Where are they now?

Ian Hughes Ian Hughes/Epredator

As part of the reorganisation of the Eightbar site recently I’ve been catching up with some of the honored past Eightbar members. We say past in the loosest sense of course, Eightbar was set up with the principle that “Once you’re Eightbar, you’re always Eightbar”. Here, I manage to muscle in on some of Ian Hughes’ (a.k.a epredator) time as he’s kindly answered some questions for us. What follows is a 10 question interview style post where I talk to Ian about life after IBM – in more than 140 characters. I think it’s a really interesting read, enjoy…!

Ian, you worked for IBM for a long time (somewhere around 20 years!) before making the big decision to leave and form your own start-up at Feeding Edge nearly 3 years ago!

1. What have you found are the main things keeping you busy now?

Just as when I was at IBM my work life is very varied. Living and working with technology and social changes, and being a bit of a polymath I find myself mixing a lot of skills.

Sometimes I am coding or combining code, usually on open source platforms but often in Unity3d. Building some game elements for a startup. Other times I am on the conference circuit helping
people to see the future by showing examples of how various things have changed already and how they link together to form a disruptive future. i.e. carrying on as an evangelist.

Much of this is still related to virtual worlds because they form a social and technical glue that still surprises many people only just getting to grips with Twitter and Facebook.

2. We’ve seen your continued rise to stardom on the ITV programme The Cool Stuff Collective, how did that come about?

Stardom is a very strong word ๐Ÿ™‚ It was an ambition I had tucked away to do some more TV work. Like many things though it was serendipity that brought that about.

As I still blog many of my ideas and things about interesting advances many of my friends still read that. A good friend and IBMer Scotty (Kevin Scott / @starbase37) had told his friend John Marley / @marleyman007 who runs a TV production company Archie Productions about all the stuff I was talking about. Games, 3d printing, virtual worlds etc. So we got connected and had a meeting about a new show John was looking to start.

The aim of the meeting was really a friendly catchup and for me to give John a list of things that he could put on his show. Somewhere in the conversation he said “and then you will come on set and explain that to camera and the other presenter?” Which I still thought he meant he wanted me to be tech advisor for the kids show. Then it clicked and I realised I was being thrown in at the deep end. It was one of the few shows ITV/CITV has commissioned over the past few years.

So really because I have always shared what I know, used the web and social media to explain and offer a kind of open source advise I ended up with a character and role on the show. Which we have done 3 series of too!

Cue Showreels ๐Ÿ™‚ TV Showreel

3. You must enjoy being the CSC resident g33k and teaching the viewers, what do you learn from them?

It has been the most fun and rewarding thing I have done. The third series in particular we moved from a studio and just the crew to being on location with schools in a Top Gear style. Whilst we were making a show for a mass audience it became even more important to be able to reach kids directly. I learned, and re-learned that the willingness to go with the flow on some ideas because they just are cool is still a magical thing. The things I say on the show are the same things I say in boardrooms and at conferences. The kids put many adults to shame though in not worrying straight away about ROI or marketing blurb. They get the idea and then fly with it.

It was also great to be able to reclaim geek/g33k. In a few schools the kids who were the tech geeks were suddenly allowed to be cool too. After all there was a bloke off the telly they could talk to.

We always had questions at the end of my future tech slot and I often didn’t get to know what they were up front, they were their questions and they were always taking me by surprise with their new angles or just the depth of understanding they showed. Once again putting many adults to shame.

4. Your time on Eightbar was mainly filled with Virtual Worlds work, what’s going down with the 3D Internet now, has it progressed as you thought?

It’s interesting as in many ways parts of the metaverse are now so mainstream, yet still not so much in the “business” world as you may have expected. We know that people tend to have to evolve through things, hence the struggling to understand the power of connection in social media is still a struggle for many decision makers in business. In a time of global recession with restricted travel it seems that the obvious use for communication and understanding via virtual environments is still not being exploited. Much of this is due to people being risk averse when they think their jobs are on the line. I find that many of the things we do and talk about are still reaching an audience who then say wow I didn’t think of it like that.

