Failing to Invent

We IBM employees are encouraged, indeed incented, to be innovative and to invent.  This is particularly poignant for people like myself working on the leading edge of the latest technologies.  I work in IBM emerging technologies which is all about taking the latest available technology to our customers.  We do this in a number of different ways but that's a blog post in itself.  Innovation is often confused for or used interchangeably with invention but they are different, invention for IBM means patents, patenting and the patent process.  That is, if I come up with something inventive I'm very much encouraged to protect that idea using patents and there are processes and help available to allow me to do that.

This comic strip really sums up what can often happen when you investigate protecting one of your ideas with a patent.  It struck me recently while out to dinner with friends that there's nothing wrong with failing to invent as the cartoon above says Leibniz did.  It's the innovation that's important here and unlucky for Leibniz that he wasn't seen to be inventing.  It can be quite difficult to think of something sufficiently new that it is patent-worthy and this often happens to me and those I work with while trying to protect our own ideas.

The example I was drawing upon on this occasion was an idea I was discussing at work with some colleagues about a certain usage of your mobile phone [I'm being intentionally vague here].  After thinking it all through we came to the realisation that while the idea was good and the solution innovative, all the technology was already known available and assembled in the way we were proposing, but used somewhere completely different.

So, failing to invent is no bad thing.  We tried and on this particular occasion decided we could innovate but not invent.  Next time things could be the other way around but according to these definitions we shouldn't be afraid to innovate at the price of invention anyway.

A lunchtime run

An event that has ignited competitive passions at Hursley for a number of years is the annual Quad-Department Games (previously known as the Tri-Department Games). Each year, the Barbarians, Hatters, Mavericks and Titans compete in a series of events with a rolling aggregated scoreboard. It is not just about outdoor sports, although the running, football and touch rugby are major parts of the calendar… the departments can also demonstrate their prowess in a cake bake, in a quiz, or at table football. It’s a lot of fun ūüôā

Yesterday’s event was a running race around Hursley Park. On a brilliant, sunny and clear November day, a total of 57 runners completed a 5km course. There are a couple of sets of photos on Flickr, but here are some highlights…

Runners gathering

Quick start

Through the trees

Beneath the autumn trees

Congratulations to all involved, congratulations to the Mavericks for the overall team win, and to Dave Currie for his organisation (and for bringing along MiniMe support!)

BBC looking at mind control

Katia Moskvitch from the BBC has just published a nice article on using the mind to control technology.

As part of the article as well as trying out the Emotive headset* she interviewed Ed Jellard and Kevin Brown from the IBM ETS team based in Hursley.

* This is the same headset used for the Bang Goes The Theory Taxi racing.

Bridge building with local students

Last week saw the start of a new year for IBM Hursley’s MentorPlace programme. The idea of MentorPlace is to connect people from the lab with female students from local schools who might be interested in pursuing a career in one of the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). We work with the girls over the course of the year, providing a weekly email mentoring session, and run some activities on-site to build up their knowledge of different topics and work together in teams. The idea of engaging more with students to help them to learn more about technology and careers is something I’m personally passionate about, and I wrote about it on my own blog last week.

It’s a lot of fun, and I think the people from the lab get as much out of it as the girls do! Last week’s activities at Hursley saw 48 students learn some Java coding in the morning, and in the afternoon to build bridges using paper, string, tape, and craft sticks – they had to support a number of text books in order to be successful. The girls were divided into teams named after different inspirational women in science, technology and other areas of achievement. Here are some of the resulting pieces of work:

All of the bridges performed to the required specification and it was left to the judges to decide which one was the most creative and successful design – tough job! Looking forward to working with the schools during the academic year…


Extreme Blue covered by BBC News

A really quick follow-up to the write-up of the Extreme Blue presentations to note that the BBC News website also has a nice report on this year’s programme at Hursley:

Every year, IBM runs a summer internship programme for the most talented young software designers and business students.

Participants are divided into groups, each of which works on a pet project. At the end of their 12 week design period, their prototypes are presented.

The UK leg of Extreme Blue takes place at IBM’s Hursley lab near Winchester. BBC News went along to see what they had dreamt up.

Read more at Cars and Cursors go Smart at IBM’s Extreme Blue.

Hursley Extreme Blue 2011 Presentations

Extreme Blue logoExtreme Blue is IBM’s summer intern scheme. Students can apply to IBM to be part of the scheme and those lucky enough to be selected are brought into various IBM locations worldwide to be mentored by IBM staff who have proposed an idea and small project for them to work on.

This morning I went along to listen to what the 16 students in the UK have been doing with their summer. These students were split into four groups of four, working on projects for an improved voting system, a smart cursor, smarter vehicles and FTP discovery.

