Monthly Archives: September 2016

CleanSpace: Mapping Air Pollution in London


Today I received a personal air quality sensor, the CleanSpace sensor tag. The device is a carbon monoxide (CO) sensor which is designed to be carried by the user and paired with the CleanSpace Android or iOS app via blueetooth. While the sensor takes readings the app provides real time feedback to the user on local air quality. It also pushes the anonymised sensor readings to a cloud server which aggregates them to create a map of air quality in London.

As well as providing data for analytics the app is intended to encourage behaviour change. It does this by rewarding users with ‘CleanMiles’ for every journey made on foot or by bike. The clean miles can then be exchanged for rewards with CleanSpace partner companies and retailers.

Another interesting aspect of the project is that the sensor tag is powered using Drayson Technologies’ Freevolt. This enables the device to harvest radio frequency (RF) energy from wireless and broadcast networks including 3G, 4G and WiFi. In theory this means that the device can operate continually without needing to have its batteries recharged because it can draw energy directly from its environment. In this way the CleanSpace tag provides a perfect test bed for Drayson’s method of powering Low Energy IoT devices.

The project kicked off with a campaign on Crowdfunder last autumn which raised £103,136 in 28 days. The campaign was initiated shortly after the announcement of results from a study at Kings College which found that nearly 9,500 deaths per year could be attributed to air pollution. Two pollutants in particular were found to be responsible: fine PM2.5 particles in the air from vehicle exhaust along with toxic Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) gas released through the combustion of diesel fuel on city streets. While the CleanSpace tag does not measure PM2.5 or NO directly it is believed that recorded levels of CO can provide a suitable surrogate for other forms of air pollution given their shared source in car fuel emissions.

While the UK government are under pressure to clean up air pollution from the top-down, Lord Drayson who leads the CleanSpace project argues that there is also need for a complementary response from the bottom up:

“I think the effect of air pollution is still relatively underappreciated and there is work to do in raising awareness of the impact it has.”

“Yes, the government has a role to play, but this isn’t solely a government issue to tackle. The best way to achieve change, and for legislation and regulation to work, is for it to grow from and reflect the beliefs and behaviours of the general public as a whole.”

I’m looking forward to seeing what the device reveals about my own exposure to air pollution on my daily commute. It’ll also be interesting to see how my contribution fits in with the broader map being built up by the CleanSpace user community. After collecting some data I’m keen to compare the apps output with the data collected by the London Air Quality Network based at King’s College.

I’m a card carrying walker. At the same time I’m struck by the paradox that every CleanMile walked or cycled is essentially a dirty mile for the user. I can see the device and app appealing massively to those who already walk and cycle, and want to contribute to raising awareness on the issue of air pollution. However, with the sensor retailing at £49.99 the CleanMile rewards will have to be sufficiently compelling to encourage a wider base of new users participate, especially if the project is expected to have a genuine impact on the way they commute. Of course, it has to start somewhere! It’s an exciting challenge so I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes.

Microsoft HoloLens: Hands On!

It’s taken a while but I finally had my first hands on look at Microsoft HoloLens last night. The demonstration was given as part of the London Unity Usergroup (LUUG) meetup a talk by Jerome Maurey-Delaunay of Neutral Digital about their initial experiences of building demos for the device with Unity. Neutral are a design and software consultancy who have a portfolio of projects including work with cultural institutions such as the Tate and V&A, engineering and aviation firms like Airbus, and architectural firms such as Zaha Hadid architects who they are currently assisting to develop Virtual Reality visualisation workflows.

During the break following the presentation I had may first chance to try the device out for myself.  One of the great features of HoloLens is that it incorporates video capture straight out of the box. Although clips weren’t taken on the night these videos from the Neutral Digital twitter stream provide a good indication of my experience when I tested it:

After using VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive the first thing you notice about the HoloLens is how unencumbered you feel. Where VR headsets enclose the user’s face to block out ambient light and heighten immersion in a virtual environment, the HoloLens is open affording the user unhindered awareness of their surrounding [augmented] environment over which the virtual objects or ‘holograms’ are projected. The second thing you notice is that the HoloLens runs without a tether. Once applications have been transferred to the device it can be unplugged leaving the user free to move about without worrying about tripping up or garroting themselves.

Being able to see my surroundings also meant that I could easily talk face to face with Jerome and see the gestures he wanted me to perform in order operate the device and manipulate the virtual objects it projected. Tapping forefinger and thumb visualised the otherwise invisible virtual mesh that the HoloLens draws as a reference to anchor holograms to the users environment. A projected aircraft could then be walked around and visualised from any angle. Alternatively holding forefinger and thumb while moving my hand would rotate the object in that direction instead.

Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of these demos. The ability of HoloLens to project animated and interactive Holograms that feel anchored to the user’s environment is impressive. I found the headset comfortable and appreciated being able to see my surroundings and interact easily with the people around me. At the same time I wouldn’t say that I felt immersed in the experience in the sense discussed with reference to virtual reality. The ability to interact through natural gestures helped involve my attention in the virtual objects I was seeing, but the actual field of view available for projection is not as wide as the video captures from the device might suggest.

As it stands I wouldn’t mistake Microsoft’s holograms for ‘real’ objects, but then I’m not convinced that this is what we should be aiming for with AR. While one of the prime virtues of virtual reality technologies like Oculus and Vive is their ability to provide a sense of ‘being there’, I see the strength of augmented reality technologies elsewhere in their potential for visualising complex information at the point of engagement, decision or action.

Kind thanks to Neutral Digital for sharing their videos via Twitter. Thanks also to the London Unity Usergroup meetup for arranging the talks and demo.