First impressions of Ninja Blocks

My Ninja Blocks kit.

I have been waiting with excitement for my Ninja Blocks to arrive. Not only was this the first Kickstarter project I backed, it’s an incredibly exciting product from a Sydney company.

The idea is to make it easy for people to take real-world things and connect them up via the Internet so they can be controlled with a minimum of technical knowledge. So you can, for example, have the Block turn your heater on when your room reaches a certain temperature and have the Block send you an email telling you it’s done that.

So yesterday I smiled broadly when the package finally turned up, albeit with lots of warnings that things were still being worked on, finalised, tidied up; this wasn’t how the final product would look or be presented. That all turned out to be true, but I don’t care – part of the attraction of the Kickstarter process is getting early access.

The Block itself and all of the extra sensors come in housings produced on a 3D printer; that gives them a somewhat unfinished look and a feeling that this is a hackable product. Setting them up was a doddle. I plugged the Block into my router and then created an account on the Ninja Block website. Within five minutes my block was delivering information to the dashboard accessible from my computer, my phone, my iPad. The dashboard presentation is well crafted and has a nice professional feel about it. It was the work of only a couple more minutes, in a drag-and-drop interface, to create a rule so that the Block sent me a photograph from the webcam whenever the attached sensor detected movement.

Ninja Blocks dash
The Ninja Blocks dashboard.

All good and really validates the promise of the project. But Ninja Blocks are still more promise than reality – the developers still have a lot of work to do. Right now there is a very limited range of things you can use to write rules that do anything, and a lot of things do not yet work. For example, today, the only triggers you can use are the button sensor and the motion sensor. It’s a bit like getting a new car and being told it will only go to the end of the drive and there’s no reverse gear yet. I knew, though, that this was going to be on the bleeding edge and the developers, who have been just great in every interaction I’ve had with them, are working their guts out to get things to where they want them to be.

Leaving the teething issues to one side; what about the underlying product? Its promise is that it will allow you to hack your world, to bring control to the things around your house. Clearly the potential is there. Building a rule is simple; the sensors are entirely plug-and-play – once it is all working this is going to be incredible. It’s already clear to me, though, that wireless connectivity is going to be the key. Having the Block sitting connected by a wire to my router and then other wires connecting sensors is okay for experimenting, but won’t cut it with real world applications. The real potential is going to come into play when I can control things without physical connections.

My Block came with a 802.11n dongle so I can make it connect to the Internet wirelessly. Sadly though, and this is a design flaw in my view, you have to sacrifice the webcam to make the Block wireless as they use the same port. From the other end, the developers are promising wireless connection to sensors in the next few weeks; and when that’s out the fun will really start.

Overall I’m happy with my Ninja Block, largely because I’m happy enough to beta test. They need more things working for it to be really fun to play with though, and they need more things working to really assess if they’ll live up to their potential. A great start, though, and I remain really excited about the product.

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