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October 20 2011

Jason Huggins' Angry Birds-playing Selenium robot

I've used Selenium on several Java projects, so I was just assuming that the topic of Selenium would be germane to JavaOne. I sent the co-creator of Selenium, Jason Huggins (@hugs), a quick email to see if he was interested in talking to us on camera about Selenium and Java, and he responded with a quick warning: He wasn't into Java. "Python and JavaScript (and to a lesser extent, CoffeeScript and Hypertalk) are my true passions when it comes to programming," he wrote. I thought this was fair enough — very few people could call Java "a passion" at this point — and I could do my best to steer the conversation toward Java. Selenium can be scripted in whatever language, and I was convinced that we needed to include some content about testing in our interviews.

He also was wondering if he could talk about something entirely different: "a Selenium-powered, 'Angry Birds'-playing mobile-phone-testing robot." While I had initially been worried I'd have to sit for several hours of interviews about Component Dependency Ennui 4.2, here was an interesting guy that wanted to not only demonstrate his "Angry Birds"-playing robot but also relate it to his testing-focused startup Saucelabs. I welcomed the opportunity, and here's the result:

From what I could gather, Huggins' bot is driving two servo motors that control a retractable "dowel" finger covered in some sort of skin-like material that can fool the capacitive touch sensor of a mobile device. He sends keystroke commands through this Arduino-based controller, which then sends signals to two servo motors. The frame of the device is made of what looks like balsa wood. He's calling it a "BitBeamBot." You can find out all about it here and you can see it in action in the following video:

Relating BitBeamBot to Saucelabs and Selenium

In the course of the interview it became clear that BitBeamBot was the product of an off-time project. Here's how Huggins explained it: Imagine a wall of these retractable dowels, each representing a single pixel. if you could create a system to control these dowels, then you could draw pictures with a controller.

While working on this project, Huggins attended a Maker Faire and found some suitable technology. His creation of a single-arm controller then led to his big "eureka" moment: This same technology could create a robot that can play "Angry Birds," and if a contraption can play "Angry Birds," it's a simple leap to create a system that can test any mobile application in the real world.

Huggins went through a similar discovery process with Selenium. Selenium is a contraption that supports and contains a browser. You feed a series of instructions and criteria to a browser and then you measure the output.

With BitBeamBot, Huggins has taken the central software idea that he developed at Thoughtworks and applied it to the physical world. He envisions a service from Saucelabs, the company he co-founded, where customers would pay to have mobile applications tested in farms of these mobile testing robots.

Saucelabs

Saucelabs is focused on the idea that testing infrastructure is often more expensive to set up and maintain than most companies realize. The burden of maintaining an infrastructure of browsers and machines can often exceed the effort required to support a production network.

With Saucelabs you can move your testing infrastructure to the cloud. The company offers a service that executes testing scripts on cloud-based hardware. For a few dollars you can run a suite of unit tests against an application without having to worry about physical hardware and ongoing maintenance. Saucelabs is trying to do for testing what Amazon EC2 and other services have done for hosting.

Toward the end of the interview (contained in the first video, above) we also discussed some interesting recent developments at Saucelabs, including a new system that uses SSH port forwarding to allow Saucelabs' testing infrastructure to test internal applications behind a corporate firewall.

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August 25 2011

Strata Week: Green pigs and data

Here are a few of the data stories that caught my attention this week:

Predicting Angry Birds

Angry BirdsAngry Birds maker Rovio will begin using predictive analytics technology from the Seattle-based company Medio to help improve game play for its popular pig-smashing game.

According to the press release announcing the partnership, Angry Birds has been downloaded more 300 million times and is on course to reach 1 billion downloads. But it isn't merely downloaded a lot; it's played a lot, too. The game, which sees up to 1.4 billion minutes of game play per week, generates an incredible amount of data: user demographics, location, and device information are just a few of the data points.

Users' data has always been important in gaming, as game developers must refine their games to maximize the amount of time players spend as well as track their willingness to spend money on extras or to click on related ads. As casual gaming becomes a bigger and more competitive industry, game makers like Rovio will rely on analytics to keep their customers engaged.

As GigaOm's Derrick Harris notes, quoting Zynga's recent S-1 filing, this is already a crucial part of that gaming giant's business:

The extensive engagement of our players provides over 15 terabytes of game data per day that we use to enhance our games by designing, testing and releasing new features on an ongoing basis. We believe that combining data analytics with creative game design enables us to create a superior player experience.

By enlisting the help of Medio for predictive analytics, it's clear that Rovio is taking that same tactic to improve the Angry Bird experience.

Unstructured data and HP's next chapter

HP made a number of big announcements last week as it revealed plans for an overhaul. These plans include ending production of its tablet and smartphones, putting the development of WebOS on hold, and spending some $10 billion to acquire the British enterprise software company Autonomy.

AutonomyThe New York Times described the shift in HP as a move to "refocus the company on business products and services," and the acquisition of Autonomy could help drive that via its big data analytics. HP's president and CEO Léo Apotheker said in a statement: "Autonomy presents an opportunity to accelerate our strategic vision to decisively and profitably lead a large and growing space ... Together with Autonomy, we plan to reinvent how both unstructured and structured data is processed, analyzed, optimized, automated and protected."

As MIT Technology Review's Tom Simonite puts it, HP wants Autonomy for its "math skills" and the acquisition will position HP to take advantage of the big data trend.

Founded in 1996, Autonomy has a lengthy history of analyzing data, with an emphasis on unstructured data. Citing an earlier Technology Review interview, Simonite quotes Autonomy founder Mike Lynch's estimate that about 85% of the information inside a business is unstructured. "[W]e are human beings, and unstructured information is at the core of everything we do," Lynch said. "Most business is done using this kind of human-friendly information."

Simonite argues that by acquiring Autonomy, HP could "take a much more dominant position in the growing market for what Autonomy's Lynch dubs 'meaning-based computing.'"

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Using data to uncover stories for the Daily Dot

After several months of invitation-only testing, the web got its own official daily newspaper this week with the launch of The Daily Dot. CEO Nick White and founding editor Owen Thomas said the publication will focus on the news from various online communities and social networks.

GigaOm's Mathew Ingram gave The Daily Dot a mixed review, calling its focus on web communities "an interesting idea," but he questioned if the "home town newspaper" metaphor really makes sense. The number of kitten stories on the Daily Dot's front page aside, ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick sees The Daily Dot as part of the larger trend toward data journalism, and he highlighted some of the technology that the publication is using to uncover the Web world's news, including Hadoop and assistance from Ravel Data.

"It's one thing to crawl, it's another to understand the community," Daily Dot CEO White told Kirkpatrick. "What we really offer is thinking about how the community ticks. The gestures and modalities on Reddit are very different from Youtube; it's sociological, not just math."

Got data news?

Feel free to email me.



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