John Nonweiler walks into his office with the goal of making our everyday lives a little easier. That means constantly asking questions and challenging the norm that is our day-to-day existence.
The Research Supervisor in the Optical Imaging and Display Systems Group at Sharp Labs Europe spends his working hours developing smartphone apps and investigating new life-enhancing technologies. Nonweiler is dedicated to helping others. After all, Nonweiler’s motto is simple – “we invent to improve and help the lives of others.”
I would like to work on giving people an even more real experience – trying to get the technology to let you feel as though everyone is in one room together
He is a scientist who embodies the modern culture of innovation – being able to turn his hand to different disciplines from micro-electronics, software development and even measuring brainwave activity. The mathematician has worked on a diverse range of innovations, from home energy solutions, sleep investigations and recently a wide angle 3D photography smartphone Android app. Not finished there, his curious nature has led him to develop his own ideas out of the office – from smartphone apps to finding a sustainable solution to keeping the bed warm…after all it can be the little things in life that make all the difference.
His dream project is to break the boundaries of how we will communicate in the future – it could help stop congestion, mean less traffic in the skies and ultimately improve our environment. It could even mean an end to the daily commute. The aim of Telepresence technology is to give the appearance of being present in a place other than your current location or to feel as if another person is present in the room with you. On a mission for answers Humans Invent visited Sharp Labs to find out more about his current work and dreams for the future.
First and foremost it was to do with the kind of subjects I enjoyed at school. I liked maths and science and it helped that I was good at them. I enjoyed playing around with programming a BBC Micro and things like that from an early age. My Dad was always excited by gadgets and playing about with things, so I guess I was pre-conditioned to use software and electronics. I loved taking things apart, and putting them back together, but this was sometimes a problem – my dad never really forgave me and my brother for breaking the needle on his record player when we were four-years-old!
So how did you end up at Sharp Labs?
Well, I was always looking to go somewhere where I could use maths as I graduated in the subject at Cambridge University. However, immediately after leaving university I wanted a break, so I went and lived in Germany where I sold tickets in a cinema and worked in an Irish pub for a bit. But then I really wanted a career using maths. So I came back and started in another company in Oxford called MathEngine doing work related to computer graphics, physics and simulation. When I left there I found that there were lots of interesting things going on at Sharp.
What did you start working on when you first joined the Labs?
I started off working on the cryptography behind smart cards. Then I worked on some language technology, including speech-to-speech translation from English into Japanese. Then at the personalisation of news (showing individuals news articles which are especially interesting to them, rather than showing everyone the same front page). Next, I moved onto the Health and Energy side of the business. I started to look at managing energy in the home, how it adapts to certain weather conditions, how to manage energy at certain times in the day. We worked on coming up with a heating program for different individuals in accordance with what time of day they were usually home, properties of the building, and what temperatures they found comfortable. I then moved over to the sleep sensor project.
For the sleep project I was staring at graphs of people’s brainwaves when they were sleeping and trying to use machine learning to see what stage of sleep they were in. We wanted to help people get a better night’s sleep, so we had sensors monitoring them when they slept. One problem is that if someone is having sleeping difficulties they have to keep a diary of when they get off to sleep, when they get up and how long they sleep for. But watching the clock disturbs sleep in itself, so if we have a device that can measure everything, we can offer better therapy. We were looking at cognitive behavioral therapy techniques in order to help people get a better night’s sleep. I really enjoyed it because we were trying to improve lives with a product – it’s still in the development stage though.
A big problem the world is facing is environmental change and if you can stop people flying we could make a real difference
I don’t know. The one I would like to work on next is to do with communication and telepresence. Future developments in this area are very exciting. With some systems you can actually feel like you are having a face-to-face meeting, rather than a video conference. Telepresence systems today use life-size images of people, high quality video and sound, fast and reliable networking, and carefully designed rooms, furniture and lighting. I would like to work on giving people an even more real experience – trying to get the technology to let you feel as though everyone is in one room together.
A big problem the world is facing is environmental change and if you can stop people flying by giving them a realistic alternative – which the next level of video conferencing could provide – we could make a real difference. Meeting someone in person, face-to-face, is currently completely different from an email, a telephone call, or even a video call (of the kind most people experience today). I have often achieved considerably more through one day visiting colleagues abroad than I could achieve through months of emails and telephone calls. However, I believe that modern technology can offer a viable alternative, and that we have the technology and expertise at Sharp Labs needed to make a step-change in the level of realism above what the best systems can offer today. In addition, systems will have to be made very reliable, easy to use, and much cheaper than current telepresence solutions, but that can happen, and I believe the world will change, within the next decade.
What has been the most rewarding project working at Sharp Labs?
I have enjoyed everything I have been involved in for different reasons but what I have really loved is trying to help people. Getting a better night’s sleep was something that could benefit a number of people and that is something that really appealed to me. Before that, working on the home energy management project: I was helping to improve our energy efficiency which is a major issue across the world – so I felt as if I was doing something really valuable.
You have been recently been working on a wide angle 3D app which is about to launch. What have you enjoyed about that?
What I really enjoyed about the Wide Angle 3D app development was making the discovery that what we were building is useful to people. After we made an initial prototype of the app we went away to test and use it, and it turns out that it really is much more than just a gimmick. You could appreciate the benefits of the 3D photography which is a difficult one to convince people about because it takes a bit of getting used to. But once you have got used to it, it feels like you have something special. Also, there were occasions, for example when photographing a group of people around a table indoors, where I could get good photos with the wide angle app which would have been impossible otherwise.
In the Labs you are working in an intense environment. Are you someone who lives for your work? Do you have a workshop at home where you play around?
Actually I do. One idea I’ve been developing recently is actually very different from the software development I do at work. It’s solving the common problem of a bed that is too cold when you first climb into it. Now, there are obviously already existing solutions, such as hot water bottles and electric blankets. And I suspect that many people solve the problem by making the room (or even the whole house) warmer, but that’s a terrible idea from an energy management perspective, and it is also not good for your sleep.
It is certainly helpful to be comfortable when you climb into bed, but you don’t want to be too warm 30 minutes later. Hot water bottles just heat a small patch. Electric blankets can be expensive, uncomfortable, and have to be switched on half-an-hour before climbing into bed. The concept I’ve been developing is based around the idea of using hot air to quickly warm the bed. It turns out that I’m not alone in having used an electric fan heater (or hair dryer) to warm my bed. The heat covers almost the whole bed, it only takes a minute, and a fan heater is much cheaper than an electric blanket. However, holding the blankets up with one hand, whilst holding an electric fan heater with the other hand, is actually quite awkward! So, I’ve been working on making this easier – experimenting with tubes and different kinds of tent structures to hold up the blankets.
I have also considered other ideas, such as using air pressure to lift the blankets, pumping water around the bed (probably a bad idea!), or variations on the electric blanket theme. The trouble with hot wires is that it is difficult to heat the bed quickly without burning the sheets. I don’t want to burn anyone’s house down! But with hot air, I’m confident that this can be solved. However, my friends haven’t suggested any good names for a potential product – I don’t think that “The Hot Bed Blower” would attract the right customers!