2013-05-01

Co.Labs

Ember Aims To Make Any Device Controllable By Your Smartphone

The day will come when everything in your home that runs on electricity will be controllable by your smartphone. This will only be possible, however, when every manufacturer builds new, integrated Wi-Fi circuits into every lamp, microwave, and dishwasher they sell. But if you can’t wait for the future you can soon pick up a plug-and-play device called Ember and begin hacking your Jetson’s-style home together this year.



Two entrepreneurs from Flint, Michigan want to make your smartphone into the best universal remote ever. Called Ember, the device is a simple printed circuit board paired with an onboard Bluetooth Low Energy Transceiver that users can hack everyday household electronics like lamps and microwaves together with. Once integrated, the Bluetooth chip allows the household device to talk directly with a user’s smartphone.

Inventor Billy Lindeman says Ember is based off of the Arduino platform–a favorite of those who like to build custom robots, electronics, and home automation projects. The Arduino teams describes the platform

...an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.
Arduino can sense the environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors and can affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators. The microcontroller on the board is programmed using the Arduino programming language (based on Wiring) and the Arduino development environment (based on Processing). Arduino projects can be stand-alone or they can communicate with software running on a computer (e.g. Flash, Processing, MaxMSP).

What Lindeman and his partner Eric Barch have done is allow Arduino to communicate with anyone’s smartphone or computer easily via Bluetooth. “As of right now, making an app talk to a hardware device isn't very easy. We're trying to fix that,” Lindeman tells me. “ We're hoping that it will spawn a great number of projects that will integrate your phone with things around you.”

One of the first things the pair did with Ember was integrate it with an ordinary lamp they bought at Ikea. They replaced the standard bulbs with multicolored ones, hardwired Ember to the lamp, and then wrote an app to control the lighting. And though Lindeman and Barch admit that Ember is currently geared towards tinkerers, they’re working hard to make it easy and useful to everyone. “Part of our short term strategy is going to be pairing our device with pre-built apps and a few other components into a project kit,” Lindeman says. “In addition to creating the Ember hardware, we've developed a software framework to allow app developers to very easily connect a phone to a hardware device.”

Ember is currently in prototype, but its creators hope to Kickstarter the device at around $40-50 a pop later this year.

The Message Queuing Telemetry Transport protocol (or MQTT) is backed by a consortium of companies, including heavyweights like Cisco and IBM, which would like Internet of Things devices to communicate with each other. MQTT is being officially introduced today as an open standard through Oasis, an international standards organization that says its mission is to create "interoperable industry specifications based on public standards such as XML and SGML."

MQTT is intended to be the same for internet-connected dumb devices as HTTP is for servers and browsers on the internet. British-based co-inventor Andy Stanford-Clark is a distinguished engineer at IBM, and MQTT's roots stem from his own efforts at home automation. It's been in development since 1998 and already has some sound industry support: Facebook credits the system in its native iOS app and its Messenger app.

Writing about MQTT, the New York Times quotes Ford's director of application development Vijay Sankaran talking about connectivity issues in the Focus Electric vehicle. Ford's servers need data from the cars in use to refine future product designs, and drivers may need to carry out connected activities while they're on the road: "You need an advanced messaging engine for these kinds of services," notes Vijay.

Oasis' website notes that the formation of the MQTT Technical Committee is to:

define an open publish/subscribe protocol for telemetry messaging designed to be open, simple, lightweight, and suited for use in constrained networks and multi-platform environments.

The reasons for pushing MQTT are several:

Many industries are seeing rapid demand for products and solutions which map physical world events into digital events for enterprise and Web applications, bringing an inherent need to integrate sensors, actuators and other types of devices with a wide range of application middleware and Web programming models.

This quite clearly sets out MQTT's aims: It's all about getting devices designed for different tasks from different manufacturers, possibly lacking reliable connectivity, to talk to each other meaningfully and without adding too much compute complexity. It's a brave move, but the Times closes by highlighting that Oasis "is heavy on information technology companies rather than industrial technology heavyweights"--companies such as GE, which makes "dumb" connected devices like jet engines.


Want to catch up on other news about the Internet of things? This is an ongoing story we're tracking; read on for context, or skip down to see previous updates.


Why We're Tracking This Story

Ever considered what’s inside that slab of glass that’s your smartphone? Behind the super-thin, ultra-sensitive touchscreen of unbelievably hard aluminosilicate glass, it’s densely crammed with 21st-century techno-wizardry--incredibly low-power chips, surprisingly capable digital camera with flash, ever-smaller and longer-lasting Li-ion batteries, plus Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular, GPS, compass, motion detectors, audio, and a button. To put so much inside that precision-machined case required advances in physics, opto-electronics, electrical engineering, materials science, chemistry, and imaging. To make it useable, there’s an efficient mobile operating system and a brilliantly simple touch-controlled interface between your finger and all those goodies.

It takes a lot of stuff to make such a smart device. But sometimes, it’s a lot more smarts than we need. There are times when simpler, cheaper, tougher, something with all the wires and plumbing exposed that let’s us get our hands dirty is the right stuff. Let’s hack!

What This Story Will Cover

We're narrating the development of devices, people, or projects that hack smart things into clever, creative new applications--or which hack dumb things to be smarter. Whether fabricated, found, and or mass-produced, these will never be your standard i-devices.


Previous Updates

Jay Silver was recently described by CNN as "a leading proponent of the maker movement." He has a PhD from MIT, and he has chosen to apply it to a curious challenge: Silver wants to be able to control a computer with a banana.

You think he's kidding, but for $50 you can buy Silver's MaKey MaKey—An Invention Kit for Everyone, which he co-developed with Eric Rosenbaum (both are final-year PhD students at the MIT Media Lab's, Lifelong Kindergarten Group):

Funded by Kickstarter (they set a goal of $25,000 and raised $568,000), the simple electronic kit contains a circuit board, alligator clips and USB cables and helps anyone turn everyday objects into touchpads that can be used to interact with a computer. People clamp the alligator clips to an object and then connect them through the kit to their computer. Touching the object produces a tiny electrical connection, which the computer interprets as a keystroke or the movement of a mouse.

It looks like a toy and all the material is playfully designed, but it's meant to be a serious learning tool. The site calls MaKey MaKey an invention kit that lets you "turn everyday objects into touchpads and combine them with the internet." For engineers, it's also a pretty good prototyping tool for tinkering with ideas and testing early-stage design concepts. As Silver notes:

"Some people are just totally goofing around [with the kits]. Some people are making devices so that their son with cerebral palsy can access browsing the web. I don't know which of those two things actually are more important. They're both, to me, really valuable."


[Image: Flickr user Brian Smithson]