Geek Meet: Homemade Ubicomp


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Homemade ubiquitous computing, a talk given on February 26 2009 during Geek Meet in Stockholm, Sweden

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  • Homemade ubiquitous computing, a talk given on February 26 2009 during Geek Meet in Stockholm, Sweden.

    This talk is licensed under Creative Commons. For more information, see Please note that not all material used in this talk is licensed under Creative Commons. Such material is identified in the notes for each slide.Photo by Lali Masriera, CC-BY-2.0.
  • Homemade. You should be able to do this by yourself, at home, for a reasonable price. This means you don’t need to buy or hire expensive tools or even companies. Not that you’re not allowed to, of course!

    It’s like homemade cookies. You can make them yourself, provided you have the ingredients, some kitchen utensils, a bowl and an oven.Photo by Fabio Bruna, CC-BY 2.0.
  • So what is ubicomp or Ubiquitous Computing? Wikipedia defines it as “information processing [that] has been thoroughly integrated into everyday objects and activities”.

    This is a broad term, and there are many different terms that all more or less mean the same thing. Such terms are Pervasive Computing, Ambient Intelligence, Physical Computing, Everyware and the Internet of Things.

    For our purposes today, Ubiquitous Computing is – again quoting Wikipedia – about a “post-desktop model of human-computer interaction”. This means it’s not about our laptops and external monitors, but about smart devices that we wouldn’t necessarily recognize as being a computer.

    Wikipedia: by Tobias Toft, CC-BY 2.0.
  • What I want to do tonight is to inspire you to start hacking on your own Ubiquitous Computing projects. Whether we like it or not, ubicomp will shape our world. It’s best to do some of the shaping ourselves, rather than letting big companies and other interests determine what our world will look like.

    In the next half-hour or so I’ll take you through some amazing projects. We’ll talk about tools and products you can use yourself and where to get some inspiration. But first, let’s talk about the spirit of Homemade and this new world ubicomp may bring.Photo by Tobias Toft, CC-BY 2.0.
  • The term DIY refers to people creating things themselves, without hiring professionals. In an analogue world this could be about home improvement. Or, in our digital world, about self-publishing. It blurs the lines between amateurs, doing things for the fun of it, and professionals, who supposedly know what they’re doing and get paid for it.

    (We’ve seen over the past few months how that’s turned out…)Photo by Fabio Bruna, CC-BY-SA 2.0.
  • Take, for example, amateur radio, which is also known as ham radio. There is a large subculture of people communicating via the radio waves, outside of the regular radio channels. This is usually a hobby taken up to learn more about radio and electronics, or talk to people in different countries. Radio amateurs also do experimental work, for example in using the moon as a reflector for radio waves.Photo by Fabrizio Sciami, CC-BY-SA 2.0.
  • Most importantly, amateur radio inspires, and can lead to Nobel prizes, as Jack Kilby shows us.From Jack Kilby’s autobiography at
  • You may also be familiar with science kits, allowing children to do learn about science on the kitchen table – not in a lab.

    In a way, Homemade Ubicomp is a science kit for all of us. We can play with it, learn from it, experiment and innovate.Photo by Jeff Keyzer, CC-BY 2.0.
  • I hope Homemade and DIY is fun and could lead to great things. Now I’d like to focus on why it’s important.

    The advances of Ubiquitous Computing have the potential of creating a whole new world. There are many upsides to this world, but also a few downsides.Photo by Dan Foy, CC-BY 2.0.
  • Ubiquitous Computing is marked by sensors and identifiers. For example we have RFID tags, which are small chips that communicate wirelessly with RFID readers and can contain a few kilobytes of data. They’re used in access cards, public transport systems and passports. They’re also used to track the transport of goods.

    It’s not hard to imagine that in the near future, your new pair of jeans will have an embedded RFID tag that can be used to not only hamper theft, but also recognize you as a customer.

    Ubiquitous Computing is about more than just RFID of course. Essentially, it’s about all data that can be captured through sensors: whether a door is open or closed, the temperature in a room, noise levels and so on.Photo by myuibe, CC-BY 2.0.
  • The big question then is who gets control over this technology, and what are the side-effects? Do you want the jeans store to recognize you and your past purchases? Or to detect that you bought your jacket from a competitor?

    Should the jeans store tell you about the tag in your jeans? How easy should it be to find, so that you can destroy it?

