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Opening Up the World of Robotics: 'The Internet Of Toys'

They like to joke around in the Hybrid Group's offices that they work with both the largest and the smallest companies on Earth.

They like to joke around in the Hybrid Group's offices that they work with both the largest and the smallest companies on Earth: From start-ups still in the garage phase, all the way up to a sci-fi film franchise so popular that Ron Evans, Hybrid Group's "ring-leader," can only hint at its name.

The Hybrid Group is focusing on how to get everyone programming for the "internet of things" using open source technology. When I called up Evans, he explained why, around the office, they prefer to say they they're focusing on "robotics"—making the hardware move. He also explained why he loves that his company is in Los Angeles, why most of the "internet of things" is just turning things on or off, and why the future can be found in a "really nice toy store."


Motherboard: So Ron, you've said that you guys are the software company that makes hardware companies look good, but what do you do for them? What area of software do you specialize in?
Ron Evans: We focus primarily on the different software components that are necessary to work a piece of hardware. For example, mobile applications, the APIs, the SDKs, the pieces that make it possible for other developers to use that hardware to make something useful. So that's where our work is open-source. That's been particularly interesting.

You came to us through Intel, who love our open source framework Cylon.js. That's a JavaScript framework that is designed to make it as easy to do device development as it is to do mobile development today.

What do you mean by device development?
We're talking to different types of hardware all collectively referred to as "the internet of things," but we like to think of it as robotics. There's a buzzword "internet of things," which is really just something connected to a bunch of different sensors, usually to get some real-time information and some other online information. And then what's a robot? A robot is something that has an actuator, or robot arms, legs, or motors.

What happens if you take a sensor and an actuator? What if it's a wearable? Well, wearables are the ones attached to your body. What if you take an actuator and attach it to your body? What category are you in now?


Right? So we call everything robotics, because we talk to a lot of people who are not necessarily technologists. They're business-y people or normal people out in the world, outside of the labs. We use this term "robotics," because when we say "internet of things" they don't know what that is. With drones and rovers on other planets, robotics isn't just in movies. People have a greater concept of robots that don't necessarily look like people, so we use that term "full-stack robotics" because the academic name—"system architecture patterns for software control of physical systems"—is really long. So, we call 'em full-stack robots.

That's much more evocative. So what have you been working on?
We have three different frameworks and three different languages that all do the exact same thing. Cylon.js is JavaScript. We have one that's written in Ruby that's called Artoo, and one that's written in Go programming language, which is called Gobot.

You may notice our obsession with movie-robot names. We live in Los Angeles, and the line between fantasy and reality is constantly blurred and something to be consciously transcended. Making the impossible possible, everyday. Everyday's a hack-a-thon.

Does being in LA change what you guys work on? Are you working with its traditional industries?
I think it's a real advantage to be a technology-oriented company in Los Angeles. We just have a really different perspective than the traditional Bay Area culture, although we're very close to San Francisco.


Los Angeles is where aerospace and robotics has come from for a long time. A lot of the drone companies and SpaceX and Tesla happen to be located in Southern California, building on the collective knowledge to create real-world things. The semiconductors come from Silicon Valley, so it's a beautiful friendship.

But we walk this intersection between entertainment and technology. We've been doing a lot of work for the company,Sphero. We can't add much to the topic, but if it sounds a little Star Wars-y, well…that's all I can really say. You can Google it.

It's gone from robots being behind the camera, to robots being the talent, and of course they've also been both at the same time. So, it's a really interesting time to be involved with that, and being an LA company gives us a different perspective on that.

That's maybe one reason why our open source software has become more popular. Obviously it's a niche now, to say we do software for physical systems. But similar to the way that mobile development 5 or 6 years ago was an unusual niche—before smart phone mobile development made you a weird bird—nowadays everyone's doing mobile development. It's a "My 18-year-old cousin made an app that was doing well in the app-store" kind of thing. You don't even specialize to be a mobile developer anymore.

So you want to do the same for robotics? Open everything up?
I worked at Apple back in the glorious five-color days of legend, and a lot of work that we did was about making things available and accessible to people. Not accessible as in "helping the impaired", although that as well, but to make it possible for they-the-human-beings to access technology. That was a priority for a lot of what we did, and that struggle still goes on between the people who find technology to be this magical thing.


Sometimes we joke around and say, "There are the people who build the robots, and the people who fear the robots." A lot of the work we do is trying to tear down those walls, make it possible for intelligent, but not necessarily indoctrinated-in-the-priesthood-of-technology, to access these things.

A few years ago people didn't make websites, but now of course, many people make many websites for themselves. So a lot of the software we've worked on Cylon.js and its sister projects are all about letting regular people program their environments, just as they, a few years ago, worked to customize their online environments. It's all very new; nobody's got it figured out, and that's why open source is so great. It's a collaborative way to think about solving problems, and that's why we call it the "internet of things" and not the AOL of things.

Everyone who I've talked to has said that everything has changed so much so quickly. There's a very open and playful attitude for people discovering what they find. Have you seen people applying the easier programming language you've made? What makes it easier anyway?
There are a lot of web developers in the world who have already had some experience with JavaScript, and there are a lot of resources for helping people get started. Usually JavaScript is the language people get started with. In the war of languages on the internet, JavaScript already won. What are you going to do about it? If you're trying to make it easier for people to do useful things, then JavaScript is a great language, because people know a little bit of it.


But that's just the beginning. There's a character arc story, if you will, of people at hackathons and hack sessions, where they get a hold of hardware for the first time. They get it, and putter around with some "Hello world" physical computing, which is usually just an LED you can turn on or off.

They start when they realize they can turn things on or off–and that's a powerful concept to start to play with. Most of the "things" on the "internet of things" are really just being turned on or off, and reading whether they're on or off. Starting with an LED, or a fan for cooling your house, or a motor for opening your garage door. It's just turning things on or off. There's a little more to it, of course, but 80 percent of the "internet of things" is turning something on or off at the right time. Or it's reading sensors and deciding not to turn it off because you don't want to drop a baby back into the bathwater. I guess people don't use servos to pick up their babies, but… you know what I mean.

I gotcha. It's a metaphor or illustration.
But most people at a hackathon want to just play with an idea. Most people have an idea in the back of their head, if they could only do… well, some problem. And "play" as a word has been unfairly bullied on the playground. The power of play should not be taken for granted. A lot of the ideas that we start out with, we begin to play with them. It's a way to mitigate the cognitive stress of doing something we don't know how to do yet. It's our excuse or our out.

"Oh, are you programming in JavaScript? Oh, I'm just playing with it." If you don't make something useful or if you flail around, it's no big deal. You're just playing. If you run into your colleague again and she asks how JavaScript went, you can say, "Oh, I did something useful" or "Nah, I'm playing with something else now."

That's why we're into the "internet of toys". Part of that is that we think we've seen, from some practical experience, that any useful technology starts out as a toy. If you want to know what's next, just go to a really good toy store and wander over to the science toys department. It's all DNA-testing and 20 different types of robots. This is on the minds of the youth, and this is where the next generation of ideas is going to come from.

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