081: Knocki with John Boyd

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John Boyd: LinkedIn

Show Notes:

  • 01:27 - Knocki
  • 03:20 - The Device
  • 06:19 - Complexity
  • 08:44 - Software Distribution
  • 14:01 - Allocating Memory
  • 18:27 - Finding Hardware Hacking Libraries
  • 22:01 - Updating and Diffing
  • 24:06 - Migrations
  • 26:51 - Decentralization of IoT
  • 35:39 - Managing the Knocki Ecosystem
  • 40:17 - Communication Standardization

Resources:

Transcript:

CHARLES: Hello, everybody and welcome to The Frontside Podcast, Episode #81. My name is Charles Lowell. I'm a developer and your podcast host-in-training here at the Frontside. With me today is Elrick Ryan. Hello, Elrick.

ELRICK: Hey, how are you doing Charles. Welcome back.

CHARLES: Yeah, thank you. It's good to be back. Today we're going to be continuing the ongoing series that we've been doing intermittently on the Internet of Things. It's a really fascinating, almost to a person fascinated with here at the Frontside. Today, we have with us to talk about this, someone who's very, very knowledgeable on the subject, John Boyd, who I got an opportunity to talk with, I guess it was about a month ago and I wish that we had the podcast recording equipment there in the room because it was just a very, very well-versed engineer, exactly the person you want to be the CTO of your company, which is very lucky for Knocki, the company that he works for, because he is in fact the CTO there. Welcome to the show, John. Thanks for coming.

JOHN: Yeah, thank you very much, Charles and I'm excited to be here. I'm excited to join the conversation this week.

CHARLES: Yeah, why don't you start by what it is that you do at Knocki? Most of our audience comes from software and design and product management backgrounds. You've got a very strong hardware background. How does that play in to what you do at Knock?

JOHN: Yes, certainly. As you previously mentioned, I'm CTO at a startup called Knocki, which you can mount onto any surface and turn that surface into a user interface. We're recently funded on Kickstarter so we're in the process of actually trying to develop this hardware but the central concept is any surface that you mount this on will now listen for touches and vibrations so you can say, mount it on a desk and tap three times on your desk and control your smart home around you. If you have smart speakers or TV, you can tap three times out of four times and control those devices with a really natural interioractive interface made out of anything in your home already.

CHARLES: Tabletops, mirrors, I assume you've tested this on a lot of different services.

JOHN: Yes, I’m sure we'll talk about that more a little bit later but the goal is to be able to turn any surface into user interface. That means if you really wild and you want to use it on the window, I recommend it. But we're thinking desks, walls, doors. It has a lot of applications for disabled and handicapped individuals. Think of a child or someone in a wheelchair that can't quite reach a light switch, if they have a Knocki mounted on the wall, they can still knock on the wall to control the lights. We feel like it adds a new level of user interface to people's lives that can be helpful.

CHARLES: Definitely. Seeing the product and hearing you talk about it, I definitely got that impression. Now, the device that you actually brought into the office because you did come in and talk to us, like I said it was about a month ago but it was extremely tiny. In our explorations into the Internet of Things, we do things like control our lights from within the office. At least, we're trying to control our lights within the office. For us, we're using the standard kit.

We’ve got Raspberry Pis that we're using, that are have access to a plug and they've got a full Linux install, just a really powerful processor and by comparison to the things that you were talking about, that's energy hog by comparison. We think of it as being very lightweight but if you're talking about making some small device, it's actually really, really wasteful of resources, so to speak. What is that transition that spectrum which you moved from these one-off hobbyist things where you're using high-powered equipment to these really custom devices? How do you make that transition? And what is the difference between the two?

JOHN: Our devices are about the size of a hockey puck, which is much smaller if you can think of a Raspberry Pi. Pretty difficult to fit that inside of a hockey puck, especially when you want to start adding some sensors to detect knocks and taps on a surface. I don't hate or dislike the Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone Black or any of those really quick SBCs that can get you started with IoT. But they have --

CHARLES: Acronym alert. What is an SBC?

JOHN: SBC, single board computer. It's any of those credit cards size computers.

CHARLES: Okay, great. So nothing against the SBCs like BeagleBone Black or Raspberry Pi.

