BlinkM – RGB LED Projects made easy

If you read Russell’s great post, Reskilling For An Age of Things and sympathised with his woeful soldering skills, these BlinkM programmable RGB LEDs might be just the thing to kick start a project.

They are RGB LEDs with a tiny programmable microcontroller to change the colours easily. You can plug them into an Arduino and program them or you can use their natty little sequencer (see below) to create colour sequences. Think of it as a drum machine for colour.


They only cost $12.95 from Sparkfun. Maybe I’ll actually get around to making something (I might even make something talk).

(Via More images in todbot’s Flickr set.)

[tags]arduino, blinkm, LED, physical_computing[/tags]

Got ripped off in a MacHeist? It’s a UI failure.

No, not a hold-up in McDonalds, but the MacHeist Mac software bundle sale/game.

Like many, I got charged ten times and received nothing and also heard nothing back from MacHeist’s support, which is pretty lame. The culprit for all the multiple charging was a terrible bit of user-interface design, which goes to show how crucial UI design is.

When clicking on submit to place the order, the server responded with the form page again and the error “* This transaction cannot be processed.”.

The problem is that it’s a programmer’s kind of error message. To the user it either means nothing or, worse, it suggests the transaction didn’t go through, so they (like me) feel they should try again. As a result, many people got charged every time until they gave up.

What should have happened is that the transaction was immediately cancelled and error said “This transaction cannot be processed, your credit card has not been charged.” This gives the user comfort and errs on the side of being secure. A follow-up e-mail confirming the failed transaction would be pretty good too.

Alternatively, if for some reason the system couldn’t deal with that, the error message should have at least explicitly stated “please do not submit your order again, contact customer support on, etc.”.

They also should have responded immediately to all the e-mails they inevitably got sent, but they didn’t. Not at all. (I still haven’t heard back from my five e-mails throughout the week).

Instead they are relying on a MacHeist forum thread to communicate, which surely is being missed by plenty of people.

It adds up to a lot of disgruntled customers, damage to the MacHeist brand, random serial numbers floating around out there, the Mac software developers losing out and a big headache for someone to sort it all out. All of it could have been saved by a decent bit of interface design that accounted for the worst case scenario.

Next time I’ll buy direct from the developers.

It’s not been a good week for customer service.

UPDATE: Amazing how someone can make things go from bad to worse in a very short time. John Casasanta, one of the founders of MacHeist responded to the double charing thread without bothering to apologize and with not a little surliness. Of course, it added fuel to the fire ending with this wonderful piece of customer relations:

Ok, now your posts are starting to get inflammatory. I’m sick of your BS and the next time you do it, I’ll be imposing a 30 day ban on you.

A ban? On the customers you over-charged and didn’t deliver to? On a forum that’s useless anyway?

I’ve stated SEVERAL TIMES that we’re doing what we can to fix EVERY problem but you’re acting like a spoiled child. And I have no patience for it. Instead of getting issues resolved, I’m now trying to placate a whiner in the forums and this is what we’ve been trying to avoid all along.

With 44,000+ sales, there will be some support issues. And we’re working hard to fix then, not blow you off. So you seriously need to take a deep breath and chill the hell out.

Some companies will go to the ends of the world even when a customer decides to sh*t all over them and you’re definitely dealing with the wrong person here if you expect that kind of service from me. We’re doing whatever we can humanly do to resolve any and all issues but you’re insane if you think I’m going to take the childish insults you’re throwing at me.

It’s not the most confidence inspiring response. A simple blanket e-mail to everyone in the MacHeist database would have cleared the air and would have taken five minutes to do.

UPDATE 29.1.2008: If anyone is still reading this (!), MacHeist have done the right thing and sent out bundles to most of the people affected.

John Casasanta remained mostly irate on the forum thread, proving that some people can do marketing well, but not customer service.

