Making the interconnected future WunderBar
The WunderBar is designed to be a simple launchpad for developing apps for the Internet of Things - without needing to learn about hardware. It‘s got a clever chocolate-bar like design which allows sensors to be broken off and positioned according to your own personal specifications, paving the way for a myriad of potential IoT apps – from policing your cat door to monitoring the temperature of your baby‘s room. With a crowdfunding campaign to fund the device recently closing to the tune of $111,472 – over $20,000 more than the initial $91,000 goal, European startup Relayr are riding high on a huge wave of interest. In this interview, we speak to Jackson Bond, Co-founder and Head of Product at Relayr and Chief Engineer Paul Hopton for the full story on this aesthetically pleasing assemblage of software apps and discrete BLE sensors.
JAX: What was the inspiration behind WunderBar - did you have any involvement with other IoT projects prior to this?
Bond: We had the idea since spring 2013 to start a cloud platform as a service for the Internet of Things. But we struggled to decide how to bring it to market: a vertical or horizontal approach. Should we select an industry, like home automation, health care, logistics, etc. and launch a solution into a competitive market space? Or should we launch horizontally and offer something for all developers? In September, we were accepted into Europe’s leading Startup Accelerator, StartupBootcamp (SBC), in the Amsterdam program. We had one goal at SBC, to figure out our go-to-market strategy. There we were surrounded by hundreds of mentors and experts in all aspects of product launching, design, hardware, software, marketing, etc… and with the help of the mentoring, and with rigorous customer discovery at app developer meetups and hardware/maker meetups, we discovered the real problem, that both hardware and software developers are lacking the simple tools to connect to each other. This is where the Wunderbar was born.
The hardware guys have Arduino and Raspberry Pi, as “easy” starting points, but the software guys, the app developers have nothing. So we thought about how to bring sensors and wireless technology together in one easy kit. We first thought about offering a wide selection of sensors, like a Forest Gump box of chocolates. But when we asked the community about what types of sensors they would like, it got too complicated. Everyone wanted something different. So we took only the top six sensors and connected them into a kit. We first called it KitKat, but Google had just named their newest operating system KitKat, and we did not want any problems. And so after some late night brainstorming with the other teams in Amsterdam we came up with the Wunderbar.
You’ve said that WunderBar is a sort of hardware ‘hybrid’. Can you explain this in more detail?
Bond: Hardware hybrid? That is slightly misnamed. We approached hardware with a software developer in mind. Its hardware, but we tried to make it fun and approachable for people who have no hardware-knowledge. So they can program the Internet of things within minutes out of the box. We are focussing on app developer tool paradigms like XCode.
What challenges did you face in putting the whole package together?
Bond: We from the founding team had limited hardware expertise ourselves. We come from software and mobile development. But many tell us this works to our advantage.
Can you give us a technical deep dive into the software behind WunderBar?
Hopton: There is a lot going on under the hood. We have probably nine different sets of Firmware running on the wunderbar itself - all written in Embedded-C. We use the Bluetooth 4.0 stack to communicate between the Sensors and the Master Module. The Master Module communicates with the sensor data and receives commands over MQTT (a light weight M2M protocol over TCP).
We have Android Libraries and iOS Frameworks to do some of the heavy lifting for app developers, as well as to enforce some security constraints. We will also be open-sourcing libraries for other languages such as Python and Node.js.
What are the coolest/ most significant real-life implementation examples you’ve come up with so far?
Bond: We have not focussed on developing single implementations. We don’t believe that we will be the ones to create the IoT killer apps, so are trying to enable developers by bringing the barriers-to-entry down for developers. We do however want to show consumers that even simple problems could be solved with an easily available sensor. Smart solutions should not cost 4-5 figures for your home or health care or otherwise. We think that once folks can buy a smart solution for a a few dollars in their hardware store the age of the Internet of Things will finally have arrived!
We have experimented with a couple of ideas:
- Health Care: connecting different existing devices (connecting existing bed sensors, motion sensors, smart wristbands, etc) for better supervision for elderly at home.
- Security: simple subscription based home solutions with a wifi camera and a contact sensor, sharing images of intruders with your trusted network and authorities via mobile phone, in case you are not at home, nor in the vicinity
- Fun App: see our video: You have Snail Mail App, using the light/proximity sensor, to let you know when the mail arrives.
Do you think efforts on the part of Eclipse to avoid fragmentation within the IoT will be successful? Do you think more could be done?
Hopton: Ian Skerrret, Benjamin Cabé and the rest of the Eclipse IoT group are leading a really strong effort. We are using MQTT and the Paho library for communications between the WunderBar and the platform, we also expect to be contributing back. Interoperability is such an important topic for IoT that people developing platforms should utilise existing platforms where possible. A part of me remains sceptical - on a practical level there are so many concepts of what the IoT is, and how it should work - there can be no single platform at the moment. I do believe that well engineered components like MQTT will see wider adoption. and that is a good thing.
Oracle is positioning Java as the platform that will ground the internet of things - what is your opinion on this?
Hopton: Java as a language is showing it’s age, especially with the framework-itis that has defined J2EE development over the last few years. Younger programmers are just finding dynamic languages more attractive. That is why we are seeing an increase in the number of platforms running interpreters for Dynamic languages like Node.js or Python.
Probably the core issue is one of image. Many of the bigger trends in IoT are Open Source and I don’t see much good will towards Oracle from the OSS crowd.
Finally, congratulations on such a successful tech Kickstarter! What do you think is the ‘secret sauce’ behind getting people to back your project?
Bond: Secret Sauce is good social media and media preparation a couple months in advance (see my article on our crowdfunding experience) and having a strong network effect at the beginning if possible. We were helped by Paul Poutanen, Founder of mob4hire. He wanted to offer his network of 60k mobile developers and testers a first shot at getting the Wunderbar, so we chatted with him, and really liked what he is doing for the mobile world, and offered to give his community first access to the best prices for the first 4 hours of the campaign, before we publicized it. Paul sent out an announcement to his “mobsters” with the special offer, 24 hours before we launched alerting them to the deal. That really helped give us early traction from around the world, I think we got about 25 backers from the mobsters. Without the “mobsters”, we would have been so successful. Another luck was that we went with Dragon, a much smaller, selective and niche site, which is watched closely by the industry. 4 global distributors for electronics saw us there and approached us. One of them, a big European media cpany, also volunteered to send a mailing to their 150k electronics readers, in exchange for a special price on the Wunderbar. This also brought about 60 backers. Had we been on Kickstarter, we would not have been noticed among all the other hardware projects.
We are still taking pre-orders at: http://relayr.io/wunderbar.html