Ninja Blocks? Discussion? Integration?

( co-founder Terry @ActionTiles; GitHub: @cosmicpuppy) #1

I’ve been browsing the web randomly and crazily to find out what sort of “connectable” things exist out there that may become “Things” (capital T … SmartThings, I guess…).

I can’t believe that I haven’t stumbled upon Ninja Blocks before…

As I start this thread, I have yet to purchase their developer’s kit, but I’m really tempted. At the same time, the usual frustrations arise as to wondering how redundant this product is, and/or how wonderful this is that we know integration will be possible – in one direction and/or the other.

Thoughts? Care to moderate an Official integration Project?

(Tinjaw) #2

I have a Ninja Block, am a software developer, and a hardware tinkerer. I am also awaiting my SmartThings Maker Kit.

I plan on integrating my systems, mainly because they are toys for me to play with.

At the superficial level, the main hardware difference is that Ninja Blocks primarily (currently) rely on 433 MHz communications while SmartThings is primarily a zwave product.

At the software level, Ninja Blocks has the most traction around being a web-based product and lots of code is in JavaScript/Node.js. SmartThings seems to be centered around apps and the code looks to be Ruby-ish.

I am active in the Ninja Blocks forums as well as me now starting to hang out here too as I am hoping my SmartThing kit will be showing up soon.

( co-founder Terry @ActionTiles; GitHub: @cosmicpuppy) #3

Thanks for the contribution!

SmartThings folks could drop in here at any moment with thoughts and corrections, but I might as well keep the flow going…
 - SmartThings indeed uses GHz communications which, I believe inherently provides superior range and reliability.

 - SmartThings primarily use ZigBee HA (with Z-Wave also natively supported by the Smart Hub) and both of these standards use mesh-networking (every non-battery powered node is a repeater - router) for superior range (perhaps limitless range!). These protocols also have message delivery guarantees (… Does the 433 MHz stuff support this organically?), and other advantages:  But the hardware seems expensive. Of course, SmartThings aims to reduce the cost factor with mass production of a customized ZigBee module … the Thing Module.

 - SmartThings Apps are written in Groovy ( not Ruby, though they are all bastardizations of Java (not JavaScript) anyhow.

Two strategies of integration: Cloud (API to API) vs. Localized (protocol conversion gateways…)
 - If a particular product line or model has reliable cloud services with good free API, then I believe that SmartThings feels that “cloud-to-cloud” is the preferred integration method; or, even if not preferred, this method has certain advantages in terms of low cost of implementation and ease of abstraction. I have a feeling that there are also strategic business regions that SmartThings (i.e., “Physical Graph Corporation”) is pushing this model. Even at first glance, it is obvious that this creates some customer affinity (i.e., “lock-in”) to the SmartThings Cloud, and therefore, the SmartThings brand.

 - I would say that all “localized integration” methods will take the form of either optimized minimal protocol converters (or mesh of converters throughout your home) or gateways … e.g., a module that uses ZigBee to appear to be several virtualized Things, and then just passes along appropriate 433 MHz signals to the real “Things”. By “gateway” I am implying a more heavy-weight approach; something like a local cloud-to-cloud (i.e., direct hub-to-hub) communication through whatever local API’s are supported.

I am most excited about the potential of protocol converters. There was at least one marketed for X10 & Insteon (which are powerline based communication…) to Z-Wave; but it seems to be off the market.

Am I barking up the wrong tree?


(Tinjaw) #4

There are pros and cons to both local connection and cloud integration. I think it is pretty much assured both will come around. I know that I will do so at the hobbyist level. Whether or not anything comes along at the consumer electronics level is another story.

If you want to look at an integration hub, I’ve grabbed up an EVE.

I plan on tinkering with it as well. It will be interesting to see what can be created.

(Tinjaw) #5

New kid on the block


( co-founder Terry @ActionTiles; GitHub: @cosmicpuppy) #6

@Tinjaw:  Thanks for the find!

I’m definitely intrigued, but in a theoretical sense, I wonder how efficient their approach is.

Fundamentally, I don’t know enough about the project yet, but I don’t understand the value in yet another Mesh-Radio/Protocol – when ZigBee & XBee (Digimesh) seems pretty robust. And there are dozen more point-to-point HW options out there…

I’ll be following the Sapphire forums to see if it makes sense. In other words… what is the “big problem” that Sapphire solves that could not have been built on top of a popular existing mesh standard?


(Col Hack) #7

Does anyone have an update on NinjaBlocks? I followed them for a while after I snatched a free BeagleBone at the Design West last year. Nice thing about NB of course is that it’s an open-source project and being written in Node.js can run on any Linux platform, e.g. a low-power Micro-ITX PC or any old laptop. If fact, recycling an old laptop to run your HA instead of buying more e-waste (more hubs anyone?) sounds so frigging green… :slight_smile:

( co-founder Terry @ActionTiles; GitHub: @cosmicpuppy) #8


Ninja is doing really well, if you measure it by their current evolutionary project, the Ninja Sphere which raised $700,000+ on Kickstarter.

