“Google Search is your best friend.”
That’s the advice of Intel’s Dirk Roziers, the company’s “Internet of Things” evangelist, whose job it is to go out to developers and inspire them to get making the apps of tomorrow.
The IOT, as insiders call it, is the ever-growing wave of consumer products that connect up to the internet to offer smarter functionality - from thermostats, to alarm systems to the locks on our houses, pretty much everything conceivable could soon be controlled through an app on your phone or smart device. The first revolution, Dirk says, was the “internet of screens” - but technology is changing fast: “Basically if you think of home automation, that has been around [with] spotty adoption left and right, and in various forms [for some time]. What you see now is that all these things get more and more connected, so where we are right now is at the start of the internet of things.”
So it is a great time to get coding, even if you’re a newbie. One of the programmes that Dirk runs at Intel are the so-called hackathons, which brings together coders to work together intensively on small and innovative projects, with prizes for the best. He told me about the most recent winners, at the Milan and Berlin hackathon roadshows he’d been involved with.
The first was called Trashly, a project which used Intel’s tiny Edison wearable computer and a webcam to look at a piece of trash and identify what it is through a cloud-based image recognition service. Once it had figured out what you’re holding, it would open the correct recycling bin for you to throw it into. Brilliant.
Next was Dekoboko, in which sensors were added to a bike to detect how bumpy the road is. The bumpiness is displayed on coloured lights on the handlebars, but perhaps more importantly, the data is then stored and sent to the cloud using an Edison, where it could conceivably be used by cycling apps to plan smoother rides, or by local government to tell the road maintenance people where needs fixing.
It is easy to see how projects that start small can take off too. The ProGlove is a glove designed for industry that has a built in Edison and is packed with sensors - the idea is that workers in factories can automatically scan (say) boxes using the glove seamlessly - using a built-in RFID reader technology. The glove could also warn if manufacturing steps have been completed out of sequence by using motion tracking - enhancing safety and quality assurance. It came third in Intel’s “Make It Wearable Challenge”, earning the founders $150,000 to turn their idea into a fully-fledged commercial product.
So where to start? What should you do if you want to get coding today? For a start, there are plenty of developer guidelines and forums on the internet. But I asked Dirk if the best thing to do is perhaps to simply look at other people’s code and play about with it.
“It’s definitely true for the maker community. If you look at makers, hobbyists, students, entrepreneurs - people who typically want to get going on IOT platforms, I’d say it’s their typical mode of operation. You not only see them use forums, where if somebody posts a question [there will be] immediately plenty of people answering and trying to help out, but I see the same behaviour on roadshows, even though it’s kind of a competition.” Dirk says that typically competitions “have around 20-25 projects for every roadshow and they’re all presented on Sunday afternoon and a jury picks a winner. Even though its kind-of a competition it doesn’t come across as that on the two days, because people really help each other, even in different teams”.
This is apparently fairly typical of the friendly developer community. But Dirk also has one big secret to learning to code: “I think right now for a whole lot of people, Google Search is your best friend. You can go to Google Search instead of taking formal classes and that sort of stuff.”
“This developer community typically works in a very collaborative spirit and helps each other - and if you look at Linux and Open Source, it is again an example of people collaborating and re-using bits and pieces.”
“I saw a perfect example earlier where I had an idea. I just did a small demo here where probably 75 per cent of my demo is a re-use of other people’s code, and I added my [...] code to it to make it [meet my needs].”
So forget the computer science degree or the textbooks (though they probably won’t hurt) - it seems the best way to take part in the second internet revolution is to get stuck in, and start messing with someone else’s code.
And if you’re feeling inspired, Intel has launched another competition, in partnership with Gizmodo - the Intel IoT challenge wants you to submit your ideas for an Intel Edison project. Winners will get their hands on an Edison board and sensor kit - and will get several days working with Intel engineers to make your project a reality. You can find out more here.
In association with the Intel IoT Challenge