Over The Air 2012

Another brilliant event from Over The Air. The perfect mix of lectures, hacking, and relaxing in a country manor / museum. And, to top it off, my hack won a brace of prizes!

The Wifi just about held up. Although I think it's fundamentally impossible to provide decent connectivity to 200+ people. Especially when they're geeks.

Which, in turn, lead to this:

As per my post of two years ago, I tried to encourage people to record video or audio of the talks they were in. It was a reasonable success. We captured several great sessions, but others have been lost to the æther.

I honestly believe that BarCamps, unconferences, and hack-days are part of our culture and should be preserved. There's a selfish element in that I want to see the talks that I missed - but more than that, I want to ensure that what we're doing isn't lost forever.

So, here are my thoughts (and videos) of the day.

Everything You Know About QR Codes is WRONG!

The devilishly handsome Terence Eden gave one of his excellent talks upon the subject of QR codes.

I was really pleased with how this went, a packed room and lots of great questions. Thanks to Craig Heath for videoing it.

Responsive Web Design - the Specs Behind the Sex

Bruce Lawson talked through some of the issues with RWD especially when it comes to adaptive images.

My thoughts on the subject are still developing, but I think that it ought to be the server / CDN which adapts the images, rather than the handset relying on JavaScript and CSS. I've two primary reasons for this,

  1. There are billions of phones already on the market which don't support CSS or JS sufficiently to handle this. There's no realistic way to upgrade their browser.
  2. Programmers and web designers are lazy. I don't believe that the more complex mark-up will be used, nor that they will generate several different images.

A Means to Interact: A Guided Tour of Arts Programming Platforms

I must confess, I misread the subject of this talk - I thought it would be about artistic APIs. Instead, it was a fascinating talk about different ways to create graphics programatically. Becky Stewart stepped us through the pros and cons of each platform and showed us how they worked. I love interactive sessions - so coding along was great fun. She wisely distributed Windows, Mac, and Linux versions of the SDKs on memory stick so we wouldn't spend half the session downloading them.

Mobile Websites Can Have Nice Fonts Too

I'm a bit of a philistine when it comes to fonts. I have the vague feeling they're important, but I don't really know why - nor how to implement them on a website. Laura Kalbag to the rescue then!

After the session, I was talking to my friend Saqib (who is blind) about fonts. He wanted a better understanding of how they affected the reading of text.
I realised that fonts are like the background music in a film. It's the music which makes Star Wars as much as the dialogue and special effects. Imagine watching a Schindler's List with a jaunty comedy score - it would completely destroy the meaning of the film. As well as readability, picking a font changes the emotional engagement that a reader has with your text.

TheLab: Demo Cool Things!

I say! Those chaps from O2's TheLab are rather clever, aren't they? Just goes to show what a bit of ingenuity can do when applied to a telco. We saw a demo which tracked which country people were in based on whether their phone was roaming, HashBlue which backs up your text messages and provides an API to access them, and O2 Connect which routes your calls over WiFi if you're out of signal.
Evidently lots of smart thinking going on in Slough!

Connecting Microcontrollers to the Cloud

The guys from Vodafone were showing off mbed. It's a micro-controller similar to the Arduino. The idea is that you can rapidly prototype sensor data, send it via a data or SMS connection and do other cool stuff with it. The session I attended went into the C code behind it (which was a little over my head) as well as demoing practical uses for it. It's great to see kit electronics like this and the Raspberry Pi become popular - hopefully it will make hardware more accessible.

An Illustrated History of Computation

What a delightful session! Professor Bernie Cohen took us through a history of computing, mixed with personal anecdotes, and live algorithm solving. He seems to know a thing or two - I predict the lad'll go far!

ePatient 101: An Introduction to the Asymmetrical World of Technology and Healthcare

Mark Kramer (AKA Mamk) joined us via a dodgy Skype connection from the US, where he has just finished being treated for cancer.

Fuck cancer. Seriously, fuck it.
Mark was talking about the disparity between the technology which the medical profession has access to versus that of their patients. Doctors may have MRI machines - but they're often stuck with handwritten notes, or ancient PCs. Patients have more CPU power in their phones than a whole office full of medical staff.


Over The Air is where geeks come to play. Some of the inventions on display were simply marvellous. I think there were 39 hacks presented - I'm going to highlight the ones I thought were exceptional.

Sam Machin built a tool to allow you to send tweets via a DNS lookup! As he said during his introduction:
Without going into too much detail, you do a lookup on my-message-is-this.example.com, when the server receives the NS, it tweets on your behalf. So, as long as you can do a DNS request - even if the response is blocked - you can tweet. Amazing!


Tom Hume built an app which lets you post your call history on Facebook. It's not as creepy as it sounds! Remember "poking"? Well, a phone call is a private poke, in essence. So, your friends can see that you called X to wish them happy birthday.

Jatrobot was the scariest looking hack I'd seen!
Herx The Vampire Slayer!
The team had built a modern farming tool. It measured soil moisture, weather, gps, and a bunch of other stuff via mbed - then reported it all back via Android.

Finally, my hack! This was the first time I'd entered a hack at OTA and I was unusually nervous!

I took inspiration from Ariel Waldman's mesmerising keynote about creating accessible interfaces to science. I was reminded of the Music of the Spheres (not the Doctor Who episode!) - which is the idea that the movement of the planets and celestial bodies can be thought of as a musical arrangement. We can also tune in to the background radiation of the universe and turn that into music. My phone doesn't have a gamma ray detector - but it does have a solar radiation sensor - the Lux Meter! It also has a proximity sensor - so it can tell how far away my hand is from the screen.

So, I created an ersatz Theremin! Having created a musical instrument (despite having no musical talent) I set about composing a work to be played via the medium of light.

Terence Playing the Theremin at OTA12
Edent theremin ota12

I'm chuffed to say it worked really well and the crowd seemed to like it!

The app won one of the awards for Best Android App and was crowned Best In Show! Utterly gobsmacked, truly humbled, and over-excited to receive a Galaxy Nexus and a Raspberry Pi.

You can download the theremin and read all about the technology behind it.

Massive thanks to Dan, Maggie, Matt, and all the others involved in the highlight of the mobile geek calendar.

I cannot wait for next year!

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