Tuesday, 28 October 2008

On stage at Microsoft PDC

I'm on stage at Microsoft PDC2008 - live (and archived) video at http://www.microsoftpdc.com from 8:30am Pacific / 3:30pm London. I'm on at approx 9:45am.

Pictures from behind the scenes at Microsoft PDC 2008

Whilst rehearsing for my presentation during the Ray Ozzie/Scott Guthrie keynote presentation at Microsoft PDC 2008, I took some photos of what was happening behind the scenes.

If you are at PDC 2008, don't miss it - I'm on at approx. 9.45am LA time (4.45pm London).


Monday, 27 October 2008

New announcements at Microsoft PDC

Just arrived at Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles, and listened to the announcement of Microsoft Azure, 'windows in the cloud' - a set of all the server services that you can have on the Windows Server platform (.Net, web services, SQL etc) but running on Microsoft's own global infrastructure.

I'm giving a presentation as part of Scott Guthrie's keynote speech tomorrow, alongside Paul Dawon of Conchango as we demo a new prorotype best-of-breed grocery shopping experience for Tesco customers built in Microsft's Silverlight/WPF technology.

Bizarrely the Microsoft Wifi network here at PDC refuses to give me DHCP network settings when in Vista (bootcamp) but all works great in OS X!

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Tesco.com installes Cisco Telepresence

As you may be aware, Tesco operates an IT development facility in Hindustan, Bangalore, India as well as in Welwyn Garden City, England.

In order to improve our ways of working and frankly make our Indian colleagues feel part of the team, the Tesco.com HQ building (and several other Tesco sites worldwide) have had installed an outstanding piece of technology called Cisco Telepresence.

Telepresence is a form of video conferencing designed to make you forget (after a few minutes) that you are in fact watching someone on TV! Indeed, the design of the system makes you feel that the the room you are in is twice the size it really is - even the table is half an oval which completes its circular loop on the 'other side'.

The technology achieves this using high definition video pictures across three screens, and high quality audio set up to make sure that each person speaking is coming from the right place in the room, spatially.

The system requires a 15Mbps digital private link, the latest video and audio compression technologies, and an intelligent design of room without too many moving parts (so no windows where moving trees might eat into the bandwidth).

The result: you soon feel that your colleagues are really in the room. If you are sceptical then so was I but believe me you soon lose the 'watching TV' effect within a minute of starting a meeting, and the sound of voices is so realistic (not too much bass or treble) that each person sounds likes they are in the room with you.

Thanks to my two colleagues who didn't mind me barging in and snapping them mid-meeting yesterday!

Friday, 10 October 2008

Lille VAD Expo yields European innovation

I've just come back from an excellent three day visit to the VAD Expo in Lille, France.

VAD's purpose is to act as "The international e-business, direct marketing and distance selling rendez-vous", and I was happy to speak at the conference on what I expect from innovation and how we do well when we think relentlessly of the customer and what they are looking for.

What impressed me were the small and medium sized companies who have listened to customers and then delivered what they were asking for. Many have applied new technologies and new thinking to old business problems and turned lack of progress (and debt in some cases) into thriving businesses.

One company I met have solved a general problem on the web whereby clothes are returned in great quantities by customers who do not receive the size that they expect. This was mainly found to be because manufacturers' ideas of known clothing size numbers (as well as S, M, L, etc) all differ.

This company sends out small cheap swatches to show the materials, and get the customer to measure themslves following instructions from an on-screen web wizard. Clothes are then made to this specification on a one-by-one basis and are sent to customers and far lower returns than the average are achieved. Thanks to technology advances available to small clothes manufacturers, all this can be achieved quickly and at low cost.

Given the direction of the economy at the moment, its ideas and innovation like this that will keep companies trading and hard-pressed customers happy.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Silverlight and WPF makes easy and engaging applications

A couple of weeks ago I was down in Brighton at Microsoft's ReMix'08 conference. The purpose of the conference was to engage designers and developers in a 'conversation' about how to deliver the next generation of compelling computer applications, whether installed or online.

Of course the 'big thing' featured at the conference was Windows Presentation Framework (WPF) and its online sibling Silverlight. To deliver such applications requires an extension to Microsoft's Visual Studio suite - so along comes Expression Studio with it's excellent Expression Blend integrated programming environment.

I must say I got to grips with Expression Blend quickly, and loved its ability to enable to me to engage with on-screen objects in 3D, and use Storyboards to animate them in an event driven manner!

The first milestone for getting to grips with Expression and WPF was to improve the look of the application I created that runs 24/7 on the 42 large media information screens around Tesco.com's HQ building in Welwyn Garden City.

