Archive for January, 2013

Ninja Blocks

Posted: January 28, 2013 in Hacking and playing

So time for the geek-out – Ninja Blocks arrived over the weekend!


Ninja Blocks are a small kit comprising a control hub and a set of sensors. The hub and sensor suite change depending upon the version of the Ninja Block that you purchase – I’ve got the v2 block. This gives me a black slightly curved hub with purple ends and a ‘Hack Me’ fabric label out of one side. My sensors are a PIR, a button, an open-close sensor and a temperature & humidity sensor.


Set Up
Set up is easy, literally add the hub to your network and wait for the status light to change to purple – this means that the hub is connected and has up to date software installed.


Now create an account on and tell it the serial number of your hub. All done!


You can add the various sensors to the hub by turning them and and assigning a name to that new device. Once you’ve got a sensor registered in the hub, you can use it to build simple rules. The rules are basic cause and effect style – if this happens, then do this, but the cause and effect can consiste of multiple statements.


eg ‘IF door open triggered AND time between 22:00 and 06:00 THEN send email to AND send tweet saying “door open”‘


For an indication of how easy the rules are to setup, see Marcus’ demo at Le Web 2012.


General Notes
Interface is ajax based JS, so it gets a little flaky on mobile devices (iPads and Android tablets) but works fine on the desktop. The dashboard appears to be mobile aware, so changes it’s layout according to screen size and orientation, but still has issues with the layout. 

I like the simplicity of the device and the sensors…. the issue I have is the lack of ‘off-the-shelf’ devices for the ecosystem. Unlike Z-Wave or ZigBee where I can (theoretically) use existing components, the RF devices that this system uses are far less common and there’s issues of compatibility. I may be wrong, but I think the 433MHz band is unlicensed in the UK so although there are devices using that band, they often use proprietary protocols for communication which makes adding them to the system an issue.


I know there is a UK version of the plug controller that can be controlled by this system, but attempts to get hold of it in the UK have all failed (out of stock, no longer stocked, etc etc) and it’s a bit expensive to get one via Ninja Blocks (actually re-directed to Epodia who want £11 for a single plug). Ideally i’ll get hold of one of these and try to set up an end-to-end scenario, but that will have to wait until I can get a device I can actually control of some kind!


Ninja Blocks –





Internet of Things

Posted: January 25, 2013 in Hacking and playing
Tags: ,
The old questions about the viability of a major ISP getting involved in “home automation” has raised its quasi-regular head again this year. As with most of these types of enquiries it means that we get to get in some new toys, play with them, show the business what is happening and then let them go off and make their decisions.


However this year I’ve managed to gatecrash the research and using the term-du-jour of Internet of Things, get hold of some of the cooler new toys – or at least put the order in to get some once they’re shipped! I’m not going to go into details about each one here, but I will post more info once I get hold of these things….


First up is Ninja Blocks – an Aussie company based in Melbourne. Their second iteration 433MHz IoT box and sensors package is the cheapest of the bundles I’ve ordered, but is also the once closest to shipping. This is basically a central hub that connects out to the cloud with a variety of sensors that it can interact with that can be placed around the house. Sensors work in the 433Mhz radio band, so while they should be easy to obtain, there’s no guarantee that the Ninja Hub will be able to talk to them.Unlike the other devices I’ve requested, this is both Open Source Software AND Open Hardware… so if I feel the urge, I can go and build my own. The main hub even has a purple ‘Hack Me’ label on the side that you use to open the device up.


Next is SmartThings – again, the same premise as Ninja Blocks – a hub and sensor kit that can be set up to perform monitoring and react to specified scenarios. Unlike Ninja Blocks SmartThings uses both ZigBee and Z-Wave standards, potentially allowing off the shelf third party devices to be added to the sensor set. However, even within these defined standards, we’ve found wide variations in the past, so it’s still not a guarantee of compatibility.


Next is Ubi. Ubi is described as a ubiquitous computer that you ‘just plugin and talk to’. It is effectively a voice controlled internet gateway that can interact with other devices. Part of the early marketing indicated that this device could be used in conjunction with SmartThings to allow voice control of the SmartThings network.


Finally there is Almond+. I saw this briefly at CES (annoying Doc Brown impersonator!) but the stand was busy, so I didn’t get to really chat with them about the device. Building on their successful Almond home router, they have extended its capabilities by adding both a ZigBee and Z-Wave chipsets, as well as upgrading the wireless capabilities to 802.11 ac. The device is being funded via Kickstarter and was well on it’s way to hitting target when I last looked.