JOHN: Exactly. It's a great way to prototype ideas and get in a proof of concept out there and there are some cases where actually, they're great choices for a full-fledged product. A lot of cases in IoT, people are more concerned with things that you carry around with you so they have to be battery powered and you need to be a little bit more conscious about energy economy. You need to be very cost-effective with your components and it doesn't make sense to buy an expensive Raspberry Pi for each unit.

CHARLES: Did you actually start with a Raspberry Pi, when you were developing this product or something that's like an SBC?

JOHN: I actually went straight to a microcontroller dev kit. I started with Texas Instruments' CC3200 LaunchPad. It's a little bit lower level than SBC like the Raspberry Pi. It doesn't run Linux. The firmware I started off writing as a proof of concept was still embedded C bare metal software.

CHARLES: How much complexity does that add? There’s just a lot of nice things about having an operating system and being able to have your compilers, I guess you have a compiler tool chain, but having being able to install big programs like interpreters so that you can run Ruby and JavaScript on there. There's just nice things like scheduling. If you've got a bunch of processes running on this device, you don't have to worry about them, saying who's going to get what processor time. I assume that you're having to deal with all of that if you're writing the firmware by hand using C, right?

JOHN: That's 100% true. There's definitely some great advantages to using a little more powerful system that can run a full Linux stack or full OS. As you mentioned, the design complexity is reduced a lot because you can import other people's code and you have a full operating system to handle most of the drivers in the system. You're right. There's a lot more complexity. We have to write all of that ourselves in C. But that's the fun part about it to me. I love getting down there and writing drivers that can communicate with accelerometers and set them up.

As far as scheduling goes, for getting concurrent software running on your embedded system. There are RTOS’s -- real-time operating system that can provide basic scheduling. For the brave, you don't even have to use that. You can use a lot of the embedded timers inside the microcontroller itself. But to answer your question, it is a lot more complex but one of the tradeoffs to get a device that small, beautiful and also has a battery life that can last many months or a year.

CHARLES: Yeah, it almost sounds like the complexity but you're not going to save yourself any time prototyping it in tools that have all those things because you're essentially going to have to be rewriting your system from scratch, because those things are just a nonstarter if you want low profile devices.

JOHN: Yeah, there's definitely a lot of rework would have to be done but those SBC systems are still very useful for prototyping the cloud side. Internet of Things is hardware and internet when it comes to building out your cloud interface.

CHARLES: Yeah, that's definitely true. You're running a bunch of software on this device. The software that you've written, how do you actually distribute the software because we're very used to in our world, software distribution is not a problem. That's what made the web so popular. While we were willing to deal with really crappy tools on the web for a really, really, really long time, the distribution model was just so nice. You're also having to deal without that too when you're operating in the device space. But the challenges are still there. If you've got a bug on one of these things, how do you even detect it and how do you get a fix out there?

JOHN: Obviously, any software is prone to bugs. Nobody writes a perfect code the first time. If you do, I'd love to hear about it. Obviously, one of the big concepts in IoT is security and to have a secure product, we need to be able to patch bugs as they arrived. A big really important feature in any good IoT product is the ability to remotely upgrade the firmware or send the patches as part of the maintainability that prevents big software bugs from turning your IoT product network into a botnet.

A lot of our time is actually spent trying to make sure that our remote update capabilities are reliable, always functioning and globally distributed. You'd think this is an easy problem to solve but when you're working on a microcontroller that's not running an operating system, running bare metal code, things get a little bit more complicated when you want to make sure that any device anywhere in the world can install the next version of firmware reliably.

CHARLES: Right. At any time there's a software update, it's always, it bugs me and then do I want to do this and it's always optional. There's none of that, right? It’s just what a new version of the firmware goes out, boom! It goes out there.

JOHN: You can design it in different ways. There are some great products out there. Apply the firmware update through the user's phone so you may open up your products application and it says, "There's an update available. Go update." That's definitely one way to do it but that's the problem if the user is not home and maybe they've set this device up in a guest house and they won't be home for six more months, then you have a device that could be vulnerable for six months, which is a long time in the world of software.

CHARLES: Yeah, that's true.

JOHN: To get around that, obviously our preferred solution is to have the device checked into our cloud servers to see if the device itself has updates available and then go through the download and update process that way, just to make sure even if the user is not home or never opens their mobile app, it will still get those critical security updates.

CHARLES: Sounds hard. You're running a risk of bricking someone's device if that update doesn't go very well or it loses internet in the middle or power.

