Using the Real World – IoT, WebGL, MQTT, Marmite, Unity3d and CKD

All the technology and projects I have worked on in my career take what we currently have at the moment and create or push something further. Development projects of any kind will enhance or replace existing systems or create brand new ones. A regular systems update will tweak and fix older code and operations and make them fresher and new. This happens even in legacy systems. In both studying and living some of the history of our current wave of technology, powered by the presence of the Internet, I find it interesting to reflect of certain technology trajectories. Not least to try and find a way to help and grow this industries, and with a bit of luck actually get paid to do that. I find that things finding out about other things is fascinating. With Predlet 2.0 birthday party we took them all Karting. There was a spare seat going so I joined in. The Karts are all instrumented enough that the lap times are automatically grabbed as you pass the line. Just that one piece of data for each Kart is then formulated and aggregated. Not just with your group, but with the “ProSkill” ongoing tracking of your performance. The track knows who I am now I have registered. So if I turn up and rice again it will show me more metrics and information about my performance, just from that single tag crossing the end of lap sensor. Yes that IoT in action, and we have had that for a while.
Great fun karting. Yay for being faster than 9 year olds :)
The area of Web services is an interesting one to look at. Back in 1997, whilst working on very early website for a car manufacturer, we had a process to get to some data about skiing conditions. It required a regular CRON job to be scheduled and perform a secure FTP to grab the current text file containing all the ski resorts snowfall, so that we could parse it and push it into a form that could be viewed on the Web. i.e. it had a nice set of graphics around it. That is nearly 20 years ago, and it was a pioneering application. It was not really a service or an API to talk to. It used the available automation we had, but it started as a manual process. Pulling the file and running a few scripts to try and parse the comma delimited data. The data, of course, came from both human observation and sensors. It was collated into one place for us to use. It was a real World set of measurements, pulled together and then adjusted and presented in a different form over the Internet via the Web. I think we can legitimately call that an Internet of Things (IoT) application?
We had a lot of fancy and interesting projects then, well before their time, but that are templates for what we do today. Hence I am heavily influenced by those, and having absorbed what may seem new today, a few years ago, I like to look to the next steps.
Another element of technology that features in my work is the ways we write code and deploy it. In particular the richer, dynamic game style environments that I build for training people in. I use Unity3d mostly. It has stood the test of time and moved on with the underlying technology. In the development environment I can place 3D objects and interact with them, sometimes stand alone, sometimes as networked objects. I tend to write in C# rather than Javascript, but it can cope with both. Any object can have code associated with it. It understands the virtual environment, where something is, what it is made of etc. A common piece of code I use picks one of the objects in the view and then using the mouse, the virtual camera view can orbit that object. It is an interesting feeling still to be able to spin around something that initial looks flat and 2D. It is like a drones eye view. Hovering or passing over objects.
Increasingly I have had to get the Unity applications to talk to the rest of the Web. They need to integrate with existing services, or with databases and API’s that I create. User logons, question data sets, training logs etc. In many ways it is the same as back in 1997. The pattern is the same, yet we have a lot more technology to help us as programmers. We have self defining data sets now. XML used to be the one everyone raved about. Basically web like take around data to start and stop a particular data element. It was always a little to heavy on payload though. When I interacted with the XML dat from the tennis ball locations for Wimbledon the XML was too big for Second Life to cope with at the time. The data had to be mashed down a little, removing the long descriptions of each field. Now we have JSON a much tighter description of data. It is all pretty much the same of course. An implied comma delimited file, such as the ski resort weather worked really well, if the export didn’t corrupt it. XML version would be able to be tightly controlled and parsed in a more formal language style way, JSON is between the two. In JSON the data is just name:value, as opposed to XML value. It is the sort of data format that I used to end up creating anyway, before we had the formality off this as a standard.
Unity3d copes well with JSON natively now. It used to need a few extra bits of code, but as I found out recently it is very easy to parse a web based API using code and extra those pieces of information and adjust the contents of the 3d Environment accordingly. By easy, I mean easy if you are a techie. I am sure I could help most people get to the point of understanding how to do this. I appreciate too that having done this sort of thing for years there is a different definition of easy.
It is this grounding in real World pulling info data and manipulating it, from the Internet and serving it to the Web that seems to be a constant pattern. It is the pattern of IoT and of Big Data.
As part of the ongoing promotion of the science fiction books I have written I created a version of the view Roisin has of the World in the first novel Reconfigure. In that she discovers and API that can transcribed and described the World around her.
This video shows a simulation of the FMM v1.0 (Roisin’s application) working as it would for her. A live WebGL version that just lets you move the camera around to get a feel for it is here.

WebGL is a new target that Unity3d can publish too. Unity used to be really good because it had a web plugin that let us deploy applications, rich 3d ones, to any web browser not just build for PC, mac and tablets. Every application I have done over the past 7 years has generally had the web plugin version at its core to make life easier for the users. Plugins are dying and no longer supported on many browsers. Instead the browser has functions to draw things, move things about on screen etc. So Unity3d now generates the same thing as the plugin, which was common code, but creates a mini version for each application that is published. It is still very early days for WebGl, but it is interesting to be using it for this purpose as a test and for some other API interactions with sensors across the Web.
In the story, the interaction Roisin starts as a basic command line ( but over Twitter DM), almost like the skiing FTP of 1997. She interrogates the API and figures out the syntax, which she then builds a user interface for. Using Unity3d of course. The API only provides names and positions of objects, hence the cube view of the World. Roisin is able to move virtual objects and the API then, using some Quantum theory, is able to move the real World objects. In the follow up, this basic interface gets massively enhanced, with more IoT style ways of interacting with the data, such as with MQTT for messaging instead of Twitter DM’s as in the first book. All real World stuff, except the moving things around. All evolved through long experience in the industry to explain it in relatively simple terms and then let the adventure fly.
I hope you can see the lineage of the technology in the books. I think the story and the twists and turns are the key though. The base tech makes it real enough to start to accept the storyline on top. When I wrote the tech parts, and built the storyboard they were the easy bits. How to weave some intrigue danger and peril in was something else. From what I have been told, and what I feel, this has worked. I would love to know what more people think about it though. It may work as a teaching aid for how the internet works, what IoT is etc for any age group, from schools to boardroom? The history and the feelings of awe and anger at the technology are something we all feel at some point with some element of out lives too.
Whilst I am on real World though. One of the biggest constants in Roisin’s life is the like it or love it taste of Marmite. It has become, through the course of the stories, almost a muse like character. When writing you have to be careful with real life brands. I believe I have used the ones I have in these books as proper grounding with the real World. I try to be positive about everyone else products, brands and efforts.
In Cont3xt I also added in some martial arts, from my own personal experience again, but adjusted a little her and there. The initial use of it in Cont3xt is not what you might think when you hear martial art. I am a practitioner of Choi Kwang Do, though I do not specially call any of the arts used in the book by that name as there are times it is used aggressively, not purely for defence. The element of self improvement is in there, but with a twist.
Without the background in technology over the years and the seeing it evolve and without my own personal gradual journey in Choi Kwang Do, I would not have had the base material to draw upon, to evolve the story on top of.
I hope you get a chance to read them, it’s just a quick download. Please let me know what you think, if you have not already. Thank you 🙂

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