Friday, 27 May 2011

Romford going well, off on holiday now!

Romford going well, off on holiday now!

Monday, 23 May 2011

In-store 'Sat-nav' up and working now in a Tesco branch - come and try it!

We now have a comprehensive 'sat-nav' system working INSIDE one of our Tesco stores!

The new service is able to show you where all your wanted products are on a store map, show you where you are on that map, and guide you round the store to pick up your products using the shortest route.

The prototype system is installed at the Tesco Extra, Romford (Gallows Corner) in north-east London, and we need to recruit a large control group of customers (including staff) who would like to try it out on their Android smart-phones.

Would you like to give it a go? If so apply to join our control group (info below) which will assess the accuracy and reliability of the service from a technical perspective.. If you're accepted, here is what you'll experience:
  1. Install our prototype app on your Android smart phone (it's not in the Android Marketplace, you'll be sent a link to download it directly and you'll need to change a setting temporarily to allow non-marketplace apps on your phone to install it).
  2. Build up a shopping list on it (just like you can with Tesco Finder).
  3. Send that shopping list to another customer with the same app on their phone so they can go shopping on your behalf (so I'm happy for members of a household to be in the control group).
  4. Head to Tesco Extra Romford (click for map link).
  5. Start the app as you walk through the front door.
  6. See a comprehensive store map with all the items in the shopping laid out on it.
  7. Press a button and the app will find the shortest distance between the products and create a route for you.
  8. Show you where you are on the map with a blue dot with an accuracy of within 3 metres.
  9. Walk the store following the route. The blue dot will move around the map as you move around.
  10. If you want to find any product 'adhoc', we'll find it in the store and show you where it is on the map. 

So now we need your help. If…
  1. You live or work near Tesco Extra, Romford, and
  2. You have an android phone with Android OS v2.2 or later installed on it, and 
  3. You're prepared to change your phone's application settings temporarily to allow installation of apps from 'Unknown Sources' just while you install our app, and
  4. You are prepared to run an R&D app and accept no liability from us if we cause your phone problems (although it doesn't do anything more than require access to your wifi and location-based services on your phone), and
  5. You accept that the app, being R&D, is a bit geeky but you are prepared to fiddle and play with it, and
  6. You accept the system, being R&D, may just not work from time to time.
...then I would love to hear from you.

To join the control group, write to our R&D project manager Ben Martin at with subject 'SATNAV APP'. Ben (@realbenm) has been running this exciting project from the start, so he'll look forward to hearing from you. Indeed you'll receive further instructions in a few days after contacting us. In the message please indicate what make and model of Android handset you have, and the version of Android it is running.

The service is only available publicly to Android phone owners at this time, because we don't want the app in it's current state going into the public app stores. Only Android easily offers the ability to install apps from 'Unknown Sources'.

Please note that we won't be rolling this out to customers in general for a while because we have to think about how useful it's going to be. The system involves a lot of infrastructure installation in the stores so we need to get all kinds of people involved in thinking about the customer experience. It would be awful if we did all this work but few customers really used it.

We must also see how we would put the technology into our production applications and make it really easy for everyone to use. There's also the possibility that the infrastructure is not reliable right now.

This project is in R&D for a good reason, and we are allowed to prove the viability - or otherwise - of anything we might wish to offer our customers. Sometimes R&D is close to production, and at other times it is far away. 

Apologies to other companies offering this service who contacted me after my original blog post that kicked off this project. We've had to operate under strict NDA with our chosen provider and not even intimate there was a such as system under construction. Until now!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011 R&D Day Out

Sometimes it's worth taking the team and escaping from the office for some fresh air and fresh thinking, specially when some of the extended team are joining us for the week having escaped from Tesco's offices in Bangalore, India.

The thinking doesn't get any fresher than when it takes place at TechHub London, the community office space reflecting the vibrancy and global outlook of the technology scene right on the 'silicon roundabout' at City Road/Old Street in central London. We spent the day looking through our R&D backlog and ways of working to plan our work for the months ahead.

The air doesn't get any fresher (in London) than when some of us finished the day by travelling on the London Eye (Millennium Wheel). In the photo we have, from left to right: Prasad, myself, Ben, Murralee and Sangeetha.

Yes yes we're back in the office working hard now...!