When they are used in their various forms they have a huge impact. Imperial College have some of the best examples, even with just a simple Opensim environment to help people plan a particular event it showed up real world procedures needed fixing after the first 5 minutes which saved more than money.

Lots of companies have floundered who where virtual world providers, but equally lots of their code is now open source. At the same time though lots of the games industry has been turned on its head by the arrival of minecraft. Which is a “game” but that uses co creation tools live in the environment. It has done a lot to help the games industry (who also did not understand virtual worlds of this sort) to look and say “oh! thats what its all about”.

So none of it has gone away. It hit the usual Gartner trough of dissillusionment after the confused hype and now is ploughing up the right slope.

Regular business will get hit with a minecraft moment though. A game changer in the same way open source software hit the IT industry, or Amazon hit retail. It’s just about being prepared to go with it when it arrives.

Another great development has been the ability to self build game tech environments with products like unity3d (a huge nod to Rob Smart for spotting unity3d way back too!) and have socket servers like photon and smartfoxserver.

I should also mention gamification, a horrible word, another thing for people to misunderstand, yet it covers the principles of applying both gaming and game technology into places it has not been before. It is often used in a lazy fashion slapping badges on things and giving out points, however at its heart the elements of playing with identity and expression online with a virtual environment in a business context provide way more benefit.

5. What has the past 3 years done for 3d printing, another of your interest areas?

3d printing has gone from strength to strength. It is appearing in more places and often more people have seen something about it when I talk about it. It is linked to the virtual worlds work as when you consider that a virtual environment is often about distributing digital assets from one place to another, you bolt a 3d printer on the end of that and you get digital design and distribution of physical product and the world changes.

The increase in open source builds like the RepRap make the hobby end of this accessible (around ยฃ400 of bits to build one). Makerbot provide some very cheap, but clever printers too that were featured heavily at CES 2012 (Consumer Elecrtonics Show) note the Consumer in that ๐Ÿ™‚ ! Services that print for you, like Shapeways, initially funded by Phillips, have grown and moved to New York.

It is still something that when someone has never seen it they think it is witchcraft, somewhat like google used to seem to people ๐Ÿ™‚ That magic is nice to share, but then applying the extrapolation of the change to the entire world economy and manufacturing business as it moves on then scares and excites in equal measure.

6. What would you like to see Eightbar doing more/less of after the departure of Andy Piper from Hursley recently?

When we all set up eightbar it was an antidote to the west coast US tech bloggers getting all the kudos. We’re doing some great things over here too ๐Ÿ™‚ Just as tech blogging has evolved I would love to see eightbar carrying on as a mini brand and a voice of that same attitude wherever it needs to be.

7. Looking back at IBM, any regrets about leaving? Things you miss?

I miss all the people, well nearly all ๐Ÿ˜‰ Though in reality much of the work was with people all over the world having a base of people in the same timezone and same place eating lunch in the same canteen provides an anchor. As does having to battle the same corporate resilience to change, or political short sightedness. There are still a great many sparky, slightly subversive but for the right reasons, renegade thought leaders under the radar at IBM.

Oh and the regular pay ๐Ÿ™‚

8. What’s been the best thing about moving on?

Diversity of experiences and freedom to explore them. Like the TV work, it was just because of being open minded and master of my own calendar. I like to link everything, let one piece of work and ideas flow with another. That is tricky in a billable utilisation environment when you are not in control of the finances and the workload. It is why big corporations will keep getting side swiped by very small fast moving organisations with huge world connectivity at their finger tips.

I have also had to learn a lot about the various forms and processes needed to run even the smallest Ltd company. It’s an odd and archaic system, but they are the rules ๐Ÿ™‚ It has also been fun picking various ideas and developing them getting people with the money to get interested. It gets all very Dragon’s den.