    Why are there RFID chips in our passports in the first place? They’ve proven to be susceptible to eavesdropping and straight copying. Sure, usually they’re encrypted, but how strong is that encryption? RFID transport cards have been completely broken.

    Wouldn’t a non-wireless chip have been better? Or did the RFID companies win the lobbying game?Photo by Lali Masriera, CC-BY 2.0.
  • The problem with Ubiquitous Computing is that we don’t have a clear understanding of the consequences. And I don’t mean just us in this room, I mean politicians, the person on the street, the CEO of a consumer electronics company. We’re not aware of the risks, and quite frankly may not be aware of the opportunities.
    Photo by David Goehring, CC-BY 2.0.
  • Homemade Ubicomp can help us and others understand the risks and find the opportunities. Plus, we can use these new tools to solve some problems of our own!Photo by John Goodridge, CC-BY-SA 2.0.
  • All right, enough of the philosophical fluffy stuff. Time for some cool projects.Photo by Daria Perevezentsev, Licensed under Creative Commons, but it’s not clear which specific license.

    Used because Mediamatic is awesome and needs to be promoted as much as possible.
  • First I’d like to show you two projects made by students of the pilot year of the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. CIID offers a great IxD program where the students build many cool projects.
  • The first project is Message In A Bottle, by Adam Little, Alice Pintus and Ujjval Panchal. It is a bottle that shows you email messages from friends. It starts glowing when there’s an unread message, so you don’t have to continuously check your email.
    The bottle contains an Arduino board which is a programmable micro-processor that you can hook up to all kinds of out- and inputs; an accelerometer to detect when you turn the bottle upside down; an LCD screen to display the message; an LED to make it glow and a module for radio communication.

    There’s another Arduino with radio transmitter that sends emails to the bottle. Unfortunately they never got actual integration with email working, so this is still a prototype.

    Let’s see a video of how it’s used.
    Project page and video:
  • This is another cool project. It shows the environmental impact of the food you eat. The metaphor is weighing scale: you put food on the left side, and trees on the right. Let’s have a look:Project page: by Mark Wubben, CC-BY 2.0.
  • Here’s a demonstration video. Each piece of food has an RFID tag in its label, which is read by a reader embedded in the left arm of the scale. The right arm of the scale contains a weight sensor, which lets it detect the ‘environmental weight‘ of the trees placed on it.

    The scale itself is driven by an engine, which shows you the balance between the food on the left side, and the number of tries on the right.Project page and video:
    More info:
  • Here’s a very quick video of how the project evolved. Of course, not all tools in the video will be available to the average home, but it’s pretty awesome what three students put together!Video:
  • Here are some projects I was involved with. For the past two years, Mediamatic, a foundation from Amsterdam, has organized a hackers camp at the PICNIC conference.Photo by Michell Zappa, CC-BY-SA 2.0.
  • This is what a Hackers Camp looks like. Or, at least, the opening meeting. Last year we were about 30 people, and in 5 days we build 8 installations to be shown and used at the conference (or that was the plan, some projects went over time a bit).

    We used a bunch of laptops, RFID readers, various electronic things, and construction materials. Nothing ridiculously expensive, nor something that takes months to create.Photo by Daria Perevezentsev, Licensed under Creative Commons, but it’s not clear which specific license.
  • Everybody attending the conference had the opportunity to create an online profile. They could also get an RFID tag (displayed left), which was then linked to this profile. This meant that each installation could identify the person interacting with it, provided it read the RFID tag.Photo by Daria Perevezentsev, Licensed under Creative Commons, but it’s not clear which specific license.

    iktag image from
  • A battery powered, couch on wheels, providing free massages. Both armrests have an RFID reader, on which you put your RFID tag to receive a massage. Other people can place their tag on the armrest to recharge your massage credit. And, for even more social interaction, if you use the couch with somebody else, you’re automatically connected on the online PICNIC network.

    What you need to build this? An old couch, car massage chairs, two RFID readers and a laptop. Perhaps a car battery and LED displays to show massage credit. Not very high tech, but pretty awesome!
    Mobile Massage Couch:
    Photo by Daria Perevezentsev, Licensed under Creative Commons, but it’s not clear which specific license.
  • Google popularity contest! RFID tags are used to find your profile name, then a Google search is performed. The person with the highest number of search results, goes highest.

