Dear Nectar Developers…

Dear Support staff,

You have likely noticed that you are receiving no registrations of Nectar Cards through your website, please forward this message on to your site developers as it will explain how to fix this issue.

When registering my Nectar card online (using a temporary card I’d picked up in store), I was told that I had not filled in all mandatory field.  Seeing that I had, I decided to debug your javascript.  Your javascript’s fnSubmit function clearly showed that it was looking for a field named “gender” that was not present on the form.

Using the debug tools in my browser, I created a hidden field named “gender” and (based on the coding style of single characters you’ve used) I guessed that the value needed would be “M”.  After doing this, your sign up process completed correctly.

Another error was encountered when I attempted to add a second card holder to my account.  Selecting “Miss” for my girlfriend’s account, I would then move down to select a gender, the field was this time present however by selecting “Female” the title “Miss” would be changed to no selected value.  Selecting the title again would do the same for the gender field thus once again throwing up an error that not all mandatory fields were correctly filled in.

Using the debug tools in my browser again, I chose to remove the call to the javascript made by the two drop down boxes and submit the form now that your javascript could not delete what I had inputed.  After doing this, the form submitted correctly.

I hope this information will help you remedy the issues with your live site as quickly as possible so that you may start receiving online applications again.

Andy Barratt
Computer Scientist and Software Developer

miiJob at miiCard

Ah a post about the illusive job mentioned in the last post!

So I’m moving to Edinburgh, perhaps as soon as tomorrow.  In fact, I have actually been working in Edinburgh since Monday and thus far have spend £84 in just three days travel thanks to Britain’s extortionate train fares but let’s get into what you’re interested in, miiCard.

I woke up a couple of months ago to a rather terrifying email in my university inbox which in my student life was at the crack of dawn (so about 10AM) and certainly woke me up.  It featured some poor soul desperately trying to break free from the clutches of a zombie horde and underneath this was written, “break free from coding hell.”

Break free from coding hell

Allow me to clarify, at this time of year, we receive dozens of job adverts at the School of Computing every week, some of them of interest, none of them exciting.  I normally glazed over them hoping that perhaps one of them would do something special like whisk me off to New York (don’t ask why, it’s my dream not yours).  This one, got my attention.  If you take a look at my CV on this site, you can see that I’m not the most formal of people.  What you see is exactly what you get when I’m applying for a job, complete with that fine Andy Barratt branding down the left hand side (hell, that’s even on my business cards!).  I don’t do dull, I just can’t be arsed.

And as this was evidently not a company to always do things formally, I decided I wanted to find out who they were, after a quick scroll through their website, I sent a rather unconventional email, in the way that I do, and a copy of my CV as a PDF because what I saw on the site impressed me, miiCard is actually something exciting!

Well come on then, tell us what miiCard is!

miiCard is a personal security company… now doesn’t that sound dull?  Keep reading.  What miiCard does is create an online version of a passport.  They give you an online ID card and they check it against your online banking to prove, to money laundering standards, that you are who you say you are.  Why?  So that you can prove it faster to everyone else!

What if I told you that 70% of bank applications online fail.  Can you hazard a guess why? Well you apply for a bank account but then the final step is “please come into your branch and show us your proof of address and your proof of ID.”  Well so much for that, I’m a lazy bastard like the rest of the world and I just can’t be bothered to walk to the bank.  I’ll survive with my current bank account.

Oh but imagine this, you apply online and it says, “do you have a miiCard?  No?  Sign up for one in 5 minutes and then we’ll give you your bank account.”  Well then, thank you very much, I can spend the rest of my day watching NetFlix!

How about this one?  You’re looking for a flat to rent (can’t imagine how I got this one in my head), and you find one online, you take a virtual tour and it’s awesome, only, you have to travel far across the land to make an application and prove who you are before you can even sign the lease many days later!  How tiresome!  I may as well just commute for the first wee while.  Oh but wait!  I can apply for this flat with my miiCard and allow the letting agent to do the rest!  Awesome!

