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Over The Air: Losing drones and forging bus tickets

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Mobile applications might have gone professional, but London's Over The Air event this weekend proved that nothing is more innovative than an over-caffeinated developer working for glory not money.

Over the Air is an annual gathering where developers are invited to spend 36 hours creating the best mobile application they can, for very little reward, while mingling with some of the brightest minds in the industry and drinking heroic quantities of coffee.

The free event at Imperial College maintained a relaxed weekend feel - but with a firm conviction that great things would be done. Epically pointless things, as it turns out, like creating iPope app with a target audience of one, or a Lego robot that follows a face, or the aforementioned (forged) bus tickets. But great things none the less.

This year was a little more business-orientated, with seminars about how to pitch your business to VCs and get the best deal on embedded advertising. On Saturday Nokia‘s Pawan Gandhi gave a rather uninspired talk on the way that mobile apps (Nokia‘s Life Tools) are improving the lives of millions of people in the developing word. Contrasting nicely with Tim Berners-Lee, who talked with enormous enthusiasm about the semantic web, which has yet to touch most of us.

But all that was peripheral to the main business of creating apps, and on Saturday afternoon almost 30 teams were given 90 seconds each to present their creation...

Top points went to the Lobster - an innovative application that places a picture of an Oyster card on the screen and beeps when you tap it. London commuters might already see the value of such a thing: when one boards a London bus one presents an Oyster card at the machine, which beeps to say the card is acceptable - the driver just listens to the beeps, thus the Lobster can provide the same functionality without incurring the cost.

This is hardly likely to get past Apple‘s stringent requirements for listing, obviously, but that‘s not the point of Over the Air.

The Cleaner is marginally more commercial, and removes all the icons from an Android phone so one can show off the desktop wallpaper properly. The Cleaner got bonus points for having been finished at two in the morning and uploaded to the Android Marketplace. It had been downloaded 400 times before judging began.

Technically more challenging was the iPhone/Lego interface, facilitated by flashing colours on the iPhone screen, enabling the phone to guide a Lego robot towards a face.

Other applications used the #blue API from Telefonica (which provides access to historical SMS information) to automatically translate text and manage to-do lists, among other things.

Most visually impressive was the Parrot AR Drone. This was not really a hack at all, rather a commercial flying drone, controllable from an iPhone as long as the Wi-Fi lasts, which it didn‘t. That left the drone hovering over the audience while the developers tried climbing on chairs and jumping to retrieve it.

Few of the applications shown at Over the Air have any commercial value, but that‘s not the point - the event is supposed to show that amazing things can be done in remarkable time if the knowledge is there and the atmosphere is right. Once again Over the Air proves that, and provides a free bus ride home. ®

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