Philip Clarke blogs about 'Out at Tesco' gay staff network

Forgive me for my occasional digression from tech, but occasionally such interesting events happen that I sometimes decide to cover them here. Regular readers will know that I am a member of Tesco Diversity Council which ensures that 'Everyone is welcome at Tesco'. I am also a committee member for our lesbian, gay, bissexual and transgender staff (LGBT) support network Out at Tesco.

Tesco's new CEO, Philip Clarke, has written on his internal blog about Out at Tesco. Our network's sponsor, Dan Gilsenan, has asked me to recreate Philip's blog article here and I am very happy to do so.

Tesco is sponsoring the Family Area at London's Gay Pride festival on Saturday 2nd July 2011. I'll be there helping out with my fellow committee members so come over and say hello!

Out at Tesco
by  Clarke, Philip  on 18/05/2011 09:28
Category: Values
In a meeting earlier today with the senior sponsor, Dan Gilsenan, I was reminded about how challenging life can be for our colleagues in the LGBT community. The work of the Out at Tesco network has been transformational for us and we need to keep on supporting it. Dan has decided to leave to be head of M and A at Intercontinental and will be sadly missed by the network, amongst others. We need a replacement senior mentor. If anyone out there wants to act as the mentor please let Andy Higginson or Therese Procter know. The role is to act as the bridge between the network and my senior team. 
I am really pleased that the company has sponsored the Family Area at this year's London Pride celebration. I hope you all have a great day.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Microsoft Kinect opens the 'Recognition' door

Reading this article, on the surface you'll think of us as boys playing with toys.

The actual thing is, Microsoft's new Kinect XBox games controller offers so much opportunity in the retail and business space that we've already thought of uses we could put it to inside Tesco.

Why? Well it's the ability to program it to recognise the people in front of the Kinect device, and possibly, if my imagination takes flight for less than 10 seconds:
  • Augmented Reality: Wrap clothes around the body so a customer could understand how an item of clothing looks on them.
  • Recognise the 'body signature' through a mix of visual signals (and sound) and thus identify a particular person - and possibly greet them.

So here in R&D we're going to try and create a proof-of-concept that uses the Kinect as a form of person-recognition or play a part in augmented reality.

In its raw state, the incoming data from the Kinect device is itself fascinating in revealing how it goes about identifying body shapes in 3D. First here's Ben Martin (@realbenm) and myself standing in front of the Kinect (photo by Rob D'Amico):

...and here is what it looks like on the computer screen. Note how the Kinect has identified the two humans separately and colours them... oh wait...three humans - that's Rob taking the pic and being identified in the process! The Kinect is just above the laptop screen with a glowing red light (click for larger image).

Although not easy to spot in the photos above, notice that Rob's hand is slightly in front of Ben and his body slightly in front of my leg - but Kinect has correctly kept identifying Rob and not become confused. 

Also notice that the colours are brighter for the hands and arms that are closer to the Kinect device - that means it's detecting our shapes in three dimensions. Clever stuff! If we know how far away any pixel of the body is away from the device, we could use this information to accurately wrap bitmap images such as "clothes" around the body.

Just as fascinating is the fact that Kinect is also able to calculate skeletal geometry. In the image below, not only has it identified three separate people, but on two of them it has managed to create a wireframe skeleton, showing arm, torso, hip and leg positions and movements. Although not shown, the accuracy is maintained if one arm is passed in front of someone else's body image.

So we're up and running. Ben is going to develop this R&D project into a proof of concept which we'll install down in the atrium of HQ so people can have a play when he's done. It'll be interesting to see what he comes up with!

We're using a somewhat unauthorised software development kit right now but I spoke to Microsoft today and they say an official Kinect SDK is in the pipeline and will get a copy to us as soon as they can.

I get a feeling they're rather delighted with the journey we intend to take this project on...!

Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Cable Guys (and Girls)

Another day in the office for the R&D and Mobile teams!
(click for bigger picture).

A photographer from The Grocer magazine was in our office during last week taking pics as part of a profile interview of R&D, and I insisted that the key players who had helped shape R&D and mobile join me in a group picture. 

The photographer's remit was to be artistic and not take a boring corporate picture, so I took everyone to our lab where the tech 'happens'. The photographer immediately spotted boxes of ethernet cable and the next we know we were draping ourselves in this season's network colours!

