That’s controversial, I know, given the revolution in sensor tech, the programmable world, and the connected everything that’s supposed to be “next big thing.” And home automation is finally, after decades of being an expensive and underperforming folly, hitting the mainstream. But right now most connected devices–like the Belkin WeMo that lets you turn the standing light in your living room on and off using an app on your iPhone–is more proof-of-concept than a useful tool. And the deeper look into the connected devices space, the more problems you find. Battery life is too short. There is no standard communication protocol (and it’s unlikely that Google and Apple will voluntarily agree to one). The software needs to be updated.
Thanks to projects like If This, Then That, you can program some devices to have “smart” powers, like having your lawn sprinkler respond to a tweet or your Philips Hue lights change color depending on the weather. But each of these requires a separate app, a different interface, another piece of clutter in your digital life. There is, in effect, no central intelligence making all this stuff work together–apart from you. And that’s why I’m excited about Ninja Sphere, a Kickstarter project that could quite literally turn your home into a Jetsons-like digital abode.
Ninja Sphere acts as an intelligent “hub” that connects to the separate devices you already own and helps them communicate with your other home automation gadgets without asking you to pull out your phone unless absolutely necessary. It does this in part by knowing where objects like your phone or your pets are located in relation to you. When a sensor notices some activity–the dog’s Internet-connected collar sends an alert, for example–the Ninja Sphere tries to determine what action to take next.
“Home automation has a bit of a bad reputation as it’s either crazy expensive and often quite rigid,” Daniel Friedman, CEO of Ninja Blocks, told Fast Company in an email. “People’s lives are very dynamic, and we realized we had to build something that was adaptive to each individual.”
Take for example a Belkin WeMo Insight Switch, which allows you to remotely control your appliances from anywhere using a smartphone. It’s useful as long as you remember to, say, turn the heater on or off when you are away from home. Add the Ninja Sphere to this equation, however, and it becomes far more functional. The “Spheramid” hub can work out that everyone has left the house and that an electric heater has been left on. It could then ping you via a text message to ask if that’s okay, and then turn off the heater on demand.
Since the sphere can keep tabs on virtually any object that you attached a smart tag to, the possibilities become quite intriguing. Place a Bluetooth-enabled smart tag on your jewelry box, for instance. The Ninja Sphere could then detect that the box of valuables is moving, while also sensing that none of the owners’ smartphones are nearby. It would then alert you to a potential theft in progress (or at least that the five-year-old is playing dress up with mom’s best baubles).
The underlying trick is indoor location sensing, a technology that is quietly being installed in places like the Apple Store because it’s useful to know where its shoppers are located and how they navigate around products. Indoor GPS, as it’s sometimes called, could also help you as a smartphone owner navigate an office building you’ve never visited before.
Friedman noted that his company has centered Ninja Sphere’s powers around location because the team, “realized that until we had accurate presence information about people, pets and things, developers couldn’t build the really amazing interactions we hope for in the future.”
The technological solution they devised uses Bluetooth Low Energy sensors combined with a machine learning algorithm to optimize sensing location by building a digital model of your home so that it can mitigate the effects of, say, a wall affecting Bluetooth signals.
Just to make things more interesting, the interface of each “Spheramid” gateway can be controlled by in-air 3-D gestures, a little like the Xbox Kinect or commanding your PC with a Leap Motion controller. This is important to the experience, says Friedman, because when you have “an intuitive interface using more than just two thumbs, things become a lot more natural.” So natural that he invoked , about advanced technology appearing as magic: “We are definitely trying to build something magical,” he says.
The Ninja Sphere is being made by a small company in Sydney, Australia that had some previous success with Ninja Blocks, a stand-alone connected sensor a bit like the SmartThings system. The Ninja Sphere is the next logical iteration, a hub to connect it all together–and the product long ago surpassed its funding goal on Kickstarter.
There is no lack of home automation projects being backed on Kickstarter, of course. So I asked Friedman to justify backing Ninja Sphere versus its competitors. “I think the number of home automation projects on Kickstarter is validation that it is something people want desperately,” he said. “I think each one fires the imagination of its backers straight into the future that the Jetson’s promised. The tricky bit is getting it right. We’ve learnt a lot over the past two years, and we’re excited to bring this into people’s homes.”
Does Ninja Sphere sound more like The Jetsons or a HAL 9000 controlling your space station? There is no Siri-like voice to the Spheramid right now, but since the project is open source and anyone can build an add-on, that’s really up to you in the end.