Blur Digital Boundaries (with Ninjas)

This week’s topic is one of my favorites: the intersection of the digital world with the physical.  I’ve discussed this topic many times before (check out my “digital space” tag for more) but today’s especially exciting because it involves ninjas!

Close up of ninja mask

courtesy flickr/Reyes

Sorry, not that kind of ninja.   I’m talking about the technological equivalent, a nifty device called the Ninja Block, now in development (hat tip to Singularity Hub for picking up on this).  This tiny computer is potent, flexible and bristling with sensors.   What’s most exciting is the design philosophy behind it, which has the potential to completely redraw the border between the digital world and the physical world.

What exactly does this plain-looking box do?  It takes input from something, and then provides some kind of output, according to rules that you define.  Conceptually simple, but flush with potential.

Small pink box with a ninja on it

Follow the Rules

If you’ve ever used the service If This, Then That, you know how it works.  IFTT lets you coordinate among your various social networks and internet tools, by creating conditional statements.  For example, you could create a rule that says “If I post a picture to Facebook, then store it in my Dropbox account as well.”  IFTT would then carry out this command every time the criterion is met.

Ninja Blocks follow the same sort of rule structure, with one key difference: A Ninja Block can attach to physical inputs and outputs, as well as digital.  “If someone rings my doorbell, then send me a message.”

Objects Getting Online

In short, as its creators describe it, it’s “the internet of things for the rest of us.”  As I’ve written about here, more and more things like ovens, cameras, and cars are connecting to the internet every day.  This is turning the internet into a common meeting ground for physical devices of all types, all over the world.  This “Internet of Things” opens up many new and complex possibilities for interconnection.

The staggering idea behind the Ninja Block is to allow anything to join in on the fun, regardless of whether it’s designed to.  And regardless of whether you have any programming skills.  Watch the team pitch their product on kickstarter:

One use they mention is as a security device: You could connect your Ninja Block to a camera, a motion sensor and the internet, then create a rule.  “If motion sensor is triggered, then take a photo and send it to me via Twitter.”

But that’s just the beginning.  Once these are perfected, the input and output could be anything you like, whether physical or digital; you could theoretically create any number of interesting rules for any purpose.

Do It Yourself

For ideas, mix-and-match something from column A with something from column B:

Column A: If…

  • The temperature hits 70
  • My train is running late
  • The pollen count is high
  • My favorite TV show comes on
  • My ex-girlfriend sends me a message
  • I receive a package
  • I speak a command
  • I send a text message

Column B: Then…

  • send me a Tweet
  • email my wife
  • post it to Facebook
  • turn down the thermostat
  • turn on a lamp
  • turn on my oven
  • reset my alarm clock

Social networks link to the real world

Revolution in the Making

Here’s why I think the design philosophy of Ninja Blocks is so revolutionary.  These are made to be:

  1. Flexible.  Change their function whenever you wish, make any connections you desire.  The hardware and software are fully open-source.
  2. Modular.  You can buy one, or a hundred.  Add new blocks and devices as needed.
  3. Easy to use.  Even for non-experts, the idea of a conditional rule is very intuitive.  This will allow them to become popular more quickly.
  4. Foundational.  I believe this will be one of those technologies whose value increases over time, as more and more uses are found for it.

When you get right down to it, the Ninja Block (or its eventual successor) is nothing less than the mortar between the bricks of the Internet of Things.  It’s the conceptual glue that will one day connect all the sensors and devices in the world to each other, and to our digital lives.

And just about anyone can grab one and put it to any use they can think of.  What would you do if you had one of these?  Or a hundred?  Or am I getting excited over nothing?  Share your thoughts below.

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6 thoughts on “Blur Digital Boundaries (with Ninjas)

  1. Oh my goodness, neat! I want my alarm to go off ten minutes earlier if it’s snowing. And thanks for the heads up about If Then, Then That. I’d never heard of it, but I’m going to give it a try.

    • IFTT is a really neat idea, which I admit I haven’t actually tried yet. Let me know if it works for you. And thanks for stopping by my blog, Mim!

  2. Hey Scott, I have never heard of these cool little gadgets before, and I love gadgets. I could use them all over my office and have a different rule for each. Totally cool.

    • I’d love to do the same! Unfortunately at >$100 apiece I can’t quite afford to do that… but I hope the price drops as they scale up production. Thanks for reading!

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