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Today I spent the day somewhere where you might not think to find makers: the Great British Node Conference. For those of you who haven’t come across it yet, node.js is a server-side solution for JavaScript—it’s an event-driven Javascript platform which does non-blocking I/O—and is rapidly gaining popularity, and mindshare amongst the web community.

The #nodebowlerhat

The first sign that this isn’t your average programming conference comes with the first speaker, Paul Serby—from Clock—is talking about building node.js teams, but he’s wearing a bowler hat—a bowler hat with a Raspberry Pi, a webcam and a whole bunch of LEDs. Left to itself the hat shows the number of Twitter followers it has—or the CPU load on the controlling Raspberry Pi depending on its mood—in binary using the LEDs.

I couldn’t think of anything fun to do with my bowler hat…

But when connected to the network—via WiFi—it uses the attached camera to take one image a second. Facial recognition is then done on the images using OpenCV and bowler hats are added to anyone in the image—at a jaunty angle of course—then published to the hat’s website served by the Raspberry Pi on-board the hat itself.

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Copters and Robots

Flight of the NodeCopter, driven by node.js and computational streams.

Darach Ennis gave a fairly technical talk about computational streams, but he gave it in a fairly unique way. When your final flourish to demonstrate your code is to fly a nodecopter and let two volunteers from the audience play a Robosapien refereed game of light-based ping-pong.

A Robosapien with a Raspberry Pi for a brain, refereeing a game of ping pong.

A Robosapien with a Raspberry Pi for a brain, refereeing a game of ping pong.

That of course would be a hacked Robosapien with a Raspberry Pi for a brain, running an X Server. Because, after all,

…every respectable robot runs an X Server.

Arduino and Soft Circuits

Becky Stewart from Codasign announcing the Arduino and soft circuit workshops at #GBNC.

Becky Stewart from Codasign announcing the Arduino and soft circuit workshops at #GBNC.

Throughout the day Becky Stewart from Codasign was running Arduino and Soft Circuits workshops. There presence here is almost entirely down to Oli Evans one of the organizers of the Great British Node Conference spotting them at the Elephant & Castle Mini-Maker Faire earlier in the month and asked them to come along.

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I talked to Becky, asking her what sort of uptake the workshops were getting,

We have a lot of people sewing circuits—far more people have been interested in soft circuits than the Arduino—we’re on our way to 20 soft circuit robots, some are really creative too, people are going beyond the templates we’re providing.

Considering that’s a 1/5 of the conference that’s stolen time out of their lunch or coffee break—or more strictly since this is a British conference, their tea break—to sew circuits, that’s a pretty impressive turn out, and the conference isn’t over yet.

The Espruino

Gordon Williams talking about the Espruino board.

Gordon Williams talking about the Espruino board.

I’ve talked about the Espruino board before, but since then the board’s Kickstarter campaign has successfully closed, and the source code has been released onto GitHub. Today Gordon Williams—the creator of the Espruino—talked about the board and “Javascript for Things” at the Great British Node Conference. He talked about event driven models on hardware, and what you have to do to scale a Javascript engine down to fit on a micro-controller.

The board has a million times less RAM than than a decent web server…

Interestingly, despite that, one of the board’s funded stretch goal was Node.js npm module loading. That and his rather awesome trashcan demo—which oddly reminded me of a rather low-tech R2-D2—got a lot of attention.

Opening a trashcan, using the Espruino and an servo motor

The Web Developers are Coming?

There’s a perhaps surprising history of hardware hacking inside the node.js and Javascript community; Nodecopter, the Johnny Five Arduino framework, and nodebots, as well as various other projects. However with the arrival of the Espruino, and the Tessel boards—and the ability for them to hack hardware in their native language—I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more hardware hacking from the web developers.

Alasdair Allan

Alasdair Allan is a scientist, author, hacker, tinkerer and co-founder of a startup working on fixing the Internet of Things. He spends much of his time probing current trends in an attempt to determine which technologies are going to define our future.


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