Ninja Blocks: Looking at the Future of Home Automation
Future Tech 2024: An Interview with Daniel Friedman (Ninja Blocks)
In this Future Tech article, we’re continuing our discussion with Daniel Friedman, the CEO of Ninja Blocks, a company which provides a platform that securely turns the physical world into software. (In Part 1 of the interview talked about the origins of Ninja Blocks, and the fundamentals of using software to control a home environment.)
Shara Evans (SE): Aren’t you also heading in direction of predictive intelligence with your “if this, then that”?
Daniel Friedman (DF): That is very much the goal. We’re aiming to use a sophisticated machine, learning statistics and probabilities to be able to decide or know when something is out of order or when something should happen.
For example, we were able to model and see what devices do in your environment throughout the day, and we’re able to see anomalies of: “There’s motion in the living room at 6 AM. We see that occasionally, so maybe that’s fine, but in the middle of the day when everyone’s typically at work, maybe I should alert and let the owner of the home be able to check the webcam, to see if there’s an intruder or not.”
SE: Yes, so why don’t you give me a couple of examples of how this could work today with the prototype Ninja Sphere, the “if this, then that” rules? In the demos, you showed me a couple of interesting things—for instance, a phone call coming in, and what happens to the TV program that you’re watching when the phone rings.
DF: We will still provide an “if this, then that” rules engine and be able to build location into that and allow people to fine-grain control their rules for automation. For example, in the lights example, if it’s late at night, you want to just turn your lights on to maybe 10 percent while you get a glass of water to not blind you.
SE: Right. You would design that as an app; people would set their preferences; and then based on the time of day and where that person is…
DF: You wouldn’t have to touch it again.
SE: …it would just work?
DF: It would just work for you. Maybe your husband or your significant other, they have different preferences, they might not want to do that…
SE: So, they might have a different wearable device, and that would be the trigger for the lights behaving a different way because there is that in-house location and they’ve got their own individual prefs of “I actually want the lights brighter.”
DF: Yes, exactly right. Our intelligence is trying to figure out what to do if the two of them were moving through the house. Then that’s an interesting matter to solve.
SE: Yes. And, when you have a family, you have kids as well.
DF: Exactly. That’s where we have to build a lot of intelligence and we have to make some educated guesses but also observe how the family interacts with their environment to learn.
SE: You’re looking to build a learning engine into Ninja Sphere?
DF: Yes. It’s aiming to learn what you do and what your interactions are over time. Initially to look for anomalies — for example, the lights have been left on or heat has been left on — to try and save you money.
Smart TV Integration
SE: I think you’ve also done some work in terms of integrating it in with smart televisions of various descriptions, where somebody rings a smart doorbell, for example, it might pop up a little picture-in-picture with the webcam display showing you who’s at the door.
DF: Yep, we know if your phone is ringing, so it might pause the television for you and bring your lights up so you’re able to deal with that and have a good phone call or ignore it and go straight back to the movie, bring the lights back down, push play again.
Same thing with your music — for example, we’ve integrated with Sonos and quite a few other media centres and audio playback systems. We’re able to bring your music down a little bit if your phone’s ringing, for example, to a point where it might bring down the music of the room you’re in, the room your phone’s in, and all the rooms in between so you’re able to go and hear your phone. That’s the sort of fine-grained control that we’re able to get because we have this micro location.
SE: Are you doing that today?
DF: Not today, but we expect to release it not long after we ship our Kickstarter.
SE: It’s very near term.
DF: Yes, definitely this year.
SE: That’s really interesting. In terms of the smart TV ecosystem, what kind of devices are you supporting?
DF: Currently, we support Xbox Media Center. On the roadmap is this Samsung Smart TVs, as well as Plex Media Center. We’re also looking heavily at Apple TV, the Amazon Fire, and Chromecast. Those are on the roadmap in what we would like to integrate with.
SE: So, is it about making living in your home environment and potentially even an office environment, much more in tune to how you would interact with that environment on a manual basis, but doing it in a predictive manner?
DF: In a sense. The way I like to think of it is that your house should be working for you. It should be your friend and know what you need. We’re really trying to build the home of the Jetsons, or an actual smart home, but the definition of smart—people say smart home, but it’s really just a slightly connected home, or an iPhone-controlled home. No, that’s not smart. That’s just controlled by an iPhone. We think a smart home is something that can make intelligent decisions, ask if it’s unsure, but definitely try and be predictive and learn.
SE: What kind of timeframe do you see for a Jetson-style home?
DF: It will take us a little while to figure it out, but we’re dedicated and laser focused to be able to build this. It’s taken us two years to get to this point, but we really feel we understand the problem space now. We’ve all been living with connected devices for a while.
SE: It’s still very much in an early adopter stage, and I think mass consumption is always different than the geeks who are willing to put together Lego-block type of things.
DF: Definitely by definition, but I think early adopters are, you know, they’re early adopters.
