Michael Karliner is a maker. He’s always working on something—like the remote control for his car, or his wireless doorbell.
Thanks to a new wave of DIY technologies, including the dirt cheap Raspberry Pi computer and the open source Arduino circuit board, building gadgets is easier than ever—and more affordable. But Karliner says there’s one task that’s still too difficult: building the digital interfaces that let you control those gadgets.
“User interfaces are hard,” he says. “You can do an awful lot in a few hundred lines of code on a Raspberry Pi. But then you’re stuck with: ‘How do I actually use this’?”
Yes, there are a few online tools that help you build mobile apps that can talk to your gadgets. But Karliner didn’t like the idea of sharing his data some company. So, in classic hacker fashion, he built his own tool that can ease the process. And you can use it too.
It’s called ThingStudio. It helps you create mobile apps that control devices across the so-called Internet of Things. With it, you add new interface doohickies to your app—such as buttons, sliders, and progress bars—with only a few lines of code. And as you add new objects, they appear on the screen in real-time so that you can see how your changes effect the overall design.
Karliner hopes this toolkit will help DIYers created gadgets that are easier to use—and that respect people’s privacy. And for large companies and other organizations that hold sensitive information—such as hospitals—it may help connect equipment to networks without exposing data to a third party.
Keep It Local
ThingStudio is an online services, so that users can access it from anywhere without needing to run web servers in their homes. But it doesn’t actually collect any of your data.
All the communications between your phone running a ThingStudio app and a connected device—a doorbell, for example—are handled directly. You just plug your credentials into the app, and it handles all the communications locally.
Karliner says the next version won’t even store your credentials in the cloud so that there’s no way that ThingStudio could access your data. Later versions may even include the ability to run completely locally with no need to connect to the ThingStudio cloud, but for now, the hosted model provides an easy way for Karliner to charge for the commercial version of the product.
Internet Air Conditioners
This isn’t the first time Karliner has built something like this. Although he’s best known for his time as the former CTO of music recognition service Shazam, he used to run a software company called Alex Technologies that created interfaces for industrial control systems.
“In 1990, just when Windows 3.0 came out, there were a legacy of green screens,” he says, referring to the old text-based interfaces of the mainframe era. so, at Alex, he created software that could help these old mainframe applications communicate with graphical applications. And he thinks that these old industrial systems might be the best market for ThingStudio.
“An awful loot of Internet of Things stuff are solutions looking for a problem,” he says. “But an industrial air conditioner should be on the Internet of Things, so that it can sense when it’s using too much energy before it blows out a sensor or something.”
Sure, there are many companies already selling connected devices and services to industrial companies today, and building automation solutions have been around for quite some time, but Karliner says that selling to these types of companies requires a completely different mentality than most Silicon Valley startups are accustomed to. Karliner, with one foot in the modern web and one foot in old school industrial technology, might be just the person to bridge those worlds.
On the other hand, he thinks ThingStudio could also be useful to small time makers trying to bring their inventions to market through crowdfunding sites. “This is a self-funded startup,” he says. “We don’t have a VC breathing down our necks demanding an aggressive business plan. We can clearly see a number of target markets, and we can also envision clear business models for each of them. What we don’t know is exactly which ones will take off.”
However ThingStudio ends up making money, he says that it will always be free for hobbyists and artists. After all, the project was born of his own needs as a maker.