JOHN: Very true, especially when you go towards a bare metal microcontroller with limited memory and limited processing capabilities, unreliable internet connection, a lot of work has to be done on the device side to make sure if something goes wrong during the firmware download process or installing the image correctly that it has a backup image. If you're downloading a new firmware upgrade and the download gets corrupted halfway through, make sure you have an old image that you can boot into. That's one part of it. The other part is detecting that it went bad if it gets past downloads in your image and then it reboot itself and tries to boot into it, how do you know that that image actually isn't behaving the way you want it to and then go ahead and revert back into that original stable version.

CHARLES: I assume there's some key so that you can verify, not only that the image is not corrupt but it's a certified Knocki image that's coming down the wire?

JOHN: Exactly. We signature verification, again something that I think anybody on the internet should be using when you download new software but make sure that the new firmware update was actually written by Knocki and you're not installing someone else's code. Another important factor is just please use HTTPS secure SSL connections to your server, then that reduces the possibility of someone taking over and giving you their own firmware image.

But there are a lot of low power devices out there that are being used to make IoT products. These low power devices are important for many reasons but they have restrictions and sometimes, their security capabilities are limited. Maybe doing encryption on the device and actually are doing certificate verification. That's a costly operation.

CHARLES: It sounds like there's a lot of cycles that that consumes.

JOHN: Definitely. Most people try to make sure they have the resources to solve these problems but at the same time, there are a lot of developers out there that are cutting corners and that's where you get these big news stories about IoT products getting taken over.

CHARLES: Along that vein, it's your reality but it constantly blows my mind that things that you're living without when you're programming for these devices like Knocki is do you have to write your own network stack? When you're doing these downloads, that's kind of like got it all. You've got the encryption piece that you've got to do to make sure that you're connecting over SSL so you've got to do the whole handshake and you've got to do the key exchange and the certificate verification and then the packets come in asynchronously so your message is arriving asynchronously in bits so the header is being assembled, now I've got the HTTP headers, now I can go ahead and get the body. There's a lot that happens for us when we're making a simple Ruby request. We're basically like resource.get. Boom! And it just comes to us fully assembled in memory. How much do you have to hand roll all of that? Are there libraries for doing it? How do you put that process together of just even downloading the image?

JOHN: Fortunately, there are tons of open source freely available libraries for embedded C software that can help us solve these problems --

CHARLES: Is this like a genre of software like if I want to go look for these libraries, how I look for them?

JOHN: In my example, all of our firmware is written in C or C++. Since we're working on a microcontroller with limited resources, it's important to look for libraries that don't use dynamic memory allocation. That's why it's a really big [inaudible]. Some software relies really heavily on that but --

CHARLES: When you say dynamic memory allocation, you're talking about like Malloc?

JOHN: Exactly.

CHARLES: You are basically are allocating memory on the heap. When you're doing for this, you basically want to do everything on the stack. Now, is that just because the instruction set of the processor doesn't support it or is it because it's just there be dragons like here there be dragons?

JOHN: That particular scenario is actually just due to resource limitations. There's just not a lot of memory on our device. We do use Malloc in some cases but we have to be very careful about when we use it and make sure that it's always going to have the memory required or if it doesn't have the memory required, there's some fail safes involved. If you just use someone else's open source library and they're allocating memory left and right, they could end up causing issues on your embedded system.

CHARLES: Right. Now, just a little bit of background for people who might not be fully familiar with Malloc, it's just when you're executing a program, you have this heap memory, which is where you store random stuff and then you have your stuff on like the call stack. Your variables that are on the call stack are in one place and then your just generic data structures that could be accessed from anywhere are in this thing called the heap. Our dynamic languages that we use like Ruby and JavaScript, the heap is hot stuff. Like everything gets allocated on the heap, that's why they consume these huge amounts of memory and then the things that are on the stack, really are just pointers that are referencing these big bags of data that are on the heap. But it sounds like you've got the exact opposite situation where you don't want to have big bags of memory that are just floating around in a heap and you want to do everything inside that stack.

JOHN: Exactly. I couldn't have said it better.

CHARLES: Anyway, you're looking for libraries that don't do that because it sounds like any time you want to allocate memory on the heap, that's going to be shared for the whole program, that space is very limited so you want to be very, very, very strict. You want to control that process. You don't want any other library that's doing it for you. Is that fair?

