Ninja Blocks: Adding Fun to the Internet of Things

03/12/2012 03:54 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2012

The Internet of Things (IoT) is already changing our lives in many dramatic, and subtle ways, including the first wireless pacemaker, the IntelliStreets "smart" light post I wrote about recently and the new city-wide nerve center IBM has built for Rio.

But something important has been missing until now: IoT hasn't captured the public's imagination yet because it hasn't been, well, you know... fun!

That's no longer the case, because of three young electronics experimenters in Australia, who have created the whimsically named Ninja Blocks.

They crowdsourced the money to get the product off the ground, wildly exceeding the goal of $24,000, raising $89,012!

Hardcore experimenters have been able to play with the Internet of Things for a while using the increasingly cheap Arduino boards. But you still had to know a fair amount about electronics as well as programming to experiment with them.

Ninja Blocks is the Internet of Things for the rest of us.

The basic building block is a cute, palm-sized colorful plastic block, (see here) designed using open hardware, similar to the popular open software movement, so it will be easy for others to copy the guts of the machine. Each block plugs into your network using an ethernet cable (or, wirelessly, by Wi-Fi), and each of them includes a RGB LED to notify you that it has taken an action. Other ports will allow you to control lights, infra-red, relays, motors and other activators.

Each box contains an accelerometer & thermometer. You can also add 5 sensors (more to follow): light (to sense if a light has been turned on or off), humidity, distance (to measure when something comes close), motion, and a push button to turn things on or off.

Here's where the real fun -- and magic -- begins!

Instead of having to program the boxes, their actions are coordinated through a web service called the Ninja Cloud by simply creating "if then, then that"-style commands, or tasks, on your computer.

Each task is made up of triggers and actions. For example, if your baby cries, it will turn on a lamp in the hall (what sleep-deprived parent wouldn't appreciate that little assist?), or my favorite, "switch on your lava lamp whenever your friends are playing Xbox Live."

Ninja Cloud will initially be able to activate a range of popular web apps including Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, Google Docs, SMS/Phone and Xbox Live, with more to be added soon.

Some of the initial suggested tasks are early steps toward the automated house, and valuable in their own right.

But I suspect that more important in the long run will be fooling around. I can imagine that when you host a party, the Ninja Block will quickly become the center of attention, and that it will spawn a new parlor game of suggesting funny things you could do by combining new triggers and actions. Invariably, some of them will probably be useful enough to spread among Block users.

There's probably a technological determinism about the increasingly rapid spread of the Internet of Things, because it can help reduce energy consumption and/or serve important goals such as reducing the cost of government services through better coordination.

But when the history of the IoT is written, I suspect Ninja Blocks will earn at least a footnote -- or perhaps if they become ubiquitous, a chapter of their own!