DF: It definitely has to change as it gets up to mainstream. Computers in their infancy were very difficult to use and very clunky. Then over time it became less difficult but you still needed some sort of a degree or training to be able to interact with them. Now anybody can pick up an iPad. A two-year-old can pick up an iPad and use it.
SE: What is the attraction with Nest? I mean, it controls temperature.
DF: It’s a great product, and fundamentally they made a better thermostat then everything else. In the US, a large portion of the population has a thermostat. However, it’s usually a grey box with 15 buttons with inscrutable icons. People used to keep the manual for programming underneath because it was so difficult. Then Nest introduced this thermostat that is simply a wheel and a beautiful display.
Homes in 2024
SE: Interesting. If I ask you to cast your mind forward, in 10 years time, what do you think a typical home experience will be like?
DF: I have an ideal. I think light switches should be there but they shouldn’t necessarily have to be there. I think most of the time we will just continue living our lives and doing what we want to do, and our environment will adapt to us.
If there’s 20 people in the party, the air conditioner would just be slightly cooler to maintain the temperature. If we’re just getting home late at night, it will just be already somewhat comfy and warm and lit up for us. And we should be using far less energy than we are right now.
I think in 10 years, it’s going to be a very interesting world, but I think we’ll have this—what we’d like to see is this concept of an adaptive or reactive environment, where the room is just comfortable always and you don’t really have to think about it ever or controlling it or dealing with the room or controls. I think voice is definitely going to be one of the main interfaces to a lot of things. It’s still quite awkward and antisocial right now. In your home, wouldn’t it be great say, “Lights off”? I think we will see that over time.
SE: I think even perhaps self-vocalisation where you’re not even speaking aloud at some stage—maybe more than 10 years, but maybe not.
SE: Yes. Sometimes it’s kind of funny to go around talking to devices.
DF: It is very much so.
SE: How do you see — again, in the world of the future, this fitting in with telecommunications networks and electricity networks and other devices where, lets say, somebody is trying to call you on smartphone or somebody comes to your door, there’s obviously external interaction with the home environment.
DF: Yes, I think that you could very well see another tier of service focused on the connectivity side of the smart home.
I do think the home will be very much self-sufficient, and that’s something where we work pretty heavily — having all the logic and a lot of decision being made in the home and not necessarily sending everything to the cloud. I think that’s probably something that people will be demanding as well.
Security and Privacy
SE: Yes. That touches on another area that I wanted to raise with you, Daniel, and that is about security and privacy. Every day I read about more and more things and devices being hacked. It raises some serious concerns if someone is able to hack into your home network about what they might be able to do not only to your property but potentially to you as a person or your family.
DF: Definitely. It’s a very salient issue, and I think even now with the most recent OpenSSL, there was a security vulnerability.
SE: That’s been all over the Web in the last few days.
DF: Yes, we’re dealing with that as well. If I had to answer this question a week ago, I think it would have been a completely different answer. Now I’m going to say that there’s still a long way to go in terms of security. What we do, for example, is to make sure that there’s always security updates and patches being rolled out constantly, or downloading security patches for the system so that —because we do ship what you could almost think of as your own server — it is a full stack computer.
SE: You’ve got all these devices, too. It’s not just the Sphere that could be hacked. It could be the light bulb or the refrigerator or the Nest or anything.
DF: Definitely, I think there are layers in each one that requires a tailored solution. I think it will never be solved, but over time, with proper upkeep, you can have a reasonable level of trust.
There are a lot of really, really smart people trying to tackle this problem, a lot of engineers, chip manufacturers, software engineers, hardware engineers. Everybody is completely aware of the security issues. It will take a while, but I’m less worried about somebody remotely intruding it.
I think even today, if somebody wants to get into your home, they’re able to do it if they really, really wanted to get in. There’s ways already — with everything hard wired now, people can cut the electricity; they can cut the alarm networks. It just has to be hard enough so that it’s not an easy target.
SE: It’s a deterrent as opposed to a Fort Knox solution.
Lots of Protocols
SE: One of the other things that I’ve noticed in the home-automation space is the competing protocols that are out there. I’ve seen ZigBee. I’ve seen Z-Wave or Zed-Wave, as we say here in Australia. We’ve got Bluetooth and Bluetooth LE. We’ve got Wi-Fi. There are probably some others there as well.
DF: 6LoWPAN — there’s also a few others — yes, it’s the Wild West out there.
SE: Do you see this converging on any particular standard?
DF: I think there will be convergence. I think there will be far less individual players over time. Each one of those serves a purpose though they’re slightly different, which is the reason they have been built in the first place. But I think there are some contenders for a protocol that would be converged upon. 6LoWPAN is one that I’m quite interested in, which is using TCP/IP over low-power radio, which I think has the best chance of potentially being the protocol that things use. There’s definitely a need for a standard.
SE: Yes. Also for the consumers because if they buy different smart devices, they have to all talk the same language; otherwise, they don’t actually form a coherent ecosystem in the home.
DF: I don’t think that’s going to go away anytime soon. I think that’s why we’re around, and where we’re able to bridge the divide and provide the intelligence and the connectivity between these very different devices.