How about dating online?  How often have you heard of grotty little people preying on the vulnerable in dating sites?  They chat, they get on fine, he says he’s the same age and she loves his sense of humour, he has a Facebook with loads of photos so she knows he looks cute.  So how come now she’s standing by a pier and a creepy guy who’s 20 years older than her and he is not taking no for an answer?!  If the dating site had people register with miiCard, people would know that who they’re talking to is who they say they are!

Why has no one done this before?!  Identity theft is one of the biggest threats to our security online and being able to prove who you are is not always so easy, to be able to do it so quickly like this is brilliant.  I was hooked in and the day after my initial email, I got an email from CEO James Varga inviting me for an interview, which I of course attended the next day and was offered the job less than a week later.  Because of my dazzling looks I do not doubt…

I remember that the vacancy as advertised online described the position as “being part of something big” and thinking how much I agreed with that statement.  If miiCard takes off, I think the term miiCard will be as well known as the name PayPal.  Almost everyday I think of a new reason why a miiCard would come in handy.

And that’s how I shall leave you, with this question and the video after it, how many ideas pop into your head where proving your identity instantly online would save you time?

Chronicles – An AAC Honours Project

Let me tell you about my Honours Project, I’ve been working on it for six months now and have just had a proposal for a paper I wrote about it accepted for the ISAAC 2012 Conference in Pittsburgh so it seems silly that I haven’t written a blog post about it yet.

In my final year of University, I find myself working on an honours project that is both rewarding academically but also, through the enormous sense of satisfaction of helping people with Severe Speech and Physical Impairment tell stories where doing so has been frustratingly difficult in the past.

My project is an AAC project.  That stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication.  AAC devices help those with Severe Speech and Physical Impairment (SSPI) communicate.  People with SSPI vary greatly, while one user may have permanently or temporarily non-functional speech only, others may find themselves with much more physical impairments.  They could be confined to a wheel chair much of their lives, or simply have difficulties with motor control, meaning they find it difficult to operate a mouse or keyboard efficiently.

British Singer Adele temporarily found herself using an AAC app on her phone to speak after surgery.

A recent example of someone who found themselves without functional speech recently would be the British singer Adele who after surgery, was ordered by doctors to rest her voice, she downloaded an app on her phone to speak for her.  However, most regular AAC users are more permanently affected by non functional speech and often posses severe disabilities that hinder their use of a computer.

Adele apparently attempted to download several text to speech apps for her phone and finally settled on one particular app that would allow her to swear.  This is actually something that we share a belief in at Dundee University.  AAC devices are a user’s voice, under no circumstances should we censor them, even if they are designed for children.  You wouldn’t teach a child not to swear by cutting into their brain and removing the ability to do so.  Perhaps in some kind of cross between Orwell and Asimov, this might make an interesting story but unfortunately, many AAC devices do indeed censor their users.

Stephen Hawking is probably the most famous AAC user.

Probably the most famous user of AAC equipment is Professor Stephen Hawking.  Hawking is a perfect example of someone with Severe Speech and Physical Impairment.  With very little motor function, Hawking uses a computer attached to his wheelchair which he operates using a single switch that he presses using his cheek.

As so many AAC users do fall into this category of Severe Speech and Physical Impairment (SSPI), interface design becomes a huge factor as users with SSPI often require interfaces designed specifically for how they use a computer.  For instance, users who, like Hawking, use a switch to select items on a screen will usually require what we call a scanning interface.  This is where the system highlights a selectable element of a screen individually for a moment before then moving on to highlight the next element, after waiting for the desired item to become highlighted on their screen, the user can then hit their switch to select it.  As you can imagine, this can be slow and tedious however, it is of course more accessible than not being able to use the interface at all.  As such, systems need to be designed that respect how the user will be using their device.  Other users may not need a switch interface and while they can not necessarily operate several small buttons, can in fact use a touch screen with large, easily understood buttons to choose from.