Freedom also allows me to try and pick things based on if I think they are beneficial in some way, not purely just because they are there. I have always prided myself on trying to act honourably in everything and with positive principles. So now it is up to me to stick to that and help others try and do the same.

9. Your personal life and work-life balance must have adjusted, what does a day in the life of epredator look like now you’re self-employed?

Aha! I called myself self employed once and my accountant was quick to point out I am not ๐Ÿ™‚ This is part of what I was saying about companies and rules. As Feeding Edge is a limited company it is a legal entity in its own right that I happen to be a director of. At the same time there is a person on its official payroll, an employeeโ€ฆ me ๐Ÿ™‚ So as many twist and turns in business language as in any piece of tech ๐Ÿ™‚

My day is much more thinly sliced than ever. I get up check a few streams of information, spot anything urgent, then do the school run, back home for 45 minute workout on UFC trainer on the Kinect, do some calls afterwards whilst cooling down. Most of the day is spent talking to the US and or my other biz partners around the gaming startup we have, building some code, pitching how bizarre the idea is. This is usually interspersed with some contacts from previous conferences getting in touch or some BCS animation and Games Dev SG business. Several times a month I pop along to a convention or meeting to talk about Tech and usual with Cool Stuff Collective as a backdrop. So the cycle continues.

Then there are the ad hoc conversations around other possible TV shows, or helping other startup businesses who are focussed using new tech with some connections or ideas.

Evenings are mix of cooking for the family, putting the kids(predlets) to bed, some gaming, heading to a Choi Kwang Do class or late night calls with US west coast for an interview or in Second Life.

However there is not start or end to a working day, a tweet on the way back form the school run may lead to something as much as a scheduled Skype call at 2pm. The emphasis is still on talking and sharing online.

10. Finally, give us a plug for Feeding Edge, who might I be if I were your customer and what might you be able to do for me?

Feeding Edge is a vehicle for people to get help from me, consulting or hands on development. As I say I am taking a bite out of technology so you don’t have to. All the years of experience with corporate tech and now several years out in the wild having to use what I talk about gives me a view on the world that many people don’t have time to consider, in person, in writing, on the TV, on stage, in the lab. I cover how technology feels and changes your life as much as the more obvious version x with version y tech.

In conferences I am usually the one put there to shake everybody up. So if you need a jolt of inspiration and a view of the future. well thats Feeding Edge and epredator. Cue show reels again ๐Ÿ™‚

Well that’s it from Ian again for now. It’s really good to hear him talking in a wider context again, reading about the mix of drawing inspiration from such a wide variety of sources is really refreshing. It’s certainly reminded me to go “heads up” more often than I generally manage to do, so easy is it to keep too narrow a view on your immediate work tasks.

Thanks Ian, it’s been a pleasure – as always!

Halving our electricity usage

I learnt something interesting today: between 2007 and 2011, we halved the amount of electricity we use in our house:

Total electricity usage per year (kWh)

In 2007, we used 6783 kWh of electricity (for electricity, a kilowatt hour is the same thing as a ‘unit’ on your bill). In 2011, by contrast, we used 3332 kWh (or ‘units’). 2007 was slightly on the high side (compared with 2006) because we had no gas fire in the living-room during the winter of 2006-7 so we’d used an electric oil heater during the coldest weeks (we don’t have central heating in that room) 1.

That’s an average of 19 kWh per day in 2007 compared with 9 kWh per day in 2011. Which is quite a difference. So what changed?

