Ninja Block, the gadget that can rule the home

Science fiction becomes an everyday reality, writes Christopher Niesche.
By · 9 Dec 2013
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9 Dec 2013
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Science fiction becomes an everyday reality, writes Christopher Niesche.

A few years ago the remote-controlled home was the stuff of science fiction, but Sydney start-up Ninja Blocks is helping to make it a reality.

Founded in January last year, Ninja Blocks has already attracted $1 million in funding from the likes of Atlassian founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar and it has ambitions to connect homes around the world to the internet.

With its $200 Ninja Block, the company has made connecting the home to the internet possible for anyone. The boxes come with a set of sensors that can detect temperature and humidity, motion, windows and doors opening and whether the doorbell has been rung, opening up a world of possibilities.

Users can tell Ninja Blocks to perform such tasks as sending a text message to their phone when someone arrives at the front door or turning on a lamp if their baby starts crying.

Chief executive Daniel Friedman says one user set up Ninja Blocks to wake him every morning by opening his blinds, turning on some music and bringing up the lights.

Some people use them as home security systems: once the motion detector is set off, the Ninja Block turns on the lights in the room, takes a photo of what's going on with a webcam and emails the picture to the home owner.

Others have used them to measure the temperature of their home brews - letting them know about important temperature changes in their concoctions.

After its founding, the company raised just over $100,000 on crowdfunding site Kickstarter and shipped about 700 units to backers in March last year. It has now sold about 4000 of the blocks around the world, but particularly to enthusiasts in the US, Britain, Germany and Australia.

"We think that that's absolutely fantastic, given that most of our sales come from word of mouth and organic growth," Mr Friedman says.

While the kit has been designed for easy use, it is primarily aimed at the technically minded and early adopters, with the company using its experience to learn about how the products are used.

It has just launched a more consumer-friendly version, the Ninja Sphere, which can detect Wi-Fi devices in the house and automatically connect them to the internet. Within 48 hours of the product's launch on Kickstarter last week it had sold more than $100,000 worth of the $200 boxes.

The new box will also introduce in-home triangulation - using Wi-Fi to allow the computer to detect where different things are in the house. A Bluetooth tag on a set of keys or a wallet could ensure they never go missing or the home owner could put a tag on their cat's collar so the system can detect where they are and make sure they don't set off the motion-activated home security system.

The company was founded by Marcus Schappi, who hit the news a couple of years ago when he hacked the iPhone 4S voice recognition app Siri in one of his first attempts to connect his home to the internet.

Mr Schappi and his co-founders - wife Madeleine and Mark Wotton - saw a need for people to connect their homes more easily and initially targeted only the technically minded before realising there was a much bigger market.

Research by Cisco shows more than 50 billion devices - such as televisions, light bulbs, airconditioners, washing machines, tablets and smartphones - will be connected to the internet by 2020.

"We're just trying to have a crack and figure out exactly what that looks like and to be a part of that ecosystem," Mr Friedman says.

Mr Schappi stepped down as chief executive this year, but remains an adviser to the company.

The company's ultimate aim is to build and become the generic software platform for connecting devices to the internet.

Ninja Blocks has 15 to 20 competitors around the world and Mr Friedman expects them to eventually coalesce into two or three main groups. He expects Ninja Blocks to be there at the end because it has an advantage over many of its competitors: it runs on open source software, which means users can connect it to any device rather than just those of a specific company.
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