Buying pieces of future
in a shop from the past
Tamapotchi note #6
There is an old shop in an even older street in the ancient town of Nijmegen, not very far from where I live. I must have passed it a thousand times, but I’ve never dared to enter. This shop is legendary. It is told that once you step through it’s door, you’re actually entering an alternate universe that has by some weird science gotten detached from our own time and space. It is surreal. Everything you see in there proves that by stepping through the door you’ve travelled at least 50 years back in time. A tiny, dimly lit space. A counter. Behind that counter a huge cabinet with hundreds of wooden drawers, hardly labelled and tightly shut to conceal mysterious pieces of future technology. The shopkeeper politely awaits you to open conversation. You instinctively feel that if you don’t say the exact right words, something disastrous will happen. He will laugh at you. He will tell you that you’re not worthy. You’ll get expelled and lost between universes. Last Friday, I stood on it’s doorstep once again. But this time I was on a mission. I took a deep breath, grabbed the doorknob, and entered.
The day before I had attended the Green Industry Event in Arnhem, about the crossover of design and technology. Jeroen van Erp, co-founder and creative director of Fabrique, a leading Dutch design company, stressed the need for designers to break down the walls between the classic design disciplines. Smart solutions for the complex problems we face in this rapidly changing world are to be found in the combination of the design disciplines and other domains, like technology. I don’t think anyone disagreed. Then again, like the other keynote speaker Thomas Marzano, global head of Philips’ Brand Design pointed out, how is that any different from the time the Philips brothers started the company; one being an engineering talent and the other a creative and commercial mastermind? I believe that innovation has always been driven by the unsuspected combination of different domains, views and talents.
At the event there were also several awards granted to local designers and their remarkable work on the edge of design and technology. Inspiring work. It was a bit disappointing though that among the nominees, none had tapped into the digital domain. It left me wondering; were there no digital entries or were the ones that entered not good enough to get nominated? Or is design of digital products regarded to be inferior to the more classic design disciplines like fashion or furniture? Anyway, it would be good to see some digital products getting nominated next year and who knows, Tamapotchi might just be one of them.
A quick update on the progress of our smart flower pot’s prototype: the prototype has been revived and we’ve even added a home-made moisture sensor. We are now measuring light, temperature (in Celsius, thanks to the Steinhart-Hart equation) and soil moisture level. The values are monitored and when exceeding a certain threshold, a message is sent to a smartphone app using Bluetooth. We are still using the demo app provided by RedBearLabs for this, but we will start development of our own app shortly. Writing the code to run on our microcontroller in Codebender is treacherous, especially when you’re not used to strong typing and the compiler silently expects conditions to be written in a format I would never have guessed. The fact that I still don’t really know what programming language I’m writing here doesn’t help either. But it’s a bit like ordering food in Italy: as long as you do it confidently the waiter will nod and instruct the cook. The outcome may be uncertain, but you might accidently stumble upon some great dishes you didn’t know the old country had to offer.
Powering our prototype with batteries instead of using a USB cable resulted in some very surprising sensor readings, so we’ve still got some work there. Ultimately we need our flower pot’s brain to run in a low-energy mode, which seems quite tricky to accomplish without really understanding how this Bluetooth Low Energy thing works. Fortunately my friendly colleague and acclaimed Android guru Dennis offered to help. He even invited us to attend his workshop on Bluetooth Low Energy this week; it’s great to see how much expertise there is up for grabs if you only know who to ask. But as long as I’m still struggling with Ohms law, I don’t feel quite confident enough to attend these kind of gatherings.
Which brings me back to the mysterious shop in old Nijmegen that I entered last friday. The fact that you are reading this means that I was able to write this, so I didn’t get lost between universes. Or maybe I did but still have data reception and are writing this article on my phone. But no, I didn’t. Some of you might know the shop; it goes by the illustrious name of Technica, which as you all know is also the name of the ruthless goddess of electronics. So I was there to buy parts for my prototype. Parts of which I didn’t fully understand why I needed them. And I needed to buy tools of which I didn’t knew the names. The shopkeeper stared at me in silence. I tried. “Good afternoon, I need some things to build a smart flower pot.” The moment I shut my mouth I realised how that must have sounded. Surely I was doomed. I braced myself for the shopkeepers thundering reply. “A smart flower pot?” He frowned and stared at me some more. Then he smiled. “Now that sounds like a nice project. Tell me all about it!” I was in.
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