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Posted on Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 5:59 a.m.

Ann Arbor startup creates wireless hardware chip that could revolutionize the 'Internet of things'

By Ben Freed


The Pinoccio is built onto a base board like this one held by co-founder Sally Carson. The device takes the soldering and etching necessities out of play so that programmers can focus on writing code and developing new capabilities for the chip.

Melanie Maxwell |

For years, amateur hackers and software developers have been able to manipulate computers and the Internet to do their bidding. Now, Ann Arbor-based Pinoccio is on the cutting edge of bringing that ability to physical devices.

“In the same way that the web has democratized sharing data, sharing info, it’s now starting to bleed into real world projects,” co-founder Sally Carson said.

“That’s the ‘Internet of things,’ and that’s really interesting and really exciting for me.”

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The piece of hardware Carson and co-founder Eric Jennings have created is only slightly bigger than your thumb, but can be wirelessly programmed and potentially could be used for everything from changing the color of an LED light to home automation systems to collecting scientific data in remote locations.

The Pinoccio device is an improvement on the Arduino, a revolutionary hardware chip that allowed coders to write programs for electronic devices on a pre-formatted chip.

Programming hardware, devices that run electric components, used to require intense technical knowledge and a soldering iron. When the Arduino was released in 2005, it opened up some doors, but still left other barriers to would-be programmers.

“One of the first projects I tried was building a motion-activated jack-o-lantern for Halloween to scare kids when they came by my porch,” Carson said.

“So I had a motion sensor and a buzzer plugged into my Arduino chip and when it sensed a change in infrared light, then the sensor would tell the chip ‘something changed’ and the code in the chip says when that happens ‘buzzer make noise.’ It was a great little toy, but the problem was it had to be plugged into my computer for power.”

The problem of being tethered to the computer as a power source is solved with Pinoccio’s built in lithium ion battery that Carson says can last for weeks or months if the chip primarily is in its passive “sleep” mode.

Each Pinoccio device also is equipped with a wireless radio that can talk to other Pinoccios, and Wi-Fi “shields” that allow them to connect to the Internet are available. That connection allows the chips to both upload real-time data to the Internet as well as be programmed remotely to accomplish tasks.

“A lot of the people interested in this right now want to use this platform to do their own home automation projects,” Carson said.

“For example, I always ride my bike to work and sometimes when I’m halfway into town I can’t remember whether I left my garage open or not, so I’ll ride all the way back to check. If I had a Pinoccio hooked up with a sensor to know if the door is open or not I could go to a web page and see what the sensor reading was.”

Conversely, if Carson had a Wi-Fi enabled Pinoccio with her, it could sense when she enters or leaves the Wi-Fi range of her house and tell a second Pinoccio attached to the garage door opener to open or close the door for her.

Carson and Jennings started an indiegogo campaign to fund the first mass produced batch of Pinoccio chips and already have raised nearly $30,000 of their $60,000 goal with about a month to go. The company has picked up interest from Wired and Make magazines as well as the blog on, an industry leader in supplying hardware gizmos and gadgets.


Sally Carson's background is in user experience. From her office on State Street she directs the company's efforts to make the Pinoccio user friendly.

Melanie Maxwell |

Carson said the device’s ability to record data on an SD memory card also could make the chip an invaluable tool for scientists in a wide range of fields. Her husband currently is in Brazil studying tree frogs and his team spends hours in the field locating different species of frogs by listening for unique song frequencies.

“If they had a bunch of Pinoccios with little microphones attached, they could program them to recognize different frequencies and record it,” she said.

“The data could then be wirelessly uploaded and used to get a better idea of the movement patterns of different species.”

The device currently is being targeted to early adaptors and those with extensive programming experience who are able to take advantage of the chip’s capabilities.

Carson said she hopes the open source nature of the community will lead to sharing of these codes that will make it possible (eventually) for novices to attempt their own programming projects.

“… I will also be working on writing a bunch of tutorials that will go on the site to help people who would have no idea what to do after unpacking the box,” she said.

“That’s really important to me because I’m more like that, I’m still new to this world. I’ve been interested in it for seven years but I haven’t found that there’s an easy entry point to start working with the stuff. I want to make it accessible for beginners or teachers to use in a classroom teaching basic programming.”

While they currently have lined up manufacturing partners across North America for various pieces of the chip, Carson and Jennings hope to raise enough capital through their indiegogo campaign to begin producing the chips on their own.

“The revenue model is to sell it for more than it costs to make, which is nice,” Carson said.

“Coming from the web industry you’re often working on products where you say, ‘how are we going to make money off of this?’ This is old school commerce. It’s refreshing.”