JOHN: That's correct. That's also one specific example, dynamic memory allocation of the things that you want to make sure your other software libraries aren't going to be abusing. But in general, you need to make sure that any code that you're putting is compatible with your system. It doesn't have some special hardware requirement that your embedded system doesn't have.

CHARLES: Right. For people who want to get into hardware hacking, is there some golden seal of approval like the people say like, "This library is great for embedded devices." Like I said, a lot of times when you're coming into it, you don't know what to look for so what you're really looking for is some expert or authority on the subject who can say, "This is good. This is not good." It is like, "Don't even look at this library because you're going to find something else because this is not embedded-friendly."

JOHN: That's a good point. I wish there was a golden seal of approval or I wish I knew one, at least. Normally, most of our code that we uses are hosted on GitHub. Usually, we try to find software that was optimized from embedded systems and the author of that code will usually mention --

CHARLES: That [inaudible] me.

JOHN: Exactly. This was designed for microcontrollers.

ELRICK: I was going to ask if there's a golden standard when you're building these type of devices. Is there a checklist of things that if someone's going to build something similar that these are good things on your checklist that you should attempt to check off, if you're building this sort of device or want to build something similar.

CHARLES: Now, you mean things like update and whatnot?

ELRICK: Like updating or like how you were mentioning avoiding dynamic memory allocation. Anything, you can just shoot from the hip, like these are things that you should watch out for a lot of your battery power, you should look out for this or anything.

JOHN: Yes. I definitely think the number one consideration that the biggest check box and [inaudible] before it goes out the door is going to be your security suite. Make sure your internet connections are encrypted: SSL, TLSL, that good stuff. Then as we hit on earlier, making sure that you always have a way of updating the device but don't use back doors. A lot of people think to update your device, you should put a back door access and you can go in and download updates that way. That's not the answer.

ELRICK: That's like the back door that they were looking for in Apple like, "Do you guys have a backdoor to get into your device?" No.

JOHN: No. That can be a controversial conversation.

CHARLES: Yeah, or they're like, "Come on, really. It's okay. You can show us the backdoor." No, there is no backdoor. "I know you have to say that. Blink-blink."

ELRICK: That's an interesting problem that you guys are solving on how to update these devices. You guys are essentially hand rolling or developing custom software to do that.

JOHN: Again fortunately, we're using a Texas Instruments SSC system on a chip. They provide some core functionality, some core drivers that really help us out. For example, they provide a special bootloader that can really assist with a lot of the firmware download back up framework image checking, that sort of functionality. We don't have to write it all by scratch but we do have to write the logic to make sure that the device does check for updates and it doesn't forget to check in and talk to us.

ELRICK: On the cloud side, do you guys have to write any custom software to do diffing, to make sure like -- Oh, do you diffing? Or do you just update everything all complete, like once you're updating, you're going to get a brand new update or do you diff and say, "You only need this."

JOHN: Since we're working on the system that we're using, it just requires a fully-compiled image that gets installed by the bootloader. We can't really send just a patch to one part of the firmware, if that's what you're asking.

CHARLES: But I assume there must be some state that's on the Knocki itself. Just even the credentials for the local Wi-Fi network, what devices it's connected to, part of the system is updating and part of it is not, I assume but how do you make sure that that state is compatible with the new firmware?

JOHN: Yeah, that's another great point to keep in mind. The way we keep most of, we call it nonvolatile memory, every time the device reboot, it's going to forget about everything that was stored in RAM so we need to have somewhere in nonvolatile to store these things. We have a file system on the device that we can create files with different device configurations, algorithm, settings, Wi-Fi credentials, that sort of stuff.

CHARLES: That file system, is that anything that we would even be familiar with like ZFS or is it just a custom file system that you've written or that you found on GitHub.

JOHN: No, fortunately this is just a standard FAT file system. We do have some creature comforts there but that's not necessarily the norm.

CHARLES: You heard it here. Is that FAT16?

JOHN: No, it's FAT32.

CHARLES: FAT32, described as creature comfort.

JOHN: Yeah, we have a different perspective of creature comfort.

