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Gesture-controlled home automation hub runs Linux

Aug 6, 2014  |  Eric Brown

Pre-orders are open for “Ninja Sphere,” a $329 gesture-controlled home automation hub featuring Arduino hooks, ZigBee controls, and location tracking.


Ninja Block hub

Sydney, Australia-based Ninja Blocks was one of the earlier entries in the Linux home automation game. The startup’s open source Ninja Block hub launched on Kickstarter in 2012, and began shipping in a more advanced version last October. The $199 Ninja Block Kit integrated a BeagleBone Black SBC and an Arduino-compatible microcontroller, and offered remote access via smartphone apps and a cloud service. Using a 433MHz RF radio, it controlled vendor-supplied sensor inputs including motion detectors, contact closures, temperature and humidity sensors, and pushbuttons.



Ninja Sphere
(click image to enlarge)

In January of this year, Ninja Blocks ran another successful Kickstarter round, this time for an updated version called “Ninja Sphere”. The uniquely styled “spherimid” hub device, referred to as a gateway, offers new features such as gesture control and smart tagging.

Kickstarter backers paid as little as $200 for the Ninja Sphere, and are finally about to receive their units. The device is now available for pre-order to the general public, starting at $329, with shipments due in October. Meanwhile, the company plans to release an update to the Ninja Block to let it work “seamlessly” with the Ninja Sphere. “There will be No Ninjas Left Behind,” proclaims the Ninja Blocks website.



Ninja Sphere’s sphere of influence
(click image to enlarge)

The Ninja Sphere builds upon the Ninja Block hub’s codebase, which uses a modified version of Ubuntu Linux, as well as Node.js and REST API technologies. It appears to support the same company-provided sensor devices provided for the Ninja Block, which will be available as options. These include “Smart Sockets” for actuation, Smart Bulbs for lighting, and Smart Tags (see farther below).


Contact, motion, and temperature/humidity sensors; wireless button
(click images to enlarge)

To keep up with the increasingly competitive, and typically Linux-driven home automation market, the Ninja Sphere also connects beyond its own optional sensor devices to monitor a wider variety of third-party smart devices. The device incorporates ZigBee, WiFi, RF433, Bluetooth, and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) radios, and supports Z-Wave via an add-on dongle.

Supported smart devices include Philips Hue, LiFX, Belkin WeMo, Sonos, and Nest’s Dropcam. There’s even a hook to Pebble smartwatches. (A longer, and still evolving list is found in the website link farther below.)



Inside Ninja Sphere
(click image to enlarge)

Although like the Ninja Block, the Ninja Sphere is billed as being open source in both hardware and software, full specs have yet to be released, perhaps because the product is not yet shipping. Like the Ninja Block, the Ninja Sphere runs on an ARM Cortex-A8 processor, although it’s unclear if it’s still the Texas Instruments Sitara processor found its predecessor, or whether it still uses the BeagleBone Black for its PCB. A USB port is provided that lets you hook up cameras, speakers, and even Arduino projects via the built in Arduino-compatible circuitry.


Smartphone app
(click to enlarge)

The device offers several interfaces, including iOS or Android apps, a 16×16-character LED screen, and gesture control, the latter being a novelty in the home automation space. You can touch the gateway and wave your hands over it, and its built-in “e-field” gesture sensor is said to track it all, and respond accordingly. Gestures include a “swirl” gesture for more precise control of device settings, such as light colors.

The other cutting edge feature on the device is the integration of the BLE-based tracking capability, which makes use of two included USB-powered, BLE-equipped “waypoint” gizmos that you plug into laptops or other unused USB ports on either side of the house. The Ninja Sphere also ships with a BLE-enabled “Smart Tag” that you can attach to your smart devices, wallet, phone, keys, dog, child, or wayward spouse.



Ninja Sphere tracks via BLE “smart tags”
(click image to enlarge)

The Ninja Sphere can track the location via “trilateration,” which is similar to triangulation, but instead of calculating the angle of a signal, “uses the intersection of overlapping spheres to location a position in space.” The system combines these signals with signals coming from other devices, including a connected smartphone’s GPS, to provide a precise location.

Like the Ninja Block and many of its competitors, the device offers “if this then that” style rules involving presence, location, time, energy usage, inputs, and alerts. For example, you could instruct the device to turn on the lights when it gets dark, turn off appliances when you go to bed, or even turn up your heat when it notices you are on the way home.

 
Further information

The Ninja Sphere is available for pre-order now starting at $329, which shipments due in October. Additional smart tags go for $25 apiece, and each Smart Socket costs $55. Smart Bulbs are said to be coming soon. More information may be found at the Ninja Blocks website and wiki, as well as the original Ninja Sphere Kickstarter page.
 

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