For those of us old enough to remember MiniDisc players, Qblinks will sound awfully familiar. Like the inline MiniDisc remotes of yore, QBlinks attempts to solve the phone-in-pocket-or-purse problem by giving you a way to interact with your phone from a distance. But unlike the many other digital rings, watches, or home accessories, QBlinks has a powerful secret.
First, the basics: This thing is a one-button remote that can wirelessly control your phone’s music, camera, or Siri. It also uses LED lights to give you feedback about incoming messages. Randomly, it also tells temperature.
But buried in the guts of Qblinks is the ability to automate communication in a way that phones and computers presently can’t do. Your iPhone talks to the Qblinks remote, which talks to the Qblinks cloud, which can then talk to social media accounts or other cloud-based services. If this sounds abstract, think of IFTTT or Zapier. The Qblinks Kickstarter page, which has 38 days to go and hasn’t yet met its goal, explains the functionality like this:
Each formula is an event-action combination. An event is a condition from a channel which you select. For example, you can set Gmail as a channel, and when Gmail receives an email, this is an event. An action is whatever designated activity you set to happen when the event is triggered. For example, when the email event happens, you can set the flashing blue notification on your Qblinks.
Of course, that means that to get the full power of the device, you’ll need to spend some time thinking of (and setting up, and testing) various notification and action formulae. We’re guessing that will limit the audience of the device to tinkerers and other miscellaneous nerds, but that’s how IFTTT started out too–and it’s achieved something like mainstream success despite the setup overhead.
Qblinks uses Bluetooth Low Energy (aka Bluetooth Smart) to communicate with its connected smartphone. This allows Qblinks to communicate in efficient intervals, allowing it to work off of two watch batteries for several months to a year under normal circumstances, obviating the need for yet another recharging cord. There are some compromises: BLE has a short 40m range that is hindered by metal and other dense components in walls, but 120 feet should be plenty for most people.
Why is it iOS only? Constantly communicating signal formats like Wi-Fi would probably have drained Qblinks’ tiny batteries in a single day, Samson Chen, Qblinks’s CEO, estimates, and an Android-compatible device would have forced them to use Wi-Fi connectivity. Some Android devices support protocols like Z-Wave and ZigBee, but the iPhone 5 (in iOS 5 and above) natively supports BLE, which is a far better option. Only Android 4.3 and later support BLE, or about 20% of the Android phones in the wild today. (The team plans to release an Android-compatible device in about six months.)
“It’s not a technical problem, and it’s not even a release problem–we’re just waiting on the customer to understand that not every Android phone supports it,” says Chen.
The Qblinks team is releasing their API for cloud-to-cloud interaction so interested teams won’t even have to touch their app–they can just have their cloud talk to Qblinks’ cloud, and then Qblinks can fire a notification to your phone. That way, they can keep updating their “cloud back-end” without needing app or device updates for new partners.
On the other end of the API spectrum, Qblinks wants to release an API for the Bluetooth GATE protocol. This will allow third parties to use their devices to talk to smartphones through Qblinks, eliminating the laborious need to build apps themselves. They could also talk to the Qblinks device directly, which has a temperature sensor built in with pins on Qblinks’ small PCB board for enterprising hobbyists to attach new sensors.
While Qblinks is interested in releasing these devices open source, the compiler they used costs a hefty $3,000–a license outside most hobbyist programmers’ budgets. Burning in a hobbyist’s custom firmware is cheaper, likely costing about $49 according to Chen–but then why not just pocket a standard Qblinks for $35?