The first application which I wrote in May this year used basic Windows forms objects to display basic information plus PowerPoint slides (saved as JPEGs). Teams around the building quickly engaged with the concept of sending up slides to the screens so everyone knew what they doing (whether work or some team do), and there is always some great content up there.

The application also monitors a Twitter account where people can send text messages straight to the screens - something which works really easily and is very popular.

Post reMix I decided that this would be the application I would re-write. It also meant that I could get through the wish-list of extra features people wanted - including news headlines, weather, and displaying the time both for UK and India. It also show the current Tesco share price and our 'Tesco week number' (where week 1 is the first week of our financial year). The application also includes 'anti burn-in' features that move objects around the screen to a different location every hour, and changes the background colours - that way every pixel on every screen gets the full exercise of all colours and all brightnesses!

It took just about 20 man hours to re-write and it too runs happily 24 hours a day across all the screens. It was designed in Expression Blend, then programmed in Visual Studio 2008 Professional edition using C#. It runs on a Windows XP box in the server room, and distributed as a radio signal (within the cables) with HD distribution amplifiers over our CAT5e cabling before being fed into the PC in socket on each screen.

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Tesco Wine Festival features Microsoft Surface

Thanks to some excellent negotiation - and design - skills from my colleague Mark Wilkinson who managed to secure a Microsoft Surface table for a couple of weeks, he's showing off a great application that engages people to try out different wines.

Microsoft Surface is a 90kg 'table computer' running Windows Vista Business edition with an up-projected screen and a series of cameras that watch for the presence of hands and other objects placed on the table. Once detected the software can react to it according to application design.

Mark has designed an application that allows him to place wine bottles on the surface with a form of barcode underneath. Microsoft Surface reads the barcode using the cameras under the screen and works out which wine has been placed on the table. The base of the bottle is then surrounded by a circle of tags which he can flip out to reveal various types of information about the bottle (country, grape, style. etc). Mark can then pull out a tag and expand it into an information box. In true Microsoft Surface style, the info box can be resized and rotated using a couple of fingers, and generally pushed around the table top and bounced off the sides!

Mark also places wine glass coasters on the table - again with a unique barcode underneath - and surface surrounds the coaster with buttons to press and - very impressive - a 'rotation of stars' to indicate what the user thought of that wine.

Usefully, the feedback is then built up in a database to uncover the most popular wines - an important objective of the Tesco Wine Festival in the first place.

This Tesco/Microsoft Surface application is very engaging, quickly taking the users beyond the 'wow factor' of the technology and engaging them with a fantastic wine tasting experience.

So congratulations to Mark and the rest of the Tesco & Microsoft teams who have helped him create an experience that is both useful and engaging.

Saturday, 4 October 2008


Hello and welcome to my new 'Technology For Tesco.com' web log.

So, if you haven't guessed yet, my name is Nick Lansley and I work for Tesco. Specifically I manage R&D projects for Tesco.com which is a hugely rewarding experience and allows me to personally connect with customers who use our service.

Just to fill in some blanks for those of you have never heard of Tesco, the company is one of the world's leading retailers, with a core business of selling groceries through the UK and in a dozen other countries.

Tesco also runs Tesco.com (where I work), an online retail services division which again delivers groceries as part of its core business. It also runs a major 'non-food' service through a catalogue (Tesco Direct), as well as Tesco Personal Finance (all kinds of financial products from credit cards, bank accounts to insurance service) and Tesco Telecoms (Tesco Broadband and Tesco Mobile).

You can find out more about Tesco at http://www.tescocorporate.com which is a great place to start if you wish to understand the context of where I work.


So now I can get on with my blog. It's purpose is for me to let you know about the Technology Research projects I am working on, the people I am meeting to get these projects up and running, and how & why I have chosen them.

My philosophy for research and development is:
  • Translate observations in industry, business, and the home into specific ideas for analysis.
  • Develop and create value to the company and customers through design excellence.
  • Ensure Tesco.com's competitiveness is protected through continuous improvement and breakthrough innovations.
  • Concentrate on those projects which makes the Tesco.com experience better for customers, simpler for staff and/or cheaper for Tesco (preferably all three!).
  • API: Analyse, Prototype, Improve!

Researching projects and delivering the right results is the journey I will take in this blog. My aim is to write 'little and often' and so you can watch progress.

From time to time I may ask you if you would like to try out something that I have set up on an R&D server and see what you think.

You are welcome to comment as I blog. All I ask is that you keep it relevant to the topic and not use it as an excuse to sound-off about Tesco in general or lament about the price of baked beans or other specific!