The picture you see above was taken by Doug Graves, our highly bemused colleague who works in the lab. I'm sat down in the picture (click for a much bigger version) and from left to right we have:
  • Owen Day, IT Mobile Development Manager (@owenday)
  • Mike Brearley, Lead IT Developer (@brearley)
  • Rebecca Pate, Web Development Manager and Mobile Product Owner (@rpatey).
  • Annabel Thorburn, Senior Marketing Manager with accountability for Mobile.
  • Hilda Jenkins, IT Project Manager for Mobile.
  • Jerome Ribot, Founder and Creative Lead of Ribot, our mobile design partner (@ribotminimus).
  • Ben Martin, Developer and Project Manager in R&D team (@realbenm)

So watch out for a pic from the many that photographer took appearing in The Grocer soon!

Windows Phone 7 - This Week's Unexpected Joy

My Windows Phone 7 phone arrived this week in the form of the HTC 7 Trophy. After the joy of iPhone 4 and the unexpected sluggishness of my HTC Desire HD, how would the new phone stack up - and how easy is it to develop for?

In this image Nick holds his HTC 7 Trophy Window Phone 7 handset.

Firstly, the phone was easy to set up. It downloaded all the appropriate cellular settings (such as voicemail number and data connection info) from my cellular network, 3, quickly. Then it was a case of linking to my Windows Live ID / XBox Live account which I have had setup for my Xbox previously.

Next, the phone's setup wizard guided me through linking to my various email accounts and associated contacts lists, which updated speedily. Linking to Facebook was just as swift - and afterwards many of my contacts had images just as they had before on the Android phone.

The WP7 then amalgamated all my contact/friend information into a 'People' app which is easy to use and joins up Facebook comments to contact phone numbers. The linking worked well. I could take individual people I contact regularly and pin them to the home page to form their own square for quick access.

The 'home page' of the phone is a series of boxes - mostly square but some rectangular - that act as mini-screens for the apps they represent. It was easy to move the squares around, unpin them, and pin other apps from the list. The squares themselves are rarely static, instead sliding up images of friends, email counts or the weather symbol and temperature.

I noticed how speedily the phone operated, with smooth graphics and a sure-footedness when finger-swiping that was often lacking on the two android phones I have owned (Google Nexus One and HTC Desire HD). By this I mean that on the android phones, I would often have to swipe twice or more to get an icon to move to operate a function. I did wonder if this was HTC hardware, but I have never yet experienced this problem on this HTC 7 Trophy phone, so I'm focussing the problem towards android itself.

Even more interesting is how sensitive this phone is to mobile signals (from the 3 network) compared to my HTC Desire HD. Not only are the signal strength bars reading stronger but I can use the 3 network throughout my house whereas the Desire only works upstairs - and poorly at that.

If Apple iPhone 'insists' on the presence of iTunes, then the WP7 'desires' (not insists on) the presence of Zune, Microsoft's equivalent media syncing application. Unlike iPhone, the WP7 phone works straight out of the box once you install a SIM, whereas the iPhone has the stark 'connect me to iTunes' graphic and is locked until you do so.

However, like iPhone (but unlike Android) the WP7 phone cannot perform its own system updates unaided. I am impressed how Android can perform its own updates. I needed to update WP7 twice using Zune - a short February update and and a very long March update, the latter which took the phone out of use for over 30 minutes. However it was worth it for the copy & paste capability that then appeared. This morning another update arrived, which took about 10 minutes to complete.

As we know, there are a lack of apps in the Zune Marketplace at the moment, although the ones I use a lot such as eBay, Twitter and Kindle were present - oh and two Tesco apps of course! The apps that are there are useful - such as the London tube network journey planner. More apps will come (and I will help by developing myself!) - time will resolve this problem.

So to development: Oh wonderful! A download of the Windows 7 development tools and then into Visual Studio 2010 and my beloved C# programming language. Not the hugely cut down .Net Compact Framework either but a really big subset of the full Framework.  So a spot of C#, a smattering of easy Silverlight XAML, 2 minutes and I had an interactive app running in the WP7 emulator phone. Five more minutes and £65 poorer, I had joined the Microsoft App Hub application development portal which, on activation, will unlock my phone so I can test apps directly on it (much like the iPhone development system).

I did wonder if Windows Phone 7 could match iPhone and I declare them equal apart from the app count - and no need to develop using a low-down and frustrating programming language such as Apple's Objective-C - thus my "unexpected joy". I also see clearly that Android seems to need more power than the same hardware affords it compared to the other phones. 

So Windows Phone 7 is a hit with me and this phone is now my primary handset - that's saying something. Well done, Microsoft; well done!