In early 2008, I got a plug-in Maplin meter (similar to this one) and one of the very early Current Cost monitors, which display in real-time how much electricity is being used in your whole house:

An classic Current Cost monitor

Aside from the fun of seeing the display numbers shoot up when we switched the kettle on, it informed us more usefully that when we went to bed at night or out to work, our house was still using about 350 Watts (which is 3066 kWh per year)2 of electricity. That’s when the house is pretty much doing nothing. Nothing, that is, apart from powering:

  • Fridge
  • Freezer
  • Boiler (gas combi boiler with an electricity supply)
  • Hob controls and clock
  • Microwave clock
  • Infrared outside light sensor
  • Print/file server (basically a PC)
  • Wireless access point
  • Firewall and Internet router
  • DAB clock radio
  • ADSL modem
  • MythTV box (homemade digital video recorder; basically another PC)

And that’s the thing, this ‘baseline’ often makes a lot of difference to how much electricity a house uses overall. 3066 kWh per year was 56% of 2007’s total electricity usage.

The first six items on that list draw less than 100 Watts (876 kWh per year) altogether. They’re the things that we can’t really switch off. But there were clearly things that we could do something about.

Over the next couple of years, we reduced our baseline by about 100 Watts by getting rid of some of the excessive computer kit, buying more efficient versions when we replaced the old print/file server and MythTV box, and replaced most of our lightbulbs with energy-efficient equivalents. We also, importantly, changed our habits a bit and just got more careful about switching lights off when we weren’t using them (which wouldn’t affect the baseline but does affect the overall energy usage), and switching off, say, the stereo amplifier when we’re not using it.

That brought our baseline down to about 230 Watts (2015 kWh per year), which is a lot better, though it’s still relatively high considering that the ‘essentials’ (eg fridge and freezer) contribute less than half of that.

And that’s about where we are now. We tended to make changes in fits and starts but none of it has been that arduous. I don’t think we’re living much differently; just more efficiently.

1The complementary gas usage graph shows lower gas for that year for the same reason; I’ll blog about gas when I have a complete set of readings for 2011).
2350 Watts divided by 1000, then multiplied by 8760 hours in a year.
Photo of the Current Cost monitor was by Tristan Fearne.
Thanks also to @andysc for helping create the graph from meter readings on irregular dates.

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UX hack at London Green Hackathon

At the London Green Hackathon a few weeks ago, the small team that had coalesced around our table (Alex, Alex, Andy, and me) had got to about 10pm on Saturday night without a good idea for a hack, in this case a piece of cool software relevant to the theme of sustainability. We were thinking about creating a UK version of the US-based Good Guide app using on their API to which we had access. The Good Guide rates products according to their social, environmental, and health impacts; the company makes this data available in an API, a format that programmers can use to write applications. Good Guide uses this API itself to produce a mobile app which consumers can use to scan barcodes of products to get information about them before purchase.

Discussing ideas

The problem is that the 60,000 products listed in the Good Guide are US brands. We guessed that some would be common to the UK though. We wondered if it would be possible to match the Good Guide list against the Amazon.co.uk product list so that we could look up the Good Guide information about those products at least. Unfortunately, when we (Andy) tried this, we discovered that Amazon uses non-standard product IDs in its site so it wasnโ€™t possible to match the two product lists.

The equivalent of the Good Guide in the UK is The Good Shopping Guide, of which we had an old copy handy. The Good Shopping Guide is published each year as a paperback book which, while a nicely laid out read, isnโ€™t that practical for carrying with you to refer to when shopping. We discovered that The Ethical Company (who produce the Good Shopping Guide) have also released an iPhone app of the book’s content but it hasnโ€™t received especially good reviews; a viewing of the video tour of the app seems to reveal why.

Quite late at night

By this point it was getting on for midnight and the two coders in our team, Andy and Alex, had got distracted hacking a Kindle. Alex and I, therefore, decided to design the mobile app that we wouldโ€™ve written had we (a) had access to the Good Shopping Guide API and (b) been able to write the code needed to develop the app.

While we didnโ€™t have an actual software or hardware hack to present back at the end of the hackathon weekend, we were able to present our mockups which we called our โ€˜UX hackโ€™ (a reference to the apparently poor user experience (UX) of the official Good Shopping Guide mobile app). Here are the mockups themselves, along with a summary of the various ideas our team had discussed throughout the first day of the hackathon:

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