I came up with some speculative numbers of MacHeist’s profits in response to some comments that customer support costs money. It turns out my numbers were pretty off, though based on Gus Mueller’s post about the MacHeist deal last year. Some developers took umbrage and let me know they were quite happy with the percentage they got (so, not a flat-fee as in Gus’s post). The point was never to complain about them making money, but even if they only took a 2% cut, it would be enough to pay for someone to man support for a few weeks. In any case, a blanket e-mail to all customers would have cost them nothing.

It turns out that most of the problems weren’t MacHeist’s doing but, surprise, surprise, PayPal’s hellish service, which is making it very hard to track erroneous transactions.

[tags]MacHeist, John_Casasanta, service, ripoff, user-interface, error, paypal[/tags]

Troika is on Cloud, er, Five

If you haven’t already explored the background behind Troika’s cloud for BA’s Terminal 5 – “a five meter long digital sculpture whose surface is covered with 4638 flip-dots that can be individually addressed by a computer to animate the entire skin of the sculpture” – Pixelsumo has got the goods and also images of the Processing pattern mock-up tool.

More development images and info here.

Or just watch the video above and wish you had done it.

[tags]troika, artwork, installation, cloud, processing[/tags]

PayPal, A Customer Service Nightmare

Companies like PayPal are basically all service and no product, so it makes sense that they should spend a lot of their time on it as do First Direct. Sadly, they don’t.

Like ISPs and telecoms companies, everything is fine until it goes wrong – only then do you really find out what they’re made of. If you have followed any of Iain’s rants about Virgin Media you’ll know what I’m talking about.

What follows is a highly abbreviated version of the utter incompetence of PayPal’s customer service staff. I don’t really want it to fill the main page here, so click if you want to read more (some of it is entertaining in its horror).

Continue reading “PayPal, A Customer Service Nightmare”

Is your cellphone company evil?

Mine certainly is.


No Evil is a great viral microsite for Net 10 that plays on the idea that cellphone companies are a bunch of money-grabbing evil madmen. Virgin have tried this tack before but now they’re part of the problem it seems.

The videos are very well-made and entertainingly written (the evil villains are good) and it neatly rides on the back of Google’s ‘Do No Evil’ philosophy.

A simple idea well-executed. Nice.

Anyone know the agency behind this?

UPDATE: I just noticed the video was playing automatically, which was irritating, so now it’s a link. I tried all sorts with the embed code but couldn’t turn it off.

[tags]net10, no-evil, viral, microsite[/tags]

re/act 4th International Student Festival for Media Art


Monika tells me this is a great festival for student media-arts work. It looks good to me and I think I saw some work from it last year.

It’s a good opportunity because media-art work can be expensive to build and often students are overshadowed by artists with grants who can afford some kind of techno utopian vision. So, crack out those Arduino boards and Processing and submit something.

Re/Act 4th International Student Festival for Media Art

In 2008, re/act, the international student festival for digital media art, takes place for the 4th time. Art and design student from all over the world are given the opportunity to make their works known to a wide audience and to make new contacts with a network of curators, cultural policy makers, gallery owners, professors, students, and the media.

re/act’s competition addresses students of artistic study programs. An international panel of experts will select the world’s best works from all entries.

Awards go to works from the following disciplines:

  • Video Art
  • Interactive Art
  • Live video & performance
  • Game Art

The deadline is February 1st 2008 and the submission form is downloadable from the re/act website.

[tags]interactive, media-art, festival, student, competition[/tags]

Track Yourself and Friends with SportsDo

Ever wanted to track your training route and activity or just remember where you skied?


My brother, Matthew, was given a SportsDo account and kit for Christmas by his wife, Naisha, which does just that. (Although a friend of hers said “So, basically, you bought him a husband tracker?”).

It’s a pretty smart pulling together of several existing technologies along with a neat interface integrated with Google Maps. It uses a Bluetooth GPS receiver connected to your mobile phone to capture the data. This gets uploaded to the user’s profile (here’s Matt’s) showing everything from the route to altitude and timings, etc.

