BBC BLOGS - Gregory's First Law

Archives for January 2011

What's app, Doc? Developing

David Gregory | 17:44 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011


Smartphone screen showing a selection of apps

Following on from our look at businesses using smartphone apps were looking at the developers today. The pricing of apps for smartphones is fascinating for a geek like me and talking to developer Agant in Leamington Spa was interesting because Agant created the very first smartphone app that I was too cheap to buy.

Cast your minds back to the heady early days of smartphones and a friend demonstrated a clever and free app that showed live train data. At the same time as that was impressing me it was causing a headache for Agant since they'd just spent eight months creating their own train times app and they were looking to recoup the costs.

There followed a bit of a tussle and Agant's official version won out. But since I don't use the train that often I found the £4.99 price tag a bit much and was very envious of my friends free version that he downloaded before it was withdrawn.

These days Agant's train app is one of the top fifty grossing apps for the Apple iphone and today it faces competing and completely legit lower price apps including some that are free. But the fact this small company has created digital content that people will pay good money for is no mean achievement. And as I watched them demonstrate the Rail Times app and others I was impressed.

But as we've established I'm cheap, so isn't there some sort of free trial Agant could use to entice people like me? Apparently Apple (and these are apple only apps I'm afraid) don't allow this. Indeed the competiting Android OS has just moved in this direction too by reducing its "buy and try" refund window from 24 hours to just 15 minutes.

And that's the thing. There's no doubt everyone from coffee shops to cathedrals are finding apps good for business. (The Bishop of Hereford was fascinated by the app for Birmingham Cathedral when I was there last week!) And there's money to be made by developers too. Creating a system where people will happily pay for digital content is to pretty impressive. But in the end it's Apple, Google and Nokia who make the rules for the shops. And that's a lot of control over a young company's income stream.

As ever if you have a favourite app or are a developer working on something really cool do let me know in the comments or email me.

Robot research turns to toys. Is not child's play

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David Gregory | 17:16 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011


Close up of rescue robot sensor head

Building and playing robot football teams is a familiar exercise in engineering, programming and design. But until recently I was unaware of a much more interesting type of robot competition. Forget football it's all about the rescue robots.

Rescue robots have to travel across simulated disaster zones and track down survivors with a variety of sensors. They have to find buried people by tracking heat, sound and even the CO2 produced as people breathe.

Which brings us to students at the University of Warwick who are entering their rescue robot in several international competitions this year. This will be the third set of students to upgrade and enhance this particular model. And this year they're including some Midlands tech I've blogged about before, Kinect a videogame accessory that was partly developed in Birmingham. More here.

Kinect is designed to track and follow the movements of players so for example you use your hand like a racquet in a tennis game to "hit" the ball. But it is a really sophisticated piece of technology. As well as motion tracking and analysis it can also "see" a room in 3d and map it, it even has voice recognition. But because it's mass produced it costs around £100 as opposed to more specialised sensors the team were considering that cost around £3000.

Rescue robot in action crossing the uneven block field which simulates rubble

And while Microsoft and Rare don't appear to condone this peeking under the bonnet of Kinect we have seen a thriving mod scene spring up. This is a good place to start and you can find a great article and some nice videos here.

It's not the first time what is essentially a toy has attracted the attention of researchers. Sony's robot dog, aibo was another popular target for scientists looking at robots. Once again because it was designed for the real world it was robust, though complex and (relatively) affordable. Here's just one project.

Sony too wasn't that happy with people hacking into the digital innards of their product. But in time they actually released a kit for use by non-commercial programmers. It may well be that Microsoft and Rare come to the same conclusion. If people want to strap your toy to a rescue robot that's really quite a compliment.

Church tower broadband in Herefordshire

David Gregory | 11:12 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011


Allpay is a Herefordshire company that's signed a deal with the Diocese of Hereford to broadcast broadband from church towers. You can read the full story here.

The basic idea is to use the mediaeval church infrastructure as somewhere to put the masts needed for the network and bring the internet to areas with poor coverage.

Of course I wasn't able to blog about this on Friday because I spent all day reporting from an area with little or no internet coverage. And not much of a mobile signal either but that's a story for another day.

I had several tweets and emails asking for more details. The company's website is here. But the gist is the service provides 2Mb for £20 a month. The more you pay the faster speed you have access to. You also need to pay for a receiver mast to be installed on your home.

Of the people I spoke to who had the system they seemed happy with it. Although one passer by did mention he thought the cost was rather high. I'd be interested to hear from other customers in the comments.

South Herefordshire has also been selected for a trial of superfast broadband by the Government as has Gloucestershire. Together with this scheme there are some very creative ideas on how to increase broadband access.

A quick word of praise for the Church of England too. Sticking a mast on an ancient building can involve an enormous amount of red tape. But what the Diocese of Hereford have done is create a broadband licence which streamlines the whole process. It's a nifty idea that may well be adopted by others.

Ejector seats

David Gregory | 14:41 UK time, Tuesday, 18 January 2011


Today we're doing a story about IA Technology based in Hereford. We're looking at their face-recognition tech today. Here's the story;

Using computers to scan a crowd and recognise and track people's faces is a useful idea that doesn't always deliver.

Now a company in Hereford says it has produced a facial recognition system that is extremely effective and easy to install.

According to Managing Director Duncan Williams the system is about to start a trial in Brisbane airport in Australia and they will then move onto airports in Dubai, Singapore and eventually London.

While existing facial recognition systems often need the installation of new cameras this one can use existing cctv cameras even if they work at a fairly low resolution.

The system can be used to scan and compare faces to a "watch list" to look for terrorists or other people of interest.

But it can also be used within an airport to track large crowds. To make sure everyone who checks on to a flight then boards it for example.

The system could also be used to track passengers as they leave their planes and make their way to immigration.

The company is also creating an app for smartphones. This would allow the police to take a photo of someone using their mobile and quickly compare it to an online database of suspects.

But amongst plenty of other stuff IA Technology also manufacture the electronics used in aircraft ejector seats. I say manufacture it's really more like carefully crafting by hand. After all circuit boards and chips have a reputation for being somewhat delicate but these have to work first time shortly after being fired at some force out of a crashing jet. And here's those electronics in action.

What's App, Doc?

David Gregory | 17:42 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011


Judging by the people I talk to, and the number of press releases I'm getting, the use and creation of "apps" has reached some sort of tipping point.

So are they useful? Or just something people use to show off with on their Apples, Androids, Blackberries and "fondleslabs" ?

Let us know what you think in the comments below. And if you have a favourite app, or indeed if you write them yourself, we'd love to hear from you too.

Astronomy events in the West Midlands

David Gregory | 15:11 UK time, Wednesday, 5 January 2011


Orion seen from Coventry

What with meteor showers, solar eclipses and of course Stargazing Live there's been plenty of astronomy on Midlands Today and BBC Local Radio this week. The picture at the top of this post comes from a "Tweetup" of enthusiasts reported on by our colleagues from BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, more here. If all this has inspired you to find out more about astronomy then there are plenty of free events taking place in the Midlands in the next few days. You can find the full list by clicking here.

Solar eclipse

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David Gregory | 15:16 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011


Solar eclipse seen from Rugby

Well we didn't have much joy with today's solar eclipse but Mark Edwards was very lucky and sent us this brilliant picture taken just after sunrise. He took it from the hill at King's Newnham just west of Rugby as the skies cleared just at the right moment. Five minutes later the cloud descended and that was it. But by then he'd got this great shot.

UPDATE Later Mark sent us a series of still images which we used and sent to the Stargazing Live team. Here's Professor Brian Cox discussing them with Dara O Briain on last night's show.


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