CHARLES: There's a couple of things because immediately, what this brings to mind is for people who are familiar with Ruby on Rails, they have this concept of migrations, where you're migrating the schema of your database and as you have to transform the data from one format to the other, you're running these migrations. One of the things that's nice about that is if, let's say I have some system that is at Version 1, but let's say, I have one of the devices that hasn't taken an update, it starts at Version 1 and it needs to go to like Version 100. But you could have 10 format changes in between there. Is there a way to handle that case where you're basically incrementally applying a bunch of transforms?

JOHN: Yes. That's another great point. We take this on a case-by-case basis. Fortunately, being a small relatively simple system, there's not a whole lot of state data to keep track of. But to handle that situation, we've written are own OTA server-side software that manages the devices sending updates --

CHARLES: Acronym alert, OTA?

JOHN: I'm sorry, yeah. Another acronym, OTA -- over the air updates. That's our slang for remotely sending firmware updates.

CHARLES: Sorry to interrupt. It's just we have to unpack acronyms.

JOHN: No, I'm sorry. I use a lot of jargons here.

CHARLES: You know what? The thing is, so do I and I just never even notice it.

JOHN: To handle that scenario, the way we handle it, our cloud knows what devices are out there and what firmware updates we've sent out to it. Furthermore, when the device checks in with the cloud and ask, "Do I have an update available?" It also tells the cloud, "By the way, I'm running Version 1.0." The cloud knows, if it's on Version 1.0, there's going to be some incremental changes that need to be made before we get to that last update and we can apply those changes incrementally.

CHARLES: I see. I feel like we've touched on so many of these concepts that are universal to development but only projected into the hardware space. We've talked about dynamic allocation of memory and data migrations and it sounds like what you're describing in a way with OTAs is continuous delivery, where you have some way of automatically pushing out an update and all the stuff that's involved in that. It's just really cool to hear to view through such a vastly different lens than what we're used to.

ELRICK: We've been talking a lot about communication between devices and back to the cloud in things of that nature. Does that play into the conversation around decentralization of IoT infrastructure and what does decentralization of IoT even mean?

JOHN: Decentralization as a new methodology or ideology that a lot of people are adopting, I shouldn't say new. It's been around forever but the idea is from a high level, looking at the internet, most of the internet is access through some central, server is hosted on you name it -- XYZ cloud hosting provider. The way you do your URL DNS resolution that goes through centralized DNS servers that say, "You want to look at Netflix?" Netflix is stored over here on this AWS server farm.

Decentralization, the idea is we don't necessarily need to talk to this DNS server and talk to AWS just to get content from specific providers. If you look at IoT for example, a lot of times in our case, we want to tap three times on the table and then later on, it will do the cloud, send the message and then turn on your Philips Hue light bulb in the living room. It would be great if the message could just go directly from Knocki to the Philips Hue light bulb, rather than going to our cloud, on some centralized hosting provider, then to Philip Hue's cloud, on their provider then out to the Philips Hue light bulb. Those are some of the really popular technologies that's a lot of people are talking about that really take advantage of the concept of decentralization. But it does --

CHARLES: Let me understand because why these would be necessary. When I get why it's compelling, if I want to have my Knocki talking directly to my Philips Hue light bulb without getting your servers involved, without getting Hue's servers involved, it seems like it's going to be a lot faster and just a lot more robust. There's just less links in the chain but it presents its own problems, like on both ends of the conversation between the Knocki and the Philips Hue, how do they agree that this is sanctioned by a user? That’s just leaps out. That's a hard problem to solve.

ELRICK: That you use some sort of like public-private key type of encryption to say, "It's me. Am I allowed to do this?"

CHARLES: How do you decentralize that?

JOHN: Well, I'd like to preface this by saying I'm not an expert on that particular subject but the goal is, if you're familiar with the bit torrent protocol and how it keeps track of a lot of different peers on a network using distributed hash tables, the idea is if you know at least one other person on the network, that person can say, "There's some other people that you may be interested in talking to, that may actually want your message. I'm just a bystander on the network and I don't really need your message but this guy is interested in it."

In our application, that would be our server. We have to ask our server, who's out there that wants to hear what I have to say. The server is going to say, "Knocki 123, this Phillips Hue is over here at this address, this unique resource identifier, he's going to be very interested when you have two taps or three taps on the desk so just go ahead and talk directly to him. You don't need to talk to me." There's a lot more of that goes into that about making sure that the network can heal itself if somebody goes offline. But as I said I'm not really an expert in that subject.