Another factor that needs to be remembered is that disabilities are in most cases combined with other disabilities.  For instance, someone with SSPI is very likely to also have learning difficulties such as dyslexia.  One issue that arises regularly in the AAC user community is illiteracy.  As such, basic text to speech is often not the best method for an AAC device as if the user can not read or write, they can not type text to be spoken.

Chronicles – My Honours Project

Chronicles - My Honours Project

For my honours project, I’ve joined the AAC Research Team at Dundee University where I’ve joined in the development of a new project called Chronicles, a narrative telling system for adults with SSPI.

While there has been lots of research and development (R&D) in AAC systems, most of these have been in aiding transactional communication.  When we say transactional, we are referring to communication aimed at expressing needs, this could be as simple as “I want coffee” or “I need the toilet.”  However, in terms of narrative systems, there are less systems.  Narratives is an AAC term that really just means stories.  While this may seem like a simple matter, story telling is actually a major part of communication and you may not realise just how many stories you tell every day.

I've joined the AAC Research Team at Dundee University

When you speak to your friends, you may tell them about what you did last night.  You may tell your mother about a hard day at work or you may tell people about a vacation you went on.  With close friends and family, people with SSPI are usually more comfortable telling stories, possibly because those who are close to them have less difficulties understanding gestures or the broken speech that some with SSPI are capable of.  However, when meeting a new person, these stories are more difficult for users to tell and so they come to rely on AAC devices much more.

However, the other main part of communication is conversation.  When you tell a story, you do not just tell the whole story all at once and take questions at the end of it, you say a sentence and you stop as the person you are telling the story to asks a question.

I had a nasty experience at the shops the other day.

Oh yes? What happened?

There was a robbery at the store!

Really?! Tell me more!

When we tell stories, interruptions and questions are a major part of the narrative and so a story telling system has to allow for the story to be told in individual utterances, allowing questions to be asked.  This also allows the user to skip parts or tell the story in a different order to how it was written, allowing the story to be told in a different way each time to different people.

With most AAC systems, the user can enter a narrative in one long block of text that can’t be interrupted or have the sequence changed to allow the user to respond to questions.  As such, users with SSPI often don’t tend to tell stories with AAC devices and would choose to have a communication partner tell the story for them instead.  This may be a close friend or family member or a support worker.  However, when faced with a situation where they wish to tell a story, if the user’s communication partner is not present or indeed, if the communication partner with them does not know the story, many choose simply not to tell the story at all.

Chronicles extends the work of "How Was School Today...?" to adults with SSPI.

Chronicles aims to change this by allowing the user to generate their stories and store them in a system that allows them to be told as part of a conversation naturally and be kept with them on their own AAC device wherever they go.  This extends the work already done here at Dundee University’s by AAC Research Team members Rolf Black and Annalu Waller on a system called “How Was School Today…?” which generated stories for children based on what they had been doing in school, allowing them to tell stories to their parents and friends.

We hope to bring similar functionality found in “How Was School Today…?” to Chronicles, such as Natural Language Generation implementing data to text and text to speech. However, we plan to extend these proven applications of narrative telling to a device that can document all of a users life.  And thus we arrive at the part I’m working on, how do you design an interface for those with Severe Speech and Physical Impairment that allows the user to easily find one story, from what could be hundreds!

Retrieving One Narrative From Hundreds

The work that I’m doing on Chronicles is to investigate how best the narratives we’re collecting/generating are to be stored in a database on the user’s system and most importantly, how the user interface should be designed to allow a person with severe physical impairment, learning difficulties, and possibly illiteracy, to easily retrieve a single narrative from a feasibly very large number.

This has been my challenge for the last six months and through evaluation from my initial prototype designs, it is the challenge that will continue for the final few months of my time at university.

