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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Ubiquity: Cheap cars and quick innovation

I talk a lot. More specifically I talk a lot about how ubiquitous technology is today and what effect that has. Ubiquitous technology strips friction from our interactions, lowers barriers to access and enables rapid innovation and development. Not all of these things are the positives they sound to be. Just look at the landfills full of tat we will create this Christmas. But for me, right now, ubiquity is a boon.

Programmable magic wands

Before I started talking and writing for a living, I thought I was going to be an engineer. I did all the classic engineer things. Dismantled all my toys and anything else I could get my hands on. Built lots of random stuff. First out of foil and rubber bands. Later out of MDF and veroboard. Bike wheel wind turbines, radio-controlled sailing boats, Spectrum-based robot controllers, and a couple of very heavy, very dangerous wakeboards. All sorts.

A few years ago I really rediscovered my love of making, enabled by the incredible accessibility of components via eBay and AliExpress. I’ve been playing with all sorts of projects since, most still semi-complete. But now I think I have found the motivation I need to get things finished. Do them for my kids.

The project that has brought this home is building programmable magic wands. I’d been considering a magic wand for my youngest for Christmas. Not one for performing. One for play-acting. Casting spells and shooting out crystals Lolirock/Winx Club-style to fend off evildoers. That’s her favourite fantasy world. But all the toy ones I found were too flimsy.
I wanted something more robust. Then one night at dinner we were discussing Laser Quest, and I figured, why not combine the two? Could I make some magic wands and targets so they could shoot spells at each other? Even better, could I make it all programmable? What a way to teach code: write your own spells.

A few hours of hacking later and I had two rechargeable magic wands made from old toilet cistern parts. What can I say? I horde. A lot. And with a little Dremel-ing they were the right shape and size. Some RGB LEDs, a couple of Arduino Pro Minis, recycled 18650 Li-Ion batteries from an old laptop, and switches recovered from the front of a PC. Total cost? Less than a couple of quid.

Weekend magic wand project ready for painting. Kids can program their own ‘spells’ (lights) using integrated #arduino pic.twitter.com/w6MN7e1xkE

— Tom Cheesewright (@bookofthefuture) December 18, 2016

The targets won’t be much more. Perhaps the only components I will need to buy will be the infra-red receivers. As I say, I horde. A lot.

This is ubiquity in action. Custom toys, in hours, for pounds.

Further lessons in bangernomics

A week ago my car started making an ominous noise. The sort of clunk that anyone intimately familiar with the drivetrain of a modern automobile knows means expense. Sure enough, the garage confirmed my suspicions. It already had a fairly serious fault, but that was fixable at a reasonable cost. This was economically terminal.

The car had only lasted twelve months since I bought it. I never expected it to last that long with over 120k on the clock, but I was worried about my record. I was aiming for a total acquisition and maintenance cost over my ownership of less than £50 per month. With the bits of servicing I’d done, this was going to be more like £75. £800 to buy, £30 on MOT and £60 on brakes.

Fortunately — and trust me a danced a little jig afterward — I managed to get a decent trade-in against a replacement. £340 back meant I smashed my £50/month target, demonstrating just how cheaply you can own and operate a car now, tax and insurance notwithstanding.

We are at peak car right now. The technology is totally ubiquitous and hugely accessible.

Tom Cheesewright