CHARLES: Right, but it really is compelling. Would you then, maybe have some device that was just kind of your coordinator in your home or multiple devices that would act as these bit torrent trackers?

JOHN: Yeah, I think --

CHARLES: Or would the devices themselves actually be able to do that, like the Knocki could actually participate in the conversation about what other devices there were in the home.

JOHN: Exactly, yeah. I think in a true peer-to-peer network, any peer can talk to another peer and eventually learn where the other node that they want to talk to is. You don't have to talk to any one particular person but you can ask anybody and they can tell you how to talk to the person you're looking for. The really big advantage to decentralization in my opinion is security. A lot of times if everything is controlled through one central point, that's one central point of failure. If someone DDOS's your cloud service, then now your entire network of devices is offline, just because one location got attacked. If it's a decentralized network, there's no one central point of failure and it's very, very difficult for someone to attack your network.

CHARLES: Right, that's true but the tradeoff then is complexity that your decentralize network has to agree, somehow come to some consensus. It's very easy to generate with consensus when you have one process or one point that's driving everything.

JOHN: Exactly. Another big tradeoff is ownership of the data and enterprise today are really big revenue your point for a company is being able to have ownership of data and extract meaningful insights. But if your device doesn't talk to your central server every time I want to do something, how does your server know everything that your device is doing and you lose a lot of that data. There's a tradeoff there in how you're going to get the data you need to run your business but also let your device run autonomously on decentralized network.

ELRICK: Do you think that this is going to be helpful or harmful to IoT? What’s your views on decentralization?

JOHN: I think it could be very powerful. Right now, I'm not aware of any products that are really using a decentralized architecture for IoT and the main reason for that is companies and developers are a little slow to adopt it because they want to have that ownership of every data packet that goes to the network. They own it. They can see it. But I think in the future, people will start to realize that they can still get the data that they need to run this business. They can still have visibility and control over the network the way they need to run their business without controlling every single packet. When that happens, I think it's going to be a revolution for the internet as a whole but it's really going to revolutionize IoT and devices will get lower power. They'll get faster and they'll get more secure.

CHARLES: When you say being able to get the data that they need, is it just being able to asynchronously spool off the data later? I guess I'm trying to understand how they get the data if it's never talking to some central servers? Or is it just you will get the data at the time you want it or there will be some delay? I assume you can also have your server being part of... I don't know. I'm just curious how you see that playing out.

JOHN: I think, every developer is going to have to tackle that on a case-by-case scenario but take for example a big brand smart thermostat company. They have a device that's going to control your AC heating and air and the house and it also collects a lot of the data from when you're home and when you're using it to be smart and adjust the temperature at certain times of day even when you're not home. Again, I don't work for any company that does that and I don't know how they're doing their devices under the hood but traditionally, they tap to a centralized server and they send a lot of this information whenever it's happening, always to the server.

Every time the user adjust the temperature, it sends an update to the server and says, "The user just updated." In a decentralized network, these devices can just talk to themselves and say maybe periodically or every day and it'll just send one update and say, "The user adjusted it." You can still talk to a central server but it doesn't have to rely on the central server.

CHARLES: Right. It's just what we call, an out of band process.

JOHN: Exactly, not mission critical.

CHARLES: Okay, I got it. Talking about the decentralization and interacting with other devices, how do you manage the ecosystem right now with Knocki? It's a general purpose interface to rise. It serves really the role of a keyboard or a mouse or some way of controlling other devices and other systems. I assume that in order to do that, you have to understand the capabilities of those systems or maybe you don't. How do you integrate these two devices? Let’s go with the thermostat and the Knocki or maybe one that you're more familiar with that you've done. Do you all have to write the integration? Can a third party write the integration? Or is there some way to automatically discover and map the existing inputs of the device. I feel like we've got all these new devices are coming out day to day then and now, there's more and more permutations in which to confine these devices into a coherent system and I'm just curious to hear about that integration story from your perspective.

JOHN: Certainly. If we want to configure our Knocki to tap three times and turn on our Philips Hue light bulbs -- I keep using Philips Hue just because that's what I've been actively working on lately. We currently rewrite the integrations in our own backend so the user pulls up the mobile app and says, "Knocki on my desk, every time I tap three times, listen to this Philips Hue," and then we have an integration where in the mobile app, they can essentially set a lot of the parameters that a Philips Hue light would use based on API that Philips Hue would provide us. That's the way most integrations are going to happen with third party products. They expose an API and we can write a little module and the user can configure that API.