    Requirements: two small stage elevators (not exactly home made, but hey). Computer, two RFID readers, some mechanics and Arduino to control the elevators via computer. And the controls are nothing fancy: the Arduino drives an engine that pushes the up or down buttons. There’s an optical scanner trick that measures how high the elevator has gone so it stops in time.iKWiN: by Mathias Forbach, Agreement for use in this presentation with Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license granted via e-mail.
  • The awesomest installation was Vbird, but that’s only because I helped create it. Vbird is a bird that you throw to other people. Catch it, let it read your RFID tag, and throw it to somebody else. It says “Nice to meet you” when it reads your tag, and makes happy sounds when flying. Plus, it records its flight on video, and the video created after it read your tag is uploaded to your PICNIC profile.

    Unfortunately the hardware kept breaking, so in total we only played with it for about 15 minutes. That said, those were 15 very cool minutes.

    Requirements: large bird, Arduino with accelerometer and RFID reader, laptop for communicating with the bird and playing the sounds. Less easy to get: wireless camera and processing infrastructure.Vbird:
    Photo by Daria Perevezentsev, Licensed under Creative Commons, but it’s not clear which specific license.
  • Now for something completely different. Brian Suda used a Mir:ror – a RFID reader that plugs in to your laptop and which can run actions on your computer based on the RFID tag it reads – to authenticate with his OpenID server. Using this trick he logged in to Dopplr, a social traveller site.

    Let’s watch his video.Tweet:
  • Video:
  • Awesome. eh? So, how can you go do this yourself?Photo by Eneas De Troya, CC-BY 2.0.
  • Let’s start with some consumer products you can buy. These are in the realm of software hacking, like what Brian Suda did.

    Violet is a French company that sells the Mir:ror, which Brian used, as well as the Nabaztag. This is rabbit connected directly to the internet via Wi-Fi. It participates in Violet’s social network, so you can add friends, get news updates and so on. It has an RFID reader so you can trigger actions, just like the Mir:ror.

    You can hack the Nabaztag so it doesn’t point at Violet’s servers but your own. This allows you to circumvent Violet’s social network, which, to be frank, kind of sucks.

    The Mir:ror allows you to launch applications on your own computer, and do calls to web servers. This latter is really cool, because it makes it very easy to program web responses to a tag being read in your room. For example, logging in to Dopplr ;-)

    A Nabaztag costs € 145, or about 1600 SEK. A Mir:ror is € 49 or 550 SEK. This is excluding shipping.

    See by Jeremy Keith, CC-BY 2.0.
  • Touchatag (formerly Tikitag) is similar to Violet’s Mir:ror. It launches actions on your own computer. That said, it’s design isn’t as fancy as Violet’s, and the reader doesn’t give feedback when it reads a tag.

    I think that, fundamentally, Touchatag is an engineering company, whereas Violet has more design sensibilities (in fact, Touchatag is an Alcatel-Lucent venture). This is reflected in the devices themselves. You can set up server interactions with Touchatag, but it’s a very complicated engineering process rather than a simple server call. The Mir:ror is also prettier, it beeps and blinks. It also reads more RFID tags than Touchatag.

    During PICNIC, we’ve successfully used the Touchatag readers to drive several projects, although we circumvented the required Touchatag software and interacted with the reader directly.

    The Touchatag costs € 30, or 330 SEK.Photo by Mark Wubben, CC-BY 2.0.
  • I’ve mentioned the Arduino several times tonight. It’s a cool module which lets you program digital and analog in- and outputs. You can upload a software program to the Arduino board, so it runs stand-alone from your computer. It can also talk to your computer.

    The design of the Arduino is open source, which is a really cool approach. Because of this, there are various variants of the official Arduino.

    An Arduino board sells for about 230 SEK.

    One member of the Arduino development team, David Cuartielles, lives in Malmö and runs 1scale1. Another member, David Mellis, lives in Copenhagen and works at CIID.Photo by equinoxefr, CC-BY-SA 2.0.
  • The TinkerKit is a product from!, a consultancy that helps create interactive experiences. Two members of the Arduino team work for!.