Check out Pinoccio’s indiegogo campaign video:

Ben Freed covers business for You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2


Steve Bean

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 8:55 p.m.

Nice video, Sally and Eric. Good luck!

Sally Carson

Fri, Jan 18, 2013 : 4:50 p.m.

Thanks Steve! :)

Andy T

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 7:50 p.m.

I hang out from time to time out at Maker Works here in town. I bet the 'Go Tech' group over there would LOVE to get a demo of these. I know I would. They'd probably have some great potential/example uses.

Andy T

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 10:19 p.m.

Awesome. I hope I get to see them too. They sound really interesting.

Sally Carson

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 8:20 p.m.

Hey Andy! I'm in touch with the Go Tech folks now, trying to make it out for a presentation some time in the Spring. Hope to see you there!


Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 4:30 p.m.

I'm thinking of a great application of this module to use in collision avoidance in commercial/personal UAV's. Near remote/wireless, real-time sensing would create many jobs and get a multi billion dollar industry off the runway...not to mention get the FAA off it's duff!

Sally Carson

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 6:11 p.m.

Major — super cool! I have to say, one of the most gratifying aspects of working on Pinoccio is hearing all of the incredible ideas that people have about what they'd like to build on the platform.

Nicholas Urfe

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 3:27 p.m.

I wish them luck. The ecosystems around the competition - Arduino and RasPi - are very active. For wireless, the XBee is very capable and established. There are lots of short range radio boards from China.

Nicholas Urfe

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 3:18 p.m.

"It was a great little toy, but the problem was it [ arduino ] had to be plugged into my computer for power." Actually, you can run an arduino off a common 9 volt battery. Or a wallwart. Or any other 6-20v DC volt battery source. Or 5v into the usb socket. A flawed premise is a bad example to use when making a business case.

Sally Carson

Fri, Jan 18, 2013 : 4:50 p.m.

For a deeper discussion around Pinoccio's initial pricing, check out our blog post: Chris Anderson has been very helpful as we've been building the business. I highly recommend "Makers" for anyone who's getting into building an Open Source hardware business!

Steve Bean

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 8:50 p.m.

Nicholas, Existing solutions have a support system because they're *existing* solutions. To your business case point, Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson (in his book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, available here: encourages startups to price their products with higher future production volume and supply chain costs in mind. I wonder if the initial price takes that into account.

Sally Carson

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 6:09 p.m.

Hey Nicholas, this is Sally from Pinoccio. You bring up some great points! The "hack-o-lantern" was a project that I took on simply to learn the Arduino platform. It was a pretty simple project, and served its purpose. But, point well taken about messaging! :)

Nicholas Urfe

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 4:35 p.m.

Most arduinos have a popular size socket for power. The 9v battery was just an example - plenty of alternatives. The arduino is power hungry, but could have been put to sleep in this app (that is a bit advanced), making even a 9v battery reasonably viable. The other thing that is critical is a support ecosystem, which existing solutions have. If you do a web search on powering an arduino via battery, you'll get a massive number of solutions. I would be remiss to point out that the pumpkin example does not need an arduino at all. People are constantly getting beat up on the internet for using an arduino where it isn't necessary. In this case, it is complete overkill. Just a sensor (typically PIR) and a buzzer, either directly connected or via a relay or single transistor (the difference is a $20-$30 arduino vs. less than a dollar). Still, it is perfectly fine to use an arduino in a temporary installation like this. You have it up for a week, or whatever, and then repurpose the arduino for something else. I'm not trying to beat them up over this, but it is critical that they have a really strong story to tell. You often only get one chance to sell your story. It is critical that you can succinctly and accurately position against the competition, and you need to be fairly expert in your competition.

Ben Freed

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 3:48 p.m.

Nicholas, You make a valid point. If you solder a battery cap onto the arduino you can run it off of a battery. Sally said her problems were twofold, one was a lack of technical expertise, and the second was that the 9 volt battery would only last for a few hours.

Jamie Pitts

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 2:24 p.m.

This thing is awesome. The big obstacle for a hobbyist connecting little sensors and other devices together at home is: how do they communicate. This gizmo helps us do new kinds of home automation. I'll be putting in some support for the Pinoccio project.


Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 1:32 p.m.

Actually it isn't a "hardware chip", it's a small printed circuit board with some hardware chips on it. It's a "module".


Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 1:20 p.m.

I don't get it.... Can you write another article and explain simply what the invention is supposed to do?

Ben Freed

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 9:13 p.m.

Steve, If you'll notice in the video, the programmers can switch the code so that the chip changes the color of the LED light from Green to Blue to Red. Not sure if there's a major difference between "programming" and "operating," if there is please feel free to elaborate! Ben

Steve Bean

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 8:56 p.m.

Ben