CHARLES: I see and as far as making affordances for third party people, if they want to change the behavior or add like intelligence, obviously they can configure it from the app but if I want to say add behaviors or something like that.

JOHN: When you say add behaviors, you mean add new --

CHARLES: I mean like, rather than turning the lights on and off, say I want to strobe the lights or flash the lights, maybe I'm someone who's running a theater or something and during intermission, I want to knock three times to flash the overhead lights. I don't know if that's something that your integration with Hue could do but if I want to be able to add that.

JOHN: Okay, I see your question. We try to enable as much of the products functionality as possible through our own integration on our mobile app but say, you're a hacker and you've come up with your own smart light that turns on any sort of party mode and flashes different colors whenever you want and your Philips Hue or any other smart light just can't quite do what you wanted to do. In the future, our goal is to have an open API that people can access and they can hopefully control their own homemade IoT devices.

CHARLES: Now, what about for existing ones. You can definitely flash the lights with the Philip Hue but you're going have to have some custom software to do it, right? Do you see what I mean? You have to send a series of messages to it in sequence.

JOHN: In that scenario, we currently don't support that and don't have a plan to support that. In our research, that's a really small use case of people that would be interested in that. Also, it's difficult now if we wanted to do some sort repeated command, you knock three times and then every 30 seconds, it's going to send a command in your light bulbs. We have to be careful about having processes that run away and you have a bunch of CPU power forever in the cloud. We may include features like that in the future. I think the most likely path for that sort of stuff is we'll have an open API that people can direct Knocki's inputs to their own server and then their own server can flash their Philips Hue lights as much as they want.

ELRICK: Is there any standardization between the communication and what these API supposed to look, like the communication between devices? anyone can have an API, expecting one thing and someone that's writing software to communicate with that, wouldn't have to go look it up. Do you know of any standardization?

JOHN: Yes. I know there have been a couple of companies out there trying to put a standard on the market and I think a standard would be a great idea.

ELRICK: Yeah, I think so too.

JOHN: It would be wonderful if we could just write generic control structures or information flow structures and anybody can hook their stuff up to it. As far as I know, I haven't seen any that really fit the bill.

CHARLES: It feel like there's something that programming systems like software developers have been chasing for a long time is to have some distributed set of peers that they can look each other up. You can discover the capabilities of a thing without ever having to even know about in the first place. But I haven't really known that worked really well and hit that sweet spot. I'm thinking of DCOM and Java. There's like Java distributed beans or something like that. You have this idea of these objects in the cloud, which seems kind of analogous to what we're talking about now, except we're talking about actual devices, rather the software devices but who knows. Maybe it'll pan out where we'll have some standard for discovery and integration.

JOHN: It's interesting that there hasn't been one already. You look at IoT and it's really ripe for standardization because a lot of the communication between devices takes the same format. You’re generally just passing a small message saying, on or off or, "I read this temperature at 75 degrees. Who knows, maybe someone will solve it.

CHARLES: Yeah, maybe so. Maybe the folks at Kasita. They're active integrators. They were on the podcast two episodes ago and one of their challenges was getting all these 30 things to talk together well. Maybe we can follow up with them and if they could have a standard, what they would like it to look like?

JOHN: If they get on that, I would love to hear what they were working on.

CHARLES: I think, maybe they mostly, have a wish list. It is like, "I wish it did this. I wish it did this. I wish it did this."

ELRICK: Maybe we need to have like a 10-way podcast. It's like IoT companies and we can hash it out like the TC39 of IoT on the Frontside Podcast.

CHARLES: Right, and then everybody punches each other. All right, well thank you so much, John for coming and talking with us. It's always fascinating. You can find Knocki at @Knocki on Twitter and Knocki.com. It's a great product and like I said, always a fascinating conversation so thank you so much for coming on the show.

JOHN: Yeah, thank you very much for having me. It was a great conversation.

CHARLES: With that, we'll say goodbye. Thank you, Elrick.

ELRICK: Thank you.

CHARLES: We are, as always, the Frontside at @TheFrontside on Twitter, Frontside.io on the web or just drop us a line over email, Contact@Frontside.io. Thanks everybody.

124 episodes available. A new episode about every 0 hours averaging 43 mins duration .