You know you’re getting old when all the students seem rather young, I think “green” is the term people used to use when I was starting in IBM, they do remind me of my early days at work. However, they all presented themselves beautifully, spoke very well using slick rehearsed presentations they’ve put a lot of effort into, and (barring one or two stutters) seemed entirely confident in what they were doing up at the front of what must seem an intimidating auditorium full of knowledgeable IBM professionals. They handled questions well too, I don’t necessarily have to agree with all the answers, but the way they each went about receiving the questions and providing thoughtful answers was good.

Each team had 7 minutes to present their 12 weeks’ work with every person in the team getting a chance to pitch in at some point, so they didn’t get very long to put their projects across. The audience were asked to keep questions until the end of the pitch, which allowed them to flow easily through their material. The range of presentations was interesting, some chose to manually click through PowerPoint-style, while other groups came up with stories or monologuing through a video they had created. This range kept the audience interested with each style of presentation being effective for its purpose.

It was interesting to see how each of the projects has been clearly influenced by the four members of the team. Each team of four contained one business student and three technical students, and the range of skills came through in the presentations. Some groups had “deep-dived” straight into technical work while others had spent more time thinking about use cases, business cases, how their project might fit in with IBM or be sold. I suspect this has a direct relationship to both how the team was lead by the IBM staff but also by the particular characters of each team and reminded me of Myers-Briggs or Belbin style studies I’ve done in the past.

Now I’ll have a little look at each project in (very) brief… I’ll stress in advance that I’ve heard a small snippet of 12 weeks of hard work and any opinion here is mine alone and based solely on today’s pitches:

Improved voting system
The team gave an introduction to their solution involving a three phase voting system followed by an example of the problem they were trying to solve and how their solution tackled these. The team had been working with a local council to identify requirements for such a system, so were able to work with real-world examples and solicit feedback. Questions followed and feedback from the council seemed to have been good. Some doubts were expressed by the audience about the security of such a system which whilst possibly valid, it seemed to me that these could be addressed should the solution be implemented live. The team presented the solution as having environmental benefits which might seem obvious at first but I thought were rather questionable given the requirement to use computer hardware and power, a further study would be required here to determine whether the current system using sustainably-sourced paper could be bettered on the environmental front. Verification of voters appears to be vastly improved using their system with less room from fraudulent votes with connection to other systems for authentication such as the DVLA. Clearly any such automated voting system would have huge benefits for the speed of counting after voting has completed.

Smart Cursor
A new input device to control an on screen cursor using any sort of body movement aimed at improving human-computer interaction (primarily for disabled people). The system involves a hardware sensor strapped to the part of the body that has movement. Initial calibration for any new part of the body is required which is run once to set up 4 movements (up/down/left/right). Other movements and gestures would also be possible such as a mouse click and the combination of sensors on multiple parts of the body. The hardware technology could be built small enough to be permanently wearable without distress or difficulty to the user. Other uses of the technology appear to be for rehabilitation or monitoring a condition whilst wearing the hardware device. Lots of room for customisation brought out during questioning as well as a few issues about how to set up the device in the first place. However, this seemed like a really worthwhile (if low usage) piece of research that could be immensely useful to its target audience and at low cost too.

Smarter Vehicles
The aim of this project is to personalise the driving experience for car users by attempting to add three things to a car (1) identifying which user is driving, (2) providing the car with knowledge about where it’s going, and (3) permanently connecting the car to a network. The team used a video style presentation and monologue they had story-boarded which was clearly well produced and rehearsed. It was unclear what the project had achieved, however, as no specifics were mentioned on what had been achieved but there were certainly plenty of good ideas as to what could be done in this area. The team do appear to have a demonstration available which I’m looking forward to going to see in Hursley tomorrow and the Extreme Blue demonstration expo after which I’m sure it will be a lot clearer which ideas they’ve followed through into something tangible and which are still in progress. Another great plus for this team was they were aligned with an automotive manufacturer and will be presenting their ideas back to the board at a later date which will be a fabulous experience to get for them all.

FTP Discovery
Tackles the problem of escalating FTP network complexity in enterprises. The project attempts to map FTP files on the network in flight and automatically provides a visualisation of the network in a node graph style format. This network can be annotated manually with things such adding the cost of various transfers and links to allow the users to build up a visual picture and cost to the company of their FTP services. The team advocate the use of managed file transfers (as provided by WMQ File Transfer Edition, for example) but failed to clearly state what the problem with FTP as a service is. That said, they seem to have a very clever way of detecting FTP traffic by sniffing the network and could easily extend their architecture to include all sorts of other protocols. They have also thought carefully about how their work might be used in the future, for example as a tool for IBM pre-sales, a saleable IBM product or (most likely) a component of one or more existing IBM products.