    TinkerKit is a toolkit to rapidly prototype physical computing projects. It is not yet commercially available, but is definitely something to keep an eye on.Photo by tinker_it, All rights reserved. I deem this fair use, since I’m essentially marketing their product.
  • Photo by Mark Wubben, CC-BY 2.0.
  • Make is a magazine that showcases all kinds of DIY projects.Screen grab from
  • Find out more about the PICNIC projects from 2007.Screen grab from
  • Or those from 2008.Screen grab from
  • Check out the awesome projects done at CIID.Screen grab from
  • Russell Davies blogs about Ubiquitous Computing, design, and many other things.Screen grab from
  • Of course read!’s blog.Screen grab from
  • And the Arduino blog.Screen grab from
  • Here you can find out more about 1scale1, based in Malmö.Screen grab from
  • Thank you.Photo by ginnerobot, CC-BY-SA 2.0.
  • Special thanks to the following people, who provided material for this talk:

    Brian Suda:
    Adam Little:
    Eilidh Dickson:
    Daria Perevezentsev:


    Photo by Lali Masriera, CC-BY 2.0.
  • And of course many, many thanks to the wonderful people on Flickr who licensed their photos under Creative Commons.Photo by Jeff Kubina, CC-BY-SA 2.0.
  • Geek Meet: Homemade Ubicomp

    1. 1. Homemad e Ubicomp Geek Meet, Feb ‘09 Stockholm, Sweden Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike Mark Wubben 2.5 Friday, February 27, 2009
    2. 2. Homemade Friday, February 27, 2009
    3. 3. Ubiquitous Computing Friday, February 27, 2009
    4. 4. Tonight Friday, February 27, 2009
    5. 5. Do It Yourself Friday, February 27, 2009
    6. 6. Ham Radio Friday, February 27, 2009
    7. 7. “I thought that amateur radio was a fascinating subject. It sparked my interest in electronics, and that's when I decided that this field was something I wanted to pursue.” Jack S. Kilby, Friday, February 27, 2009
    8. 8. Science Kits Friday, February 27, 2009
    9. 9. Our New World Friday, February 27, 2009
    10. 10. RFID & Other Sensors Friday, February 27, 2009
    11. 11. Who Gets Control? Friday, February 27, 2009
    12. 12. Awareness Friday, February 27, 2009
    13. 13. Solve Our Own Problems Friday, February 27, 2009
    14. 14. Projects Friday, February 27, 2009
    15. 15. Friday, February 27, 2009
    16. 16. Friday, February 27, 2009
    17. 17. Adam Little Eilidh Dickson Siddhart Muthyala Meet The Food You Eat Friday, February 27, 2009
    18. 18. Friday, February 27, 2009
    19. 19. Friday, February 27, 2009
    20. 20. PICNIC, Amsterdam Friday, February 27, 2009
    21. 21. Mediamatic Social RFID Hackers Camp Friday, February 27, 2009
    22. 22. == Mediamatic Social RFID Hackers Camp Friday, February 27, 2009
    23. 23. Ralph Meijer Edwin Dertien Fabienne Serriere Mobile Massage Couch Friday, February 27, 2009
    24. 24. Axel Roest Simon Claessen Mathias Forbach iKWiN Friday, February 27, 2009
    25. 25. Erik Borra Mark Wubben Eelco Wagenaar Martijn Pannevis Adriaan Wormgoor Vbird Friday, February 27, 2009
    26. 26. Brian Suda OpenID + Mir:ror Friday, February 27, 2009
    27. 27. Friday, February 27, 2009
    28. 28. Getting Started Friday, February 27, 2009
    29. 29. Friday, February 27, 2009
    30. 30. Friday, February 27, 2009
    31. 31. Friday, February 27, 2009
    32. 32. Friday, February 27, 2009
    33. 33. Inspiration Friday, February 27, 2009
    34. 34. Friday, February 27, 2009
    35. 35. Friday, February 27, 2009
    36. 36. Friday, February 27, 2009
    37. 37. Friday, February 27, 2009
    38. 38. Friday, February 27, 2009
    39. 39. Friday, February 27, 2009
    40. 40. Friday, February 27, 2009
    41. 41. Friday, February 27, 2009
    42. 42. Friday, February 27, 2009
    43. 43. Special Thanks Brian Suda Adam Little Eilidh Dickson Daria Perevezentsev Mathias Forbach! Mediamatic Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design Friday, February 27, 2009
    44. 44. Lali Masriera John Goodridge Fabio Bruna Michell Zappa Tobias Toft Eneas De Troya Je Keyzer Jeremy Keith Fabrizio Sciami equinoxefr Dan Foy ginnerobot myuibe Je Kubina David Goehring Friday, February 27, 2009