One of the highest held principles at Dundee’s School of Computing is User Centred Design.  For many, this simply means designing a system with the user in mind, for us, it means that the user group you are designing for is involved in the actual design process.  For the AAC Research Group at Dundee University, that means real AAC users with SSPI coming into the lab on a regular basis to give insight and thought into systems that we are designing.  This may seem entirely obvious to you as a reader however the sad truth (tragic even) is that almost all AAC development in the world is done by researchers who have never spoken to a real AAC user in their lives!

At the start of this project, myself and my supervisor had several assumptions as to what kind of system Chronicles would be and more to the point, how its interface would appear and be used, however through speaking to real AAC users, we could see just how much interaction with our user group is invaluable.  It is such an important factor that my supervisor, Dr. Suzanne Prior, wrote her PhD on the subject of user involvement in the development process of AAC systems.

A paper by myself has been accepted for the ISAAC 2012 conference in Pittsburgh.

We believed that a category system would be much more useful for finding stories than a timeline interface that would show stories in a line.  We had in fact resigned ourselves to our belief so much that we were quite sure that such a system would not be developed at all.  However, it turned out that when discussing their progress, our user group is often asked to to plot events in their lives on a time line drawn as a long winding road.  This visual aid was actually much easier for them to picture events that have happened in their past and so, Chronicle’s Timemap was born.

Notice that I haven’t just come up with an interface based on what we believed would be a good idea, if I had, the system would look extremely different to what it does and after receiving poor results from evaluation, a prototype would likely have needed scrapped and a new one made up, by involving users in the requirements gathering process right from the start, time is not wasted building systems that just aren’t suitable.

Evaluation of the initial prototypes, as designed based on the expert knowledge of real AAC users, has shown that the system is being received well.  There are elements that through watching members of our own user group interact with, I now know need changes.  Elements that I would not have thought of if I hadn’t involved them in the testing process.

I’m now on to making adjustments based on really useful feedback and in a few weeks time, I will be giving each member of the AAC User Group that I’ve been working with a copy of this software to take home and test in a longitudinal study and with the current search engine that I’m implementing in the system, I’m looking forward to hearing how my efforts have been received.  Even negative feedback is positive to the AAC Research Group as it teaches us more and more on how to design systems for users with Severe Speech and Physical Disability.

Dundee Radio Android Apps

The Discover Radio App is available in the Android Market Place

One thing that I find irritating about internet radio, is the fact that it is well designed to be listened to on your computer, but not on your phone.  Smartphones actually play internet radio very well, the issue is that for most, it is a little tricky to first of all, find a media player that can play streaming audio but then, it’s even more tricky to find out the internet radio address for the station you need.  These addresses are rarely publicised visually and require digging through website or playlist code to track down.

The station that I was having issues with was Dundee University’s own Discover Radio.  After tracking down the address for the radio stream, I found it tricky to find an easy to use player on Android that I could just feed this address.  This seemed odd to me as the Android MediaPlayer class can play these streams natively.

So I decided to make an Android App to do this for me.  The Discover Radio App is now available to download from the Android Market Place.

A few tweaks of the code and the Strathclyde Fusion app was made available too.

With a friend of mine being a DJ at Strathclyde University’s Strathclyde Fusion, I’d already become irritated by the lack of web player on their website, the link provided to listen to their station only produced a windows media player playlist which, when I’m working on my Mac, is not natively supported.  So with a few tweaks to the code, out came the Strathclyde Fusion app too.

Now Discover Radio, being a student radio station, has a habit of going off air, mainly at night or on Sundays when there aren’t enough students on campus to keep it running.  With this in mind, I wanted to listen to my other local radio stations, TayFM, Wave102 and TayAM.

The Dundee Radio App lets you listen to all four of Dundee's radio stations.

Once again, no apps existed for these stations and so I compiled all of my efforts into one single app, Dundee Radio for Android will allow you to listen to all four radio stations native to the fair city of Dundee.

