Future Tech 2024: An Interview with Daniel Friedman (Ninja Blocks)
In this Future Tech interview, we’re speaking with Daniel Friedman, the CEO of Ninja Blocks, a company which provides a platform that securely turns the physical world into software.
Shara Evans (SE): Today, it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Daniel Friedman, the CEO of Ninja Blocks, one of the innovative companies in the human interface and home-automation space.
Dan, welcome to the Future Tech interview series!
Daniel Friedman (DF): Thank you very much, Shara.
SE: I’d like you to start by perhaps telling us a bit about Ninja Blocks, what they do, and why you got into the space in the first place.
Ninja Blocks – A Kickstarter Success
DF: Sure. Ninja Blocks was founded in 2012 with a Kickstarter campaign. It was very much a product that was targeted towards hackers, tinkerers and makers. Our cases were 3D printed, all the code was open sourced, and all of the hardware designs were open sourced. The goal was to allow people to connect and interact with devices via the Internet in a much easier way.
DF: Well, anything from temperature sensors, light sensors, being able to turn things on and off with relays, anything involving interaction with your environment really. We hooked up a coffee machine to a Ninja Block and were able to control it quite quickly and easily.
SE: So this was just a normal coffee machine?
DF: Yes, that we sort of hacked into with some wires to control the buttons on an $80 espresso-type machine.
We raised $103,000 dollars in March of 2012. We delivered Ninja Blocks to our backers and our Kickstarters and started working with our community of developers and makers to see what they were trying to build. Ultimately, the goal was to make things a bit easier to interact with and provide an “if this, then that” type automation for these devices. If somebody pushes the doorbell, take a picture with a webcam and send it to my Dropbox, for example.
SE: Interesting — the quintessential programming construct, but applied to interacting with the home environment.
I’d like to ask a question about your personal background Daniel — had you been involved in home automation before Ninja Blocks, or in controlling gadgets?
DF: Not home automation but definitely in technology — I actually have a finance background, but spent a bit of time in engineering-based extracurriculars throughout university. I ran the UNSW solar car team for a couple of years, and actually built for them a system for getting the telemetry data of the solar car during the race out into people’s web browsers.
SE: Is that what got you interested in this whole home-automation space, or were you trying to solve a problem that you were having at home?
Using Software to Control Your Environment
DF: I think it’s definitely a bit of both. I really was intrigued by the idea of using software to control your environment. I wouldn’t say specifically home automation got me fired up, but definitely around being able to interact with the environment using software, I think, was something that’s quite intriguing to me.
SE: That is really a fascinating area and one that I personally see growing in scope and in utility over the next coming years. Let’s just start with the kinds of devices that Ninja Blocks was initially able to control, and how they might be useful in a home environment. Then we can talk about the evolution of the company and the products.
DF: We initially shipped with temperature and humidity sensors, wireless motion sensors, door contact switches, and also power sockets that people were able to plug in lamps, for example.
What we saw people using quite a lot was the ability to automate some of their lighting. In dark hallways or in their garages, for example, on motion they could turn on the light and leave it for a certain period of time and then turn it off again.
We’ve seen all manner of interesting devices being connected, too: people controlling air conditioners, controlling their audio entertainment centres. I think one of the most interesting things I’ve seen on Ninja Blocks was somebody who had retrofitted an old thermostat using Lego and little models to be able to step and push the up button when you wanted to turn the air conditioner up, for example, with sort of an interesting retrofit of an old “dumb” device.
SE: So your customers are early adopters who are using Ninja Blocks to let them tinker with other things in their environment — is that basically how it would work?
DF: Exactly. People have been using us as a simple way to control and measure things via the Internet. We’ve had people use it for their brewing, for example, to help automate those processes, to control some of their irrigation systems, for example. People had a lot of fun retrofitting or interfacing with other products that they may have already had but they wanted to make it a bit smarter.
Arduino — An Open Source Hardware Platform
SE: How does this fit in with the open-source hardware, the Arduino platform? Is there a tie in there?
DF: We have an Arduino in the Ninja Block itself. What we’ve provided is a way for people to be able to program the Arduino themselves, or just use the standard Ninja Blocks rules app and just plug devices into the Ninja Block and have it just show up as a device. We also released a daughterboard for the Raspberry Pi that had an Arduino on it as well. That allowed people to take their existing Raspberry Pi and turn it into a Ninja Block.
SE: Okay, you need to explain two things for us: First, what’s a Raspberry Pi?
DF: A Raspberry Pi is a really small, cheap computer, about $25 to $30 that has had a lot of success. It’s a full Linux computer that is targeted towards the education sector trying to get children in schools to learn how to program and do mathematics.
SE: Second, what is the Arduino shield? I’m familiar with the Arduino open-source platform, but I’m not familiar with the shield itself.
DF: The shield is essentially a daughterboard. You might want to plug in a daughterboard or shield into an Arduino that has, for example a little display so you can put text up. It might have little motor so you can turn the motor, for example, from your Arduino. It’s just adding more functionality on to your Arduino by these daughterboards. We’re able to connect any of those up to the Internet through the Arduino really simply with this one particular product.
SE: That’s interesting.
One of the things that we looked at in your lab were lights that were able to sense where people were in a house or in a room, and then come on. In the demo that you took me through a little bit earlier, you showed how having a Fitbit wearable device on was able to signal through your gateway to basically tell the light to turn on. You were using Phillips Hue Bulbs in the light, and you have this little device that plugs in around a room called a Waypoint. Is that correct? How does that all work?
DF: This is some of the intelligence or the functionality we’re building for our latest product, the Ninja Sphere. Everything I just described is our original Ninja Blocks and the Raspberry Pi product. What we’re focusing on in the future is really building out an actual smart, or intelligent home that knows context of who’s around and what they’re doing.
