How the 'internet of things' can spark an open source community

Ninja Blocks puts a power into the hands of developers and users that has never been realized before, and which could be the genesis of an open source community of makers.

Ninja Blocks just put its June manufacturing run on sale after selling out its last five months of production. The Ninja Block is open source hardware and software for connecting the analog world of sensors and actuators with web services. It’s is an off-the-shelf way for people with many different skill sets to gain experience building the "internet-of-things."

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The Ninja Block lets inventors and hobbyist imagine and build low-cost systems that would otherwise require custom hardware and software. For instance, it can be used to connect a wireless doorbell and camera so when the bell is rung, the camera takes a picture of the person at the door and Ninja Block emails it to the user inside. Or, when a door contact sensor indicates a door has been opened and a motion detector indicates a person is present, a video camera begins recording, sending the video to a smartphone via Dropbox.

Ninja Block users don’t need to program to build systems like this because the company has built a cloud-based engine for creating these apps, through simple “if this than that” statements. Supported devices with drivers, such as the camera and door bell, are automatically recognized by the Ninja Block and presented on the dashboard. Prototype apps can be built with just a few rules.

There are about a hundred actuators, sensors, USB and IP cameras on the Ninja Blocks website. Examples are actuators that can turn an appliance on, off and sense if it is running, or wireless water sensors that can sense water leaks. The Ninja Block costs $199 and the various associated devices range from $2.50 to about $150.

Ninja Blocks is trying to do something bigger than providing hobby kits to build systems and apps. The Ninja Block contains a Beaglebone board running Ubuntu Linux and an Arduino controller. All of the company’s hardware and software offerings are open and available on Github.

So the Ninja Block inventor who develops a useful application of sensors, actuators, and perhaps custom electronics, can spin out the invention into a branded product. The hardware and software can be optimized for the specific use case, and since all of the hardware schematics and software are available as open source, the design could be manufactured royalty-free as a separately branded product. If this happens often enough, it could spark a self perpetuating open source community that refreshes and improves hardware and software designs.

Ninja Blocks has an enthusiastic following among tinkerers, inventors, engineers and software developers. It is a derivative or the Raspberry Pie and Arduino phenomena, but besides having great ratings, what is Ninja Blocks’ business strategy? If the Ninja Block design becomes widely adopted and grows virally, the system might employ an open source model proven by companies like Redhat. In this role, as the maintainer of the hardware and software source repository, it could charge subscriptions for tested and verified designs and technical support. But, thinking bigger, if the Ninja Block becomes a standard component of the internet-of-things with many islands of Ninja Block-based systems controlling and sensing, Ninja Blocks could expand its web service, API and rules engine to connect them all on a single network.

It is very early in the evolution of the internet-of-things. It is not just an industry of small companies and tinkerers. Cisco, IBM and Intel all have a stake in this business because they appreciate the potential of this industry. New companies like Ninja Blocks are good proxies for understanding the development of this industry because it is open source and user-driven.

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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