CFM for 0.8 W.  The solar panels in the new design tilt themselves with the direction of the sun depending on the direction the vehicle is pointing and the time of day; luckily the challenge is typically very dry with low humidity, but on public roads so there is the challenge of a cattle grid or two.  CUER is aiming for a vehicle that will hit a top speed of 140 km/h, weight under 120 kg, and complete the course in less than 30 hours.

Website link: http://www.cuer.co.uk

Swarm Robotics: Developing Pack Behavior

The field of Robotics is undoubtedly large and ever expanding.  Much of the news we see is about human-like robots and interactions, and how these devices fit into our modern world such that the real life won’t jump back in horror.  The other end of the scale is miniaturization, and understanding how a large number of elements in a system (ants in a nest, bees in a hive) can co-operate together to achieve a bigger task or decide what to do as part of a group.  Things like finding the best trail to a sugar source and telling everyone else, or bunching together to build a new version of yourself are part of this field, and the Sheffield University group of Dr Roderich Groß was at Gadget Show Live, after being showcased on The Gadget Show media network. 

Clearly little robots are interesting, and getting them to decide as a group the best way from A to B, without any interaction, is all about detecting local environment.  The first port of call would be computer simulation, but nothing gets the creative juices flowing like a hands-on demonstration.  Using e-Pucks and Kilobots, the robots talk to each other via infra red using sensors to determine their local environment and perform the task.  Each robot has a localized memory (the smaller the robot, the smaller the memory – in the case of the Kilobots, 32-64 kilobytes), which stores basic commands and an element of ‘swarm memory’.  They can be globally controlled for simple commands via infra-red, either by a sensor array (Kilobots) or a programmed remote control (e-Pucks).

The research team are helping program the robots to perform swarm and global activities that have worked well in simulation – special aggregation and segregation into strata (combining then organizing into layers, much like shaking a bowl of nuts the brazils always rise to the top), cooperative transport, and self assembly.  Ultimately the goal is replication, such that when being provided with the modular building blocks whether as a swarm the robots will be able to recreate new copies or even modified copies based on the needs of the collective.  It works in simulation, but experiment is a different matter entirely.

Once this works on the ‘large’ scale (the kilobots are roughly the diameter of a quarter), the aim is miniaturization.  Obviously that has many hurdles in itself, in terms of power, response, memory and application.   One application demonstrated is of bringing ‘food’ from a source to a nest; now a marketable goal would be if automated robots could divide and conquer the detection and removal of weeds from a field in agriculture, or help in medical research. 

With the collective research funding from national and European sources continually diminishing, researchers and research groups are often looking at other sources of funding for industry – the main barrier to this is working towards a marketable product which may not be readily apparent at the start.  The latest research grant awarded to Dr Groß’s research group is one from of the national bodies, to expand on the idea of self assembly.  The problem is that this field has many more ideas than there are people and money to go around – so almost any source of funding is welcome.

Incidentally, if any undergraduates or postgraduates are interested in this field and pursuing academia, there are a number of positions available on the research website.

Programming Gangnam Style and 4K Racing

One of the more esoteric demonstrations at the event was by a company called Aldebaran Robotics, makers of the NAO range of human-like robots for teaching school children how to react and program machines logically.  There are clearly hits of Honda’s ASIMO robot in here, but the NAO robot does something other than running – Gangnam Style!

A project that encourages school children to think in a way that promotes coding is a good thing in my opinion, especially for the computer driven age we live in today.  Having something visual like the NAO helps this, and some of the software seemed easy to use as well.

One of the uses for the NAO is to play football (the non-US kind) in the Robocup World Championship.  The next big event, the Robocup German Open, is just 3 weeks away and will take place in Magdeburg, Germany.

In the coding world, one stand was dedicated to four teams of programmers designing new games and utilities in the Unreal Engine 3.0.  All the screens were on display showing just how involved making a game and using engine software is.

Dirt 3 meets 84” 4K with a £12k Racing Seat

Perhaps the most interactive excitement I had at GSL was at the LG booth, were one of their 84” 4K panels was on display hooked up to Dirt 3.  The game was also connected to a Vesaro racing simulator, capable of independent motion in all four corners to correspond with the feelings in game.

The Seat

The 4K Screen

Despite not owning a driving license or a car, I love driving games, go-karting and the Formula 1. The whole experience was great, with it being my first proper attempt at using both manual gear changes with a flappy paddle steering wheel. Luckily enough I did not crash in any major way and in my three lap race I did not finish last!

Gadget Show Live: Thoughts + Gallery

Gadget Show Live, over the course of this week, will attract over 25,000 people from across the UK, with Saturday being sold out weeks in advance.  The show is fun, with a wide breadth of differing technologies on show if you go up and ask about them.  I love to go on and on about the underlying technology, and I am sure one or two stalls wanted to get rid of me at some point.  But I had the opportunity to go on a press day, which is relatively quiet.  I hear the public days can be exceptionally busy, with queues of up to 50 long for a go on things like the racing simulators.

If you are going to the Gadget Show Live this week, get there early and explore the event.  There is a lot to see and do, and a lot to play with above and beyond the normal ‘we are trying to sell you stuff’ part of it.  If you keep up to date with the technology industry you may not find anything earth shattering or new, but there are a few gems in the crowd worth experiencing.

To put this all into perspective, here are a few of the more ‘odd’ images I snapped:

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