Make Your Own Internet of Things

These little sensors let you put together your own electronics without the need for any coding knowledge.

As the Internet of Things proliferates, so do fears over data that things—and more importantly, the companies behind them—collect. That makes the idea of a DIY assemblage very attractive.

The latest attempt to combine the Internet of Things with the maker movement is SAM, an electronics kit that boasts of being so easy to use, you don't really need to know anything about electronics, engineering, or coding to build sensor-powered and internet-connected devices.

The creators of SAM play up the educational aspect of the kit, but there are clear selling points for grown-ups, too: You could put together your own prototype version of a Nest-style thermostat, for instance, or make your own remote-controlled sex toy.

"It's a really good and fast prototyping tool; it's all internet-connected and wirelessly connected to your computer, so you can get systems up and running in two seconds," Joachim Horn, CEO of SAM Labs, told me. As of this morning, SAM had comfortably passed its Kickstarter goal of £50,000 ($80,700) less than three days since the start of its campaign.

Kevin Haughan, left, and Joachim Horn, right.

The kit is basically a set of small sensors and actuators (most are around 2cm squared) that can be connected together wirelessly using the software that comes with it. You could connect a push-button to an LED bulb, for instance, so that when you press it the light goes on.

Horn and SAM Labs team member Kevin Haughan gave me a demo. Both 23-years-old, with backgrounds in computer engineering and mechanical engineering, respectively, they're currently working out of a space in East London provided by Microsoft Ventures, a startup initiative that gives the team workspace and mentoring, but not cash investment.

With everything set up, it does only take a matter of seconds to make a simple connection. Onscreen, you're presented with a simple drag-and-drop space where you can click an icon corresponding to your real-world component and connect it in a circuit with another. There's zero coding required and the pieces connect using Bluetooth Low Energy, which means they can be up to around 20m apart.

If you want to make things more complex and do have some coding ability, there is a "custom code" option, and Haughan showed how you could use this to program something that emulated some of the Nest thermostat's functions. He set it so that when a heat sensor measured a temperature over 28 Celsius, it would activate a vibrator actuator. I breathed on the sensor and, sure enough, the vibrating square skittered across the desk.

This actuator is obviously the one that raises ideas about homemade wireless sex toys; embed the vibrator in something sexy, connect to some kind of on-switch, et voilà. Of course, the BLE would limit the distance between the two components, but Horn said long-distance applications could be on the cards. He said they're working on a "cloud module" that would connect to the internet through your router so you could control systems anywhere.

Haughan explained they're also working on incorporating mesh technology, "so it'll basically be all over your house, as long as you have one module every 10 metres or so." This would mean you could put together your own little SAM network throughout your house in a low-tech DIY smart home system.

At the moment, that kind of functionality is also limited by battery life: a push button sensor will last about three weeks, and a motor will last for 30 minutes of activity before they need charging via micro USB.

Other applications are shaped entirely by which components you want to use and what you embed them in. Among the sensors there are those that pick up pressure, proximity, and colour, and the reactors include motors and a fan, and there's a Twitter software module so you can set up a button to send a tweet, for instance.

Because the parts are small, wireless, and, the duo assured me, robust, they're also easily incorporated in wearable tech. You could jimmy a pressure sensor in your shoe, and hook it to a LED in your jacket so it flashed every time you took a step.

It's all a lot of fun, and fits in line with a general maker movement trend towards greater accessibility. Once the realm of coders, fiddling around with electronics is now open to all. SAM certainly owes a nod to LittleBits and other hackspace community favourites like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, but sets itself apart with its fundamental simplicity and complete lack of wires.

Horn and Haughan said they're currently self-funded and hope to maintain their grassroots vibe with the crowdfunding scheme, though they didn't rule out other forms of funding.

But given they're just selling the parts for you to build what you want with, there's no plan to suck up your data like some other well-known readymade Internet of Things or wearable tech devices. And on the security side, Horn said that as the Bluetooth technology is encrypted, "There's no way for eavesdropping into the system."