I wish I had the money to back the Ninja Sphere … right now I have to force myself to wait for WigWag before investing in any more HA systems. Well… maybe I will still consider the Developer Level for Webee (

(Col Hack) #9

Hmmm… Other than Daft Punk-inspired design it seems to be a variation on the same theme – Zigbee + Bluetooth with some BLE thrown in for a good measure. Boring… It baffles me why people keep trying to sell these boxes over and over again. You can stick an iPad (or a cheap Android tablet) on the wall and get more processing power, gorgeous touchscreen, built-in camera, speaker, wifi, bluetooth and backup power. All in one small, well designed package, for less money. You can even get a built-in 4G for extra $30. How can anyone not see that? What is missing? Zigbee? Who cares? In few year nobody will remember what Zigbee meant anyway.

( co-founder Terry @ActionTiles; GitHub: @cosmicpuppy) #10


Not sure what you are saying…

Multiple radio protocols are going to be customary for the next couple (?) of years until there is a shakeout of what standards hold up to be most popular. Even Beta and HD-DVD lived for a while before fading away.

ZigBee is a rather robust, secure, and mesh based protocol with short and long range capability. It is an OPEN protocol with optional certifications to various different standards for Home Automation (HA), health/medical, industrial, commercial, light link, etc. :

The Webee is based fully on an Android hub (“Boss”) I believe. The Ubi is a hybrid ARM + Android.

There is also the … dang, can’t quite remember the name … customized home wifi router with a built in touchscreen, newest WiFi radios and Z-Wave (and/or Zigbee…?).

And there are various folks trying to make WiFi easier to integrate (Spark Core, and Electric Imp, …).

So… there are a lot of variations: Too many, in my opinion, as this is confusing the marketplace; but that’s ultimately good for innovation and competition; improving the technology and lowering the cost.

If you want to design something unique… well, I’m always looking for entrepreneurial collaborators.


(Col Hack) #11

I probably know more about Zigbee than I would like to admit :slight_smile: The product I worked on is deployed in the field (tens of thousands installations), so I know all its benefits and pitfalls. It’s perfectly fine solution for industrial applications, i.e. environments were there is no existing communication infrastructure. But it’s simply a poor choice for home networks which are already utilizing WiFi. There’s virtually no advantage of creating parallel wireless network infrastructure. Yes, Zigbee is low-power, it’s mesh and blah-blah-blah. But if your WiFi router easily covers your entire house, why would anyone care about mesh? Low-power only matters for battery-powered devices and the batteries are getting better every day too.

So, all the advantages that Zigbee can offer are becoming less and less relevant. On the other hand, if you go Zigbee route, you necessary bring in another component into the picture - The Hub. And most people hate hubs. But look at the home automation scene - everyone sells hubs. You cannot find a product that does not include a hub. It reminds me of pre-iPhone era, when all “smartphones” had to have a keyboard. The bigger keyboard, the better. Even if it takes 70% of the phone surface area, leaving tiny area for a low-resolution display (anyone remember Blackberry?). Well, hats-off to late Mr. Jobs for changing all that.

My solution is dead-simple. The iPad (or Android tablet) has all components necessary to build a fully-integrated home automation system. No hubs required. Why anyone has to pay $250 for a smart thermostat? The ARM chip inside it cost $10 bucks. The same beautiful touch UI can be implemented in software running on the wall-mounted tablet. But instead of controlling only thermostat, it can control anything.

( co-founder Terry @ActionTiles; GitHub: @cosmicpuppy) #12

I get what you’re saying.

I think there are a few companies / products that are already somewhat “like” what you describe – i.e., a hubless system; even if they are not called that.

Consider the LIFX wifi enabled lightbulb ( It (or any number around your home) are connected by wifi and controlled by … smartphone or iPad / Android tablet. In other words… in this sub-ecosystem (just light bulbs…), this is exactly what you describe.

And, amazing coincidence (? – happens to me all the time), I received in my inbox this morning my weekly newsletter from Indiegogo and, lo and behold, there is a Project (bRight Switch) there which is closer (?) to what you describe, … you tell me, is it close? It is IP, Bluetooth, and Z-Wave too (ZigBee not mentioned).

But these are $90 each (as a funder reward) and are meant to be one per room as a camera/music/controller.

bRight Switch uses an Android powered, capacitive touch display married to high voltage control electronics and is patent pending in several areas.