Designing An Intelligent Home
In the light’s example, the system knew which room the individual was in by just being able to sense the radio signals coming off of the Fitbit. It also knew that because of whatever reason — it may have been late at night, or there’s no one else around, or he might be on his way home — that the lights need to be on.
That intelligence layer is really what we’re trying to build in the Ninja Sphere, that coordinator that’s keeping tabs on everything that’s going on and trying to keep an idea of whether something should be happening or not: “Should the lights be on during the middle of the day? Probably not. Maybe I should ask: ‘Hey, Sam, do you want to turn the lights off? It looks like you’ve left them on. Go turn them off.’”
SE: In the demo, you had mentioned that the detection is done using Bluetooth Low Energy as the protocol. You had also indicated that you saw this as a common protocol for a lot of wearable devices and devices in the home- automation space. Can you comment a bit about the kinds of devices you’re seeing that work with Bluetooth Low Energy?
Bluetooth Low Energy
DF: Yes. Well, it’s an interesting thing. Bluetooth Low Energy is not the first low-energy wireless protocol. There’s quite a few of these that had been around for quite some time. What is different is that Apple, from the iPhone 4S onwards, built this Bluetooth Low Energy radio into iPhones and has been really working quite hard with their software developer kits and with developers to build out a really great software stack.
This has motivated manufacturers of devices to consider it as a wireless protocol because the device they’re building can interact directly with the phone and doesn’t need some other device to translate it, which is the key differentiator, I think.
We’re seeing light bulbs, such as Samsung’s newly released range of smart LED light bulbs, use Bluetooth Low Energy to communicate. We’re seeing plant sensors, moisture sensors, and almost all wearables use Bluetooth Low Energy. Another example is the Pebble Smartwatch.
DF: Fitbit and Jawbone UP now are all BLE. Also these little tags that we’re seeing enter as well, which are little circular discs that you can attach to your keys or maybe on your pet’s collar, your television or a jewellery box. Using this we can accurately locate that things within your home.
SE: We’re really talking about location awareness but inside a home or a building as opposed to GPS-type location awareness.
DF: Exactly. It’s far more ingrained, far more control-base, and far more accurate inside the home because GPS obviously doesn’t work inside your house very well at all, definitely not on a room level. And we’re able to know whose device is what, so “It’s Daniel’s Fitbit, so Daniel’s in the living room.” We’re excited about wearables because it’s something that people keep on a bit longer. Obviously, you can have a tag on your keys so that we know where your keys are.
SE: That can be handy. How many times have you lost or mislaid your keys?
DF: A lot! A small problem is that nobody really carries their keys around inside their homes. It goes into the living room bowl or wherever it may be, and that’s where they sit until you leave. The wearables are exciting because people do keep them on to keep track of their activity and their sleeping patterns, and that allows us to do interesting things about knowing, “Well, Dan’s in the living room. The wife and kids are elsewhere. The dog hasn’t been seen in the last two, three hours. I should let Dan know — “Hey, where’s Scruffy? I haven’t seen him.’”
SE: Just going a little bit further out into the future, do you see that this would be the same protocol that might be used with implantable devices or ingestible devices? There are some pretty cool things happening in that space like the Proteus pill.
DF: It’s very interesting. I’ve been told about some interesting things. I’m not sure if Bluetooth Low Energy itself would be that protocol in the long term, but it would be definitely something that would be considered, especially because, again, you don’t need a third-party gateway to interact with any of these devices.
Using a Smartphone to Control Your Home is a Terrible Experience
The problem we’ve seen in the home automation — and a big part of the motivation for Sphere and using things like gestures and location, is because using a smartphone as the primary way to control your home and environment is not a great experience. It’s actually quite a terrible experience.
It’s quite fun for the 40, 50 percent of the time when you have your phone and want to change your lights, then you might be willing to put your pin code into your phone, swipe to the app, and then go to the lights. But when you just want to go to bed, you’re running late or you’re just walking around home, you don’t want to have to stop, and pull your phone out to change the lights.
SE: Isn’t that where something like a smartwatch or a Smarty Ring or one of these other little wearable devices, which interfaces with the phone, would allow you to do that?
DF: It could. But, again, you have a similar problem where you’re navigating, you’re pushing multiple buttons and having to think contextually when the alternative is a light switch on the wall.
One of the primary goals of the Sphere is to be able to be as easy or as close to as possible as easy to use as a light switch, because ultimately that’s when people will be able to use these smart devices.
Smart bulbs are a great example. Anecdotally, anybody who has a smart light bulb doesn’t get the full experience it’s capable of because light switches are easy to use. The problem is turning off a light switch cuts the power at the bulb, so you can’t turn it back on again via software. It’s dead. If you wanted to automate it and turn it back on, for example, via software, if you detected motion and wanted to turn the lights on, that’s not possible.
For the Sphere, it’s why we introduced gesture control. The goal was to have something that could be near or around your light switches that you’re able to just swipe and bring your lights down, like that. Not quite just a push of a button, but pretty close compared to using your phone to turn your lights off when you’re running late and need to turn your lights off.
About the author: Shara Evans is internationally acknowledged as a cutting edge technology futurist, commentator, strategy advisor, keynote speaker and thought leader, as well as the Founder and CEO of Market Clarity.
We’ll be publishing Part 2 of the interview with Daniel Friedman on Wednesday 25 June – where we will continue our discussion about the design of intelligent homes, focusing on predictive intelligence, smart TV integration and homes of the future. We’ll also be talking about the security and privacy issues that need to be considered in conjunction with home automation.
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