Monthly Archives: March 2014

Owl project studio

Owl Project's Anthony Hall and Simon Whitemore

While in Manchester I took the opportunity to visit my friends from the Owl Project in their studio round the back of Piccadilly Station. Anthony Hall, Simon Whitemore and Steve Symons have scored a large space split in two sections: one dedicated to (mostly) wood fabrication, with a CNC router and some more traditional cutting tools, the other for brain work, electronics and small scale projects.

The space contains several of Owl Project’s FLOW installation instruments. FLOW was commissioned by Cultural Olympiads fund in 2012, and installed on the Tyne River in Newcastle UK for several months. Mounted on a specially designed floating platform, a water wheel activated several beautifully crafted wood and electronics instruments that analysed water samples and generated sound accordingly.

I also saw a few solar-powered iLogs (if you want to make one, there is an iLog workshop coming soon) and current work on various synths, sequencers and light spectrometers. The Owl project are currently developing new work during a residency in Manchester Museum.

Chip for Human Brain project

spinnakerChipsBanner

In Manchester today, doing some preparation for a 2015 exhibition called The Imitation Game in Manchester Art Gallery. Curator Clare Gannaway is looking into possible collaborations with the School of Computer Science of the University of Manchester. Today we met Steve Furber, a legendary figure of the computing world who was one of the lead designers for Acorn’s microcomputers in the early 1980’s. After the success of Acorn’s BBC Micro, he was a crucial contributor to the invention of the ARM chip, the descendents of which can be found at the heart of today’s vast majority of mobile phones and tablets. I felt a bit star struck, as it was with BBC micros found in UK skips that I discovered (late) the joys of physical computing.

Steve Furber with one of the first SpiNNaker working units

Prof Furber talked to us about the SpiNNaker project he is currently leading, well on its way to complete a machine featuring an array of one million specialised ARM chips. The machine’s processing power will be equivalent to 1% of the human brain’s. The machine will be used by scientists from various disciplines to run experiments aiming at understanding the least understood intermediary level of brain processing, between neuron firing and high level activity monitoring. This effort is part of the international Human Brain Project.

spinnakerChipUnit

Each SpiNNaker chip, designed in the lab, made in China and Taiwan, features 18 core processors. The machine will feature approximately 56000 of the super thin chips, mounted on individual boards carrying 48 units. A massively complex operation, running in 10 wardrobe-size units. Steve Furber told us of an analogy he uses when he talks to secondary school students about the complexity of modern electronics and of the chip architects’ job: the connections and routing in a smartphone’s ARM processor, if scaled up, would be equivalent to all the roads on earth. The architects’ job is to make sure all the roads go to the right destination and that there is no traffic jam. Daunting.

We visited the SpiNNaker labs, where we saw one of the first operational machines running, some mysterious programme with lots of pretty flashing lights. We also had a look at the graphene lab, nanotechnology research heralded to produce great things in the near future. I only know of graphene in relation to promising new designs for supercapacitors. We could see researchers wearing what Furber called bunny suits busying themselves on high tech gear, working on nanoparticles.