Electrical Switch Features

Learning mode: Learns from your usage patterns over time and automatically turns on your lights based on your living patterns, saving you time and energy.
Dimmer: Use the kind of bulb you want. Selectable for incandescent, CFL, LED bulbs.
Wake up alarm, vacation and on-time timers: No more searching for that vacation timer for the lamp or trying to remember if you turned off the bathroom fan.
Proximity detection/motion sensing: Can turn off your lights when you leave the room, or when no one is using it—great for safety and saving energy.
Z-Wave control: On/Off and dimmer functions.
Temperature: F or C display.
Nightlight/daylight: Dims/brightens screen automatically
Other features: Clock/date display, room name/message display.
Voltage / Frequency: 110-240 VAC, 50/60Hz, 600 watts.

Security Features

Arm One or All: Selectable between arming one unit or all units.
Video: Live or recorded video.
Video Transmit: From switch to switch. (Wi-Fi Required).
Proximity/motion Record: Records video of the room when alarm is set.
Sends Message and Image to Phone: When alarm is triggered.
Video Block: Camera Cover blocks/un-blocks video and images.
WiFi Camera: Accepts WiFi camera video for baby’s room, front porch, or?
Bluetooth Camera: Accepts Bluetooth camera video. Blue Only.
Zone Arming: Future feature-coming.
Sends video to phone: Future feature-coming.

Intercom Features

All Call: One unit calls all units, then listens.
Room Talk (Call): One unit talks to one unit.
Room Monitor: Great for listening for baby.

One-Touch Activation.
Bluetooth headset: Blue only.
Phone Follow Me: Future feature-coming.
Follow Me Automatic: Future Feature-Music follows automatically. Blue Only, must carry Bluetooth device.

One-Touch Activation.
External Bluetooth Speakers: Blue only.
Follow Me: Music forwarded unit to unit. Must select at each unit.
Follow Me Automatic: Music follows automatically. Blue Only, must carry Bluetooth device.
Android Applications

Runs Standard Android Apps.
Open API.

In other words: Are you less baffled now? :wink: … Do you think the market is stumbling upon the cost effective / elegant solution you are thinking of? What will it take to eliminate the “hub” system: elimination of home ZigBee and Z-Wave? Are there non-efficiencies reasons that a company (like SmartThings) would PREFER to stay in a hub-cloud-mesh ecosystem (i.e., is it more profitable due to lock in? If the controller is simply a wall mounted iPad/Android and all Things are connected by standard wifi and/or bluetooth, then customer lock-in is much more difficult, since switching to a competitor can be done by just picking a different App to install on the tablet???


(Col Hack) #13

Am I less baffled? Not quite. bRight Switch is a step in right direction (wall-mounted touch controller, Android-based, no hub). So, it gets 3 pluses. But again, do I really want to buy a piece of hardware from an unknown company which may disappear into a thin air a year from now? I don’t think so. $100 retail price? Excuse me. Street price for a 7" Android tablet is 70 - 80 bucks tops. And bRight is not even 7". That doesn’t sound right, does it? So, two minuses. Total score: +1. And no, I don’t give an extra credit for Skype because I can’t imagine myself skyping in front of a wall switch :slight_smile:

But you’re right, I don’t believe I’m the only one who sees it this way and I hope there’re other people who think along the same lines. I also see very little value in building proprietary hardware. Not for a small fry company like SmartThings anyway. What value does their hardware bring? There’s absolutely nothing new! Same old technology repackaged with their logo slapped on top of it. What is so unique about their motion sensor that they expect me to pay $55 bucks for it? There’re already Z-Wave motion sensors on the market in the same price range, if not cheaper, and they work equally well. How can it be seen other than squandering of their limited development resources?

Do they really hope to “lock me in” with their $55 motion sensor because its Zigbee rather that Z-Wave and I won’t be able to connect it to Vera, Iris or whoever comes along tomorrow? If so, they’d better strike off “Smart” from their name right now. You cannot build a viable business on this model.

And that’s exactly what my point is. Hardware ruled the world in the last century. Today, hardware is a commodity. The only real value is in software. Why do you think Belkin WeMo or Philips Hue are still so expensive? Because you’re not just paying for the hardware. You’re paying for the development and on-going maintenance and support of their mobile app and cloud service. Every little connected gadget has its own iPhone/Android app and cloud service attached to it. Every god damned light switch wants to be “the brains” of my house. It’s ridiculous.

Let all hardware OEMs (GE, Philips, Belkin, etc.) do what they do best - make cheap hardware that can all be controlled by an automation software of my own choosing running on off-the-shelf hardware of my own choosing. And then let the best win in a fair competition rather that by futile attempts to lock customers in.

And finally, here’s my message to all hardware vendors:

I refuse to buy any HomeAutomation product that includes or requires a hub. My house is already equipped with WiFi network. If you’re too dumb to make use of it or if you think you’re too smart and want me to pay for your proprietary shit – beat it. Home automation is a luxury and my life does not depend on it. I can wait.