What’s particularly handy is that you can then track people via text messaging, which means if you all have one when you are up a mountain skiing and/or in a long-distance race, you can find out where your friends and competitors are. Everyone else at home can use the RSS feed.

You can also remember which runs you did, how many times, how many calories you’ve burned, etc. and show off at the bar afterwards (and sing rubbish songs).

Given that the data is pretty rich and looks as if it’s reasonably accessible I could image it being used for all sorts of interactive projects too. Or just to check your partner really is walking the dog.

[tags]sportsdo, tracking, gps, bluetooth, mapping, Matt Polaine[/tags]

BeatBearings and the Wisdom of the Tube


This BeatBearing project on YouTube by Peter Bennett is one of those physical interaction ideas that sounded great on paper, but is a bit useless in the flesh.

It’s a “tangible sequencer” but because it has so few slots, the actual rhythms you can produce are pretty clunky early 80s action (which is now old skool twice over – he’ll have to wait for the third 80s revival).

I’m sure it was a great exercise to build it, but it’s kind of what happens when you do a PhD and lose the joy and play. I’d prefer a Tenori-On personally.

Sometimes you have to love the Wisdom of YouTube, This comment caught my eye:

bl4h1: we just spent hundreds of years evolving away from this sort of thing. whats next actual instruments?

(Link via Matt at Kiel’s Foundlings)

[tags]interaction, sound, instruments, youtube, tangible[/tags]

Jiggling Icons on the iPhone

There are plenty of big announcements and coverage of Steve Jobs’s Macworld keynote. I’m happy to see the new AppleTV, movie downloads and rentals, and of course the MacBook Air.


But it was the the jiggling icons in the new iPhone home screen selection. When you are moving icons around and sorting them the icons jiggle in anticipation (or perhaps fear of being trashed).

Why does this frivolity matter? Well, the first thing for me is, of course, the playfulness of the interface. Die hard functionalists will probably hate it and find it an unnecessary waste of computing resources, but then so is any GUI.

Playful interfaces not only bring some pleasure to everyday tasks, they also encourage the user to explore and through exploring they learn the way the interface works. That’s what playing is all about and the good thing is it doesn’t feel like you are learning, it just feels intuitive or fun.

It also helps add personality to the interface and phones are extremely personal devices.

Lastly, why not? Everyone appreciates a pleasant physical environment – nice cutlery, a stylish lamp, a lovely pen, a favourite armchair. Most of those are necessary – a packing crate, an old door and a couple of piles of bricks functionally work as a desk set-up, but you wouldn’t want to work like that every day. We all spend an inordinate amount of hours on the computer or phone, it makes sense that it’s pleasant to use.

[tags]iphone, apple, macworld, keynote, interface, play, gui[/tags]

From the Archives: Jonathan Harris – Man of the Hour

I have been promising that I would like to upload all of the articles I have written over the years so that they might be of use for people rather than them languishing on my hard drive, but I’ve been a bit slack at actually doing so because converting them to decent HTML and fixing it all up takes a bit of time.

But Regine’s post on Visualizing: tracing an aesthetics of data inspired me to find the article on Jonathan Harris that I wrote a while back in 2004.

So, the plan from here on in is to upload one article from the archives per week (which would mean about two year’s worth of posts!).

Man of the Hour – Jonathan Harris

If recent world events have taught us anything about the media it must surely be that it is relentless organism. We have seen live videophone feeds from the frontline in Iraq, the explosion of blogging and RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feeds and recently mobile phone camera images on the front pages of newspapers. Use any RSS news reader and you will see stories being updated 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With all this information flying around the Web, how can we make sense of it all and what would an hourly snapshot look like? That is exactly the question Jonathan Harris set out to answer with his 10×10 project. In an ironic twist the site held the number one slot on Blogdex for several days as news of its representation of news spread around the Web.

(Article continues…)

Continue reading “From the Archives: Jonathan Harris – Man of the Hour”