SE: A good reason to have a hub in the home.
SE: if I understand it completely, there are two competing hub protocols: ZigBee and Z-Wave?
DF: ZigBee and Z-Wave are, I would say, direct competitors. We use ZigBee for the house. There are some that have ZigBee and Z-Wave. They’re both similar-type protocols. Z-Wave is a bit more popular in the US, I think. ZigBee is far more targeted now regarding industrial automation, but there are quite a lot home-automation uses of it. I think it’s definitely unfolding now, and we’re interested to see where it goes.
SE: You raised a good point about Z-Wave being more popular in the US than here. In terms of devices and gateways, is there much of an issue or an issue at all in terms of compatibility and working in Australia?
DF: Not necessarily, though Z-Wave uses different frequency bands, depending on where in the world you use it. I think it’s just another protocol that we’ll have to deal with. There are so many different protocols that we have to deal with. It’s table stakes for companies like us.
The Role of Kickstarter
SE: The next topic I wanted to discuss with you today, Daniel, is the use of crowdfunding in Kickstarter in particular and how you see this as a path to commercialisation, and the benefits or tribulations of using crowdsourcing.
DF: I think crowdsourcing is a great way to launch a product, but we’ve learned a few lessons, having done two of them. The first one is you can’t launch a company on Kickstarter; you can only launch a product. A lot of people try and launch a product and try to build a company, and it’s quite difficult. There are definitely successes. This is something where we learned a lot from our first one.
It’s a phenomenal marketing opportunity and a good measure for product validation.
SE: It also seems like it’s a good way to get capital into the company without taking on investors and shareholders.
DF: It’s still quite a lot of work to maintain. You have to maintain communications.
SE: Yes, it’s not just a complete free ride, but it’s different than having, let’s say, a 50 percent owner of the company.
DF: Yes, definitely. That’s exactly right. There are great benefits, but it is a lot of work. I think the problem we’ve seen a lot is that a lot of people don’t fully cost-in or articulate issues to the backers. It’s really difficult to tell people, “This will cost this much,” when you’re really early on in launching a crowdfunding campaign because unless you’ve done this whole thing before…
SE: Or it’s an iteration of a product where you’ve got a whole lot of cost data and you know your incremental cost because you’ve been in touch with manufacturers…
SE: When you’re just concocting a new idea and you haven’t built it yet, it’s tough.
DF: It takes a lot of research to be able to really understand that kind of stuff. I think that’s where you see a few fall down in planning their hardware crowdfunding campaigns.
SE: It seems like there’s quite an enthusiasm in the general population for backing these kinds of innovations.
DF: There is. It’s phenomenal. I think there was a 3D printer that was launched a couple of days ago that overnight got over a million dollars.
SE: That’s serious dollars.
DF: Yes, in 24 hours, a million dollars — that’s huge, right? There’s definitely an appetite for it. The risk is that the general public becomes disillusioned with backing some of these things. People need to educate themselves on what is, what does and doesn’t look like something that’s not reputable.
SE: A real product?
DF: Yes. Even if it’s an early prototype that’s promising this, that’s fine as long as long as you’re educating yourself around, issues like: these guys want to certify themselves, but they said they only need $15,000 dollars and they want to ship to Europe.
SE: Is that realistic?
DF: No. That’s the hard thing because that’s nothing your average person would know, but it’s something that should be considered which is, “Hold on. They’re not asking for enough to even just certify, let alone for the components and the costs in shipping and duties from different counties.” We would like to see the general public be a bit more educated and scrutinise some of these campaigns.
SE: In terms of putting up your own capital or getting seed investors, does that play a parallel role with the crowdfunding campaign, or can you do one without the other?
DF: I think you can do one without the other. A lot of companies do both, i.e. develop a prototype, launch via crowdfunding campaign, demonstrate a lot of traction, market validation, and then off the back of that, raise a round of investment. That is favourable for a company, because you have the market validation and you have already a group of customers that have proven they’re willing to part with cash for your product.
SE: There’s really a two-pronged benefit. It’s the market validation. It’s testing the product, and it’s getting some capital.
SE: Is this the route that you would go again?
DF: Maybe. We have to think about that. It would definitely mean something if we wanted to launch another product that we thought was a bit out there or something that we thought was very interesting, but wanted to test if other people wanted it. That would be the perfect place where we would go straight to a crowdfunding campaign and try and launch it there.
For the Sphere we really went out and said, “We’ve got some crazy ideas here, guys, and we’d like to see if there’s an appetite for it.”
DF: Yes, we found out the answer was a resounding yes.
SE: Well, looking at the figures that you raised — it was around $700,000 right?
DF: Yes, it was $700,000.
SE: That’s a lot of money!
DF: Yes, we’re thrilled with the result.
SE: Thank you so very much for your time today, Dan, and best of luck with the continued development of the Sphere.
DF: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
About the author: Shara Evans is internationally acknowledged as a cutting edge technology futurist, commentator, strategy advisor, keynote speaker and thought leader, as well as the Founder and CEO of Market Clarity.