Congratulations to all the teams and people involved. The presentations were great, a very entertaining hour, and it seems like some really useful work has come out of Extreme Blue in the UK again this year. Well done!

Minihacks and Open Technologies

It’s not all about process, software development, and quadricopters… ūüôā

Guruplug This week we’ve had what could be described as a “mini Hackday”, instigated by an idea from Andy Stanford-Clark and organised by Hursley newcomer Vaibhavi Joshi. The idea was to spend a few hours exploring the world of plug computers (in this case, a model called a Guruplug); to brainstorm some ideas around utility computers; and to generally see what we could do with this kind of a form factor.

Some great ideas emerged, and quite a few of us were severely tempted to order our new shiny gadgets on the spot… by the end of the morning the Really Small Message Broker was built and running on the Guruplug and some exciting MQTT-related thoughts were flying around. A nice break from the norm for all of us!

Inspired by some of the “social technologies for internal communications” discussions I’d had with Abi Signorelli at Social Media Week London the previous week – in particular, the ease of capturing a brief audio snippet on any particular topic – I thought I’d ask Vaibhavi what she thought – here’s a quick interview:

Straight after the hacking, it was time to move on to the Open Technologies event that was being run to promote Linux, Firefox and Symphony. I’m a user and a big fan of all of these tools so it was nice to see a local Hursley event as part of IBM’s global awareness month dedicated to helping those within the internal community not yet up-to-speed on what people were using. The best part? Free stickers ūüôā

Open Technologies

Sending, not taking, the biscuit

Teleportation becomes one step closer as UK scientists collaborate. A team of astronomers have joined forces with IBM’s software engineers and taken tentative steps to transfer material across the Internet.

Being unable to take up the offer of a biscuit at a recent meeting of a sub-group of the Isle of Wight’s Vectis Astronomical Society, Dr Andy Stanford-Clark, IBM Master Inventor, who was at home at the time, accepted instead the offer of a Virtual Biscuit.

He then laid down a challenge to the team of astronomers, led by Dr Lucy Rogers (@drlucyrogers), to deliver the biscuit to him using IBM’s Smarter Planet messaging middleware technology, MQTT.

This challenge was enthusiastically accepted, and the next day, Andy took the biscuit by subscribing to the appropriate topic on an IBM message broker and downloading the confectionery – picture.

In an interesting twist, not unusual in the early stages of the invention of new technology, the image arrived intact, but subtly altered – it is horizontally flipped. This is reminiscent of some of the teething problems in the matter transportation technology described in Michael Crichton’s book TimeLine.

Stanford-Clark said: “clearly there’s a very long way to go before we can transfer an ACTUAL biscuit across the Internet using MQTT, but this is an exciting first step, and a great motivation for further research.”

Parrot AR.Drone

Andy Piper brought his new toy to the lab today. While on a whistle stop tour of China recently he called in at Hong Kong on the way back, where he picked up one of the a Parrot AR.Drones which have been released this month.

The AR.Drone is a quadricopter with 2 video cameras, one mounted in the nose and one downward-facing. The drone that acts as an ad-hock Wi-Fi access point allowing it to be controlled from any device with¬†Wi-Fi. At the moment Parrot are only shipping a client for the iPhone, but there is an API¬†available¬†and there is already footage on the net using an Android Nexus One to control one. It’s loaded with a bunch of other sensors as well, an accelerometer to help keep it stable and a ultrasound altimeter to help it maintain altitude over changing ground.

The iPhone interface for flying the drone uses the¬†accelerometer and is a bit tricky to start with, but I think with a little bit of practice it shouldn’t take too long to get the hang of it. The feed from the video cameras is fed back to the handset allowing you to get a pilot’s eye view. At the moment none of the software allows you to capture this video, but it’s expected to be added soon. You can also use the camera to play AR games or have the it hover and hold station over markers on the floor.

The whole thing runs a embedded Linux build on a ARM chip and you can even telnet into the thing. It comes with 2 chassis, one for outside and one with some protective shrouds for the propellers to use indoors. 

I think some very cool stuff should be possible with a platform like this.

Here are 2 short videos I short of a few of us having a go with it on the lawn in front of Hursley House.

A day with the inventors

Retail Lab

A few weeks ago, the Financial Times Digital Business podcast visited Hursley and checked out some of the innovations that are being worked on. The result is a nice 22 minute episode which tours the lab (including the Retail Lab pictured on the left!) and talks to John McLean, Andy Stanford-Clark, Bharat Bedi and Jamie Caffrey.

If you’re into augmented apps, location awareness, Emotiv headsets (as featured in our last post here, too!), e-paper labels on shop shelves, telemetry, instrumented houses, and Smarter Planet – it’s a great listen.