Free Online Agile Board –

Just sign up to get your own free sticky notes board.

One of the most basic techniques of Agile is the use of a board with sticky notes on it to represent things that are to be done, in progress or have been completed.

I wanted something that could represent this Agile Board online, something free and simple, so I’ve created

To get your own free sticky notes board online that even works on touch screen devices, just go and register and get going.

Get your FREE Stickies Board

Update:  I’ve added the ability to change note colours and will soon be launching a feature that allows for you make your notes public to the world if you want.

Chip Counter for Android

Available In Android MarketChip Counter is a free app, now available in the Android Market Place, that lets you set the values of different coloured poker chips and then simply say how many of each one you have, giving you a quick and instant total of how much you have.

Update: Chip Counter now has a handy Poker Hand Ranking Screen for people who struggle to remember them all.

Just say how many of each chip you have and touch the "Calculate" button.

Recently I’ve started playing poker with my friends and every time we do this we get to the end and as you do, we start counting up our chips.  Problem is, we always made mistakes and would end up counting and recounting our chips, adding up the total in our head or digging out pieces of paper to keep track of our progress.

Ok so maybe we’re just not that fantastic at mental maths, I’m a computer scientist, not a mathematician, so I thought “surely there’s an app for that?”  I grabbed my phone and searched, there was not!  Or at least, not one that matched my search terms.

Now we have just been working on a project at uni which resulted in us deciding to make an Android app so I had literally just taught myself how to make Android apps and seeing as the idea of counting chips like this was really, ridiculously simple, I figured I’d just write it.  So here it is, Chip Counter for Android.

When you open it, you’ll see a selection of eleven different coloured chips, just put the value of the chips that you want to use (I only needed four of them) and hit save.  Now, when ever you open the app, you’ll see your selected chips, just type in how many of each chip you have and touch the “Calculate” button.

I hope you like it, I may make it look prettier later but for now, it does the trick.  (Update: have now made the buttons and title bar have a gradient and curved corners.)

Chip Counter now has a handy screen to show you different poker hands that can be reached through your menu button.

Getting in the Market Place

I’ve only very recently switched to Android and of course one thing I knew about the Android Market Place compared to the Apple App Store that I’ve been using for three years is that it is a lot easier for developers to get in.

The first and most obvious thing is that to become an Apple iOS developer, I have to pay $99… every year.  Android on the other hand is a $25 one off registration fee.

There is something that bothers me about Android though.  In the Apple App Store, I know that every app has been checked and approved by Apple.  This means that Apple believe it is safe for me to use it.  When I submitted my App to the market however, it was instantly available to download!

Now on some level, they don’t need to be as thorough as I have to place in my code exactly what permissions my app needs (in this case, none) and so there’s not as much risk, people know what they’re getting into, i.e. they know that an app will be looking at their contacts or that an app needs location data.  But that’s not stopping me from lying about everything else.  My app might not have been a chip counter, what if it had been filled with hardcore pornography?  (it is not).  It does make me take a second take though, I’m sure I’ll be more careful about what I do and don’t install on my phone in future, now that I know that anything can get in the market place without people looking at it.  Or perhaps I’m missing something obvious.

What do you think?  Should the Android Market screen all apps?  What if it raised the cost to developers?

Bin Laden’s Abbottabad Complex Map for Counter Strike

A developer going by the name of Fletch has created a map of Bin Laden’s Abbottabad Complex where he lived from 2005 till his death on 2nd of May 2011 for Counter Strike.

It’s not a new concept to have real life locations appear in computer games including those from real missions that have been carried out by world millitary but some would suggest that releasing a map like this so soon after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, is in poor taste.

It’s an interesting topic for debate that may have some very good points for both sides of the argument. What seems clear is that Fletch does not intend to create a mission in which players recreate the Navy Seals mission from the 2nd of May but instead have missions based on the concept.

