An inspiring day at Reading University

Yesterday I drove my daughter over to Reading for a university open day. Even though it feels as though she has just started A-levels, it's time to think about what happens after sixth-form. Things kicked off at the university at 09:30, so we left a little before 07:00 to drive the 130 miles or so. Luckily there were not as many traffic problems as when I went to Milton Keynes a few days ago, and we arrived on the campus at about 09:15.

Reading University really is a beautiful campus, especially on a sunny June day and we enjoyed meandering about and finding what's where. What I most enjoyed, though, were the demonstrations in the "School of Systems Engineering". Reading's undergraduate computing program starts with a first year with aspects of Computer Science, Cybernetics, Robotics, Electronics and a general foundation in Engineering. As anyone who reads this blog will probably have spotted, these are all things I love to tinker with.

I'm annoyed with myself that I forgot to take my camera, but I did have a notebook, and I jotted down quite a list of ideas for things to do "for fun" based on some of the student projects we saw. In no particular order we saw robots with various types of balancing behaviour, a "robot wars" arena with tiny robots fighting each other, motor-driven haptic feedback on a drumstick so you can play invisible drums, an automatic solar panel positioning device, a robot arm drawing pictures, a board with a matrix of light sensors and LEDS to detect shadow shapes, computer vision and movement detection, computer games you can play direct from brainwaves, a digital "theremin" using ultrasonic distance sensors, a collection of little autonomous robots communicating with audio tones and so on.

The absolute highlight for me, though was the turing-complete eight-bit processor unit scratch built out of a heap of electromechanical relays, switches, and capacitors. Programs input from a paper tape marked up in high-contrast black and white binary blocks, data input from front panel switches, and a delightful whir as the the tape program seeks, and clickety-clack as all those relays in the ALU and memory registers operate at its mighty 8 Hz. Years ago I built a control unit out of relays for an autonomous lawnmower which appeared on BBC TV's "Tomorrows World", and the sight of this brought memories flooding back. My hat is off to the chap who built this and (mostly) keeps it running.

To get some idea what I mean, here's a somewhat grainy video I found of the device in operation from a couple of years ago:

Awesome!

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