linux.conf.au 2009

In late January I had an enjoyable geek-week at Linux Conf 2009, which this year was held in Hobart, Tasmania. Nice place, Hobart, I hadn’t been there for 15 years. The harbor is very impressive and I built up my calf muscles marching up and down all those hills every day!

A highlight was many interesting conversations with Walter Bender, the guy behind Sugar. I have been inspired to set up Sugar on a Stick and start working with my OLPC again. My three your old loves it. The OLPC is such a fine piece of engineering, I really like it and think it deserves continued support. Certainly I don’t see it as a failure, as portrayed by some. Reminds me of Space Science – the benefits flow sideways rather than directly, e.g. inspiring the new generation of netbooks, fantastic screen technology, the idea of manufacturing and distributing at cost plus 10%, Alternative GUIs, and constructive learning. Even the current production levels (500k units) are pretty impressive to me (I have a hardware manufacturing background).

The thing that frustrates me about OLPC is that they are so hard to obtain. Why can’t we just buy them just like any other Netbook? They are a very attractive platform for geeks, and geeks can help the OLPC project enormously by hacking on the platform and marketing the project. This won’t happen if people can’t obtain the hardware. People won’t do pilot projects and deployments if they can’t get the hardware.

I had a pleasant afternoon chatting with Hadley from Nicegear, a New Zealand IP04 distributor. Cool to see the the IP04 being used, and creating business for people.

The CELT codec talk was pretty cool, I could actually understand most of the DSP behind the algorithm and there was a very good graphical explanation of Vector Quantisation. I especially liked the end of the presentation where they brought Jean-Marc Valin into the room “virtually” from Quebec via the presenters laptop.

You know wide band audio, coupled with good acoustic echo cancellation could really bring a paradigm shift in telephony. Imagine a wide band speaker phone that you put on your desk. You then just move around the room and talk normally – it feels like they are in the same room. This sort of experience is just not possible on the traditional telephone network, as it is locked to a 3 kHz audio bandwidth.

This (and a conversation with Mike O’Conner from OEG) reminded me that an open hardware/open source SIP phone is a project that is well overdue. Current phones are closed and many of the low end phones have annoying bugs. So there exists a good market for a $100-$200 SIP phone that is hackable. Not hard to design and build: e.g. add a linear codec, keypad, and LCD interface to an IP01 or Mesh Potato.

I keep hearing good things about Freeswitch. The CELT guys mentioned Freeswitch now runs their codec, and Jason White just emailed to me that Freeswitch can now place SIP calls over IPV6, which means no NAT problems. There have been one or two attempts to port Freeswitch to the Blackfin, however I suspect it’s better to use a processor with a MMU. Now if someone could get Freeswitch running on OpenWRT, it could be a candidate for the Mesh Potato. That would be cool. Putting Freeswitch on an open hardware/software wideband audio IP phone would also be a nice little project.

Saw the geeked out cars of Flame and Jonathan Oxer. We have something in common as I have also worked on some, err, car “hardware hacking“! The Arduino tutorial presented by John and Hugh was interesting. I like the way Arduino provides an easy step (I think teachers call it scafolding) between software hackers and hardware. Gets more software guys into hardware which is a good thing. I talked to a few guys about having a build-your-own-Arduino (as in solder) tutorial next year, lets see how that develops.

My presentation on the Mesh Potato went well. During the presentation I invited the audience to build a BATMAN mesh network while I spoke, using some simple instructions. This worked really well – we had about 12 nodes on the Mesh by the end of the presentation. Shows how easy mesh networking can be. BATMAN is a user mode daemon that works with many wireless cards, simply start it and you are node in a mesh network. Thanks very much Kim and Elektra for helping me with this demonstration.

I also made a short presentation of Open Hardware for Business during the Open Source Business minconf. I derive my income from the relatively new field of Open Hardware (through product sales and contract work), and had a few ideas I wanted to share.

On a personal note I had a great time sharing an apartment with a bunch of Adelaide guys – Kim Hawtin, Tim Ansell, Karl Goetz, Paul Schulz, and Joel Stanley. The fridge held only (rapidly declining stocks of) beer and there was a growing pile of empty pizza cartons every day. This really worked well and I hope we can do something similar next year in Wellington.

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