One mission using the map he is constructing is an aftermath in which terrorists defend evidence in the base from being taken by Counter Terrorist Forces. Though some believe that just the location alone being in a computer game so soon is in poor taste and perhaps even means for provocation for more terrorist action.

What do you think? Do you play Counter Strike? Do you feel this map is in poor taste or will you be playing it yourself?

Look here for the map.

Xbox 720, Someone get Sony a Wheelchair!

Oh dear, Sony is generally looking like they’re getting old.

And with the revelations that Nintendo and Microsoft are to launch new consoles, Sony is looking a little bit redundant, especially after they announced that they won’t be developing a new console anytime soon as they want to develop their Move controllers further, but there’s something that Sony hasn’t really figured out.

These Move things are just rubbish! I mean, they’re awfully clever, don’t get me wrong but they knew what Microsoft were developing, they knew that Kinect was well on its way and here at the Dundee School of Computing, we knew it was a major contender, our Visual Interaction research department had been looking into 3D cameras and tracking human motion without the use of lights or other tracking tags for quite some time now.

So to see Sony boasting a system that effectively used a low quality webcam that doesn’t work in living room light, to track a glowing ping pong ball on a stick, just seemed a little old fashioned… in computing terms.

I own a Playstation 3, not an Xbox 360. When I bought my PS3, I didn’t do my research, I just wanted a bluray player and at the time, the PS3 worked out being not much more than buying a normal one. Over time, I’ve discovered various things about the PS3 that really hold it back.

It seems PS3 always see what others are doing and do something similar, just a little less. When Wii was announced to have it’s amazing motion detection controls, PS3 was suddenly announcing, a short time later, to be getting motion detection controllers, something they’d failed to mention before. They had obviously rushed to add them too, with the vibration function of the controllers suddenly stripped out to make it all work. Vibrations you see, don’t work well with accelerometers, but a little research would have fixed this, something they didn’t have time to do, because they’d only just thought of it (when i say, thought of it, i mean, Nintendo thought of it). Vibrating controllers of course came back later and but the motion detection that we gained on the PS3 controllers, well it’s fun, i like it, but it’s just not Wii.

The only thing Sony did well was to support BluRay over HD-DVD. But then, Sony own BluRay, they license the format, it makes it rather awkward for any other console to use it… we’ll see though, I doubt they can keep it to themselves forever.

Now let’s look at Sony from a developers point of view. My flatmate, does develop for Playstation consoles. To do so, he is attending what was the first University in the world to have a Games Development course, Dundee’s Abertay University. But to do so, Abertay is subject to very strict licensing. If I wanted to develop for PS3, I would have to be approved under strict regulations by Sony, it would cost me a lot, same goes for Wii. Home Brew games and apps are the new generation of software packages being made. There’s likely to be a program on your computer a program, on your smart phone or your tablet PC that was developed by someone at home.

The only console that supports home brew, is Xbox. In fact, Microsoft provides the stuff in the form of, XNA studio, to develop these games for Xbox and Windows for free. There is talk of Nintendo developing a similar platform too. Sony however is continuously striving to make sure people can not make home brew apps on their consoles and with a major hack (which I honestly believe could have been prevented) of Playstation Network User details, the Playstation network still remains down weeks later and Sony continues to not tell us stuff. Why is the Network still down? Has it been destroyed? Do you not know how to fix it?

Now we’ve got Wii2 and XBox 720 on the way and all I can think is, I wish I didn’t have a PS3. Because until Sony realise how software development is changing, I don’t think we’ll be hearing much from Sony in the coming years.

Remember Nokia? That brand of phone that everybody had? We all had a Nokia phone because they were the best. Then with the new generation of smartphones and the new generation of software made for them, we forgot about Nokia. Well if Sony don’t get ready for the next generation, we’ll forget them and their Playstation very soon too.