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Intelligent Machines

A Startup Puts the Internet in Your Couch Cushions

Sensor-filled Ninja Blocks connect the Web with whatever’s nearby.

Whoever has been stealing Mark Wotton’s newspaper should look out: He’s formulating a revenge plan, and it involves ninjas.

Net ninja: Sensor-laden, Web-connected Ninja Blocks can carry out preset actions in response to stimuli. For example, you might tell the block to sound an alarm when your cat jumps on your sofa.

Well, technically, it involves Ninja Blocks—little computerized, sensor-equipped boxes that Wotton helped create. The blocks connect to the Internet to carry out preset actions in response to stimuli. For example, via an online service called Ninja Cloud, Wotton could set a Ninja Block equipped with a motion detector to automatically take photos of the paper thief and upload them to Facebook.

A Ninja Block might also be programmed to turn on a hall light when a child cries in her crib, or sound an alarm when the cat jumps onto the sofa. Wotton built the small devices and corresponding Web service with two cofounders. “Chances are people will have good ideas [for the devices] we’ve never thought of,” says Wotton, the company’s chief technical officer.

Ninja Blocks are among a recent wave of devices aimed at popularizing an idea known as “the Internet of things”—the connection of everyday objects to the Internet. The blocks also fit in with trends to democratize computing, and make it easier for the average person to control technology without actually knowing how to program. There’s recent evidence that both geeks and nontechies would like to mix the Web with everyday things: both Ninja Blocks and a similar project called Twine recently completed successful campaigns on Kickstarter, the crowdsourced fundraising site.

Wotton says the idea for the device came from a desire to make it easier to use Arduino, an open-source electronics board often used by hobbyists. Another inspiration was the Website ifttt (“if this, then that”), which lets users set up online tasks using certain triggers (like sending an e-mail when someone updates his or her Twitter feed). Ninja Blocks emerged as a sensor-laden, Web-connected device that would simply react to specific actions and wouldn’t require any programming knowledge.

The idea for the blocks came together shortly before the group decided to put it up on Kickstarter in early January—a move intended to see if they could raise $24,000 to get their product off the ground. The success of Twine, which raised nearly $557,000 by early January (16 times its $35,000 goal), boosted the Ninja Blocks team’s confidence.

Ninja Blocks did well, too. Within 72 hours, the group hit its goal, and by the time the Kickstarter campaign ended on March 10, it had raised about $103,000. In the process, the San Francisco- and Sydney, Australia-based startup committed to sending out about 450 Ninja Blocks, which it has since been putting together by hand and is now starting to deliver.

A basic Ninja Block includes a Linux board, a customized Arduino, a built-in temperature sensor, an accelerometer, and a multicolor LED that gives notifications (those who didn’t get them through Kickstarter can preorder the devices on Ninja Blocks’ site for about $156, and they’re expected to ship in May). The startup is also offering a block that comes with external light and distance sensors, as well as a physical push-button. These features attach to the box via USB ports. A user could plug a webcam into one of these ports, too. Ninja Blocks will also be able to support more sensors and actuators in the future, Wotton says.

Each block must be plugged into a standard wall outlet for power. It also requires an Ethernet cable to get online (you can add Wi-Fi to the device via a USB port). When the box is connected to the Internet, you can create rules for it to follow through Ninja Blocks’ Ninja Cloud service. If you have several Ninja Blocks, you can set up rules that correspond to each one. Wotton isn’t sure how many rules a single block could adhere to, but he guesses “hundreds or thousands.”

Both the hardware and software for Ninja Blocks are open source, so people can build their own or modify the hardware or software as they please.

But even with its Kickstarter popularity, is there really an eager market for devices like Ninja Blocks?

Eric Wilhelm, founder of the DIY technology community site Instructables.com, thinks so, albeit a limited one. He believes Ninja Blocks will mainly be useful to people who already have an issue they’d like to solve, like getting a text alert when someone leaves a package on the doorstep.

However, Michael R. Nelson, an adjunct professor of Internet studies at Georgetown University, thinks that with its plug-and-play setup and simple sensors, it “really does help realize the hype we’ve heard of the Internet of things.”

Nelson preordered a Ninja Blocks pack that included the block and five sensors, a Wi-Fi dongle, and a webcam for roughly $265. He says he didn’t buy it because he had problems he wanted to solve. “It’s because I can start thinking of problems to solve,” he says.

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