Hursley – Where the Grass is Green and the Toys are Awesome

We were invited to go to IBM Hursley to attend a Hack Day on Tuesday 12th May – a few talks from industry specialists and demos showcasing cutting edge tech. It was an early start for all of us and the trip from London was tiring (poor Jake had to drive for 16 hours from his hometown in the middle of a volcano in Iceland from a lava kayaking trip, I think), but with the power of free coffee and biscuits we were ready to learn.

hursley house
Hursley – not quite what you picture when you think IBM! Lovely Place.

The first talk we were given was on breakable toys. The concept is pretty simple; if you don’t attempt projects that have the risk of failure (breakable) then you don’t get the benefits of those risks, which involves the chance to go outside the box and innovate. The idea is to create something on the side if you have an idea, without worrying about whether it’s going to work or not. By moving your experiments to side projects, when something does break due to innovating it doesn’t happen inside an important deliverable. This is the main reason people fail to innovate in their usual work and end up just doing what they know e.g. shunning new tech in lieu of outdated but familiar tools – I’m looking at you, Perl (just kidding, mostly). To me the idea was almost a life lesson; you often learn more from failures than successes, and this talk showcased how this applies to software as well.

Charging up with coffee, ready to learn

After this we were given a chance to explore the demo stalls. I made a bee line for the Node-Red table where Nick O’Leary was showing off a bunch of flows, of which the coolest was one that interacted with various things inside a room somewhere else in the building. He had various objects remotely connected straight into Node-Red and BlueMix using the native Internet of Things (IoT) support, such as a camera that could look around the room. There was also a screen that displayed whatever you sent it and a lamp that could be turned on and off, but the best thing in the room was ‘sniper’ detection. This used an array of microphones to detect the direction of spikes in noise level (the ‘gunshot’), and used the IoT network to send this data to a nerf gun that would spin around and shoot a dart that way. All this with a flow on the screen smaller than an A4 sheet of paper. The way that various bits and pieces can be stuck together so simply really is a testament to how versatile the BlueMix ‘glue’ is.

Adi. Suave.

We were then given a talk by Steve Upton on Microservices, similar to the one he gave us when he visited London, but beneficial for the other attendees of the day. The details are in a previous post titled ‘All About Microservices’. Following that there was a talk on ARM’s mbed platform, which is their IoT platform with a large selection of devices and a cloud development system where you can write and compile right in your browser. This lead nicely into Nick’s talk where the theme was why Internet of Things? He gave us an example of one of his colleagues, Andy Stanford-Clark, who lived on the Isle of Wight, and had to take the ferry every day. The problem was that there was no convenient way for him to get information on which routes ships would be using on that day in case of changes due to weather conditions. To fix his problem he wrote an application that grabbed the data about each ferry every few seconds, and using geofencing, a virtual perimeter around the GPS position of each ferry, he was able to predict arrival and departure times. You can actually view the twitter yourself at There really are endless little things in life that can be made easier with the IoT, from checking Boris Bike availability to dynamic mood lighting in a bar. However the best part of the story was that on April fool’s day he sent a tweet that said, “RedJet 4 has arrived in Milton Keynes.” Milton Keynes is about a hundred miles inland.

The demo ARM mbed chip plugged straight into BlueMix within minutes of unboxing.

That was the end of the presentation part of the day. From then on we were lead to the room that our simulation will hopefully take place in. There is a lot of cool stuff in there, and we were shown a quick demo that connected an mbed chip straight into Node-Red to control the mood lighting in the room using the temperature sensor on the chip as a guide. Liquid nitrogen was then brought out to make the sensor colder and cause the lights go a cool blue colour. The floors were even made to spin when a joystick on the chip was moved left or right (the direction our balloon is moving could reflect that maybe). The whole place was quite exciting and hopefully we’ll get our balloon controlling all the bits and bobs in there. The only problem we may run into is that IBM security doesn’t allow outside access on the network, but hopefully this will be solved with some sort of VPN access. There’s also a robotic arm that can apply kinematics to an interface with BlueMix (we were thinking maybe we could place a map of England below the arm and have it move a something small, such as a lego minifig, to where our balloon currently was on that map).

This is a very cool room. The circular lights on the ceiling change colour, even the floor spins!

After all this we went to the clubhouse (yes, IBM has a clubhouse. And a cricket ground) to grab a pint with Jon and chat a bit more about the project before heading home. It was good fun, and a couple of good ideas were being thrown around that could end up going into space. I never get sick of the thought that we’re actually sending stuff into space – just a group of Imperial College Amateurs Researching and Understanding Space (ICARUS? Hmm..). It’s very cool thinking of how far tech has come that hobbyists can send tiny computers into space for a couple of hundred pounds and some hard work. It’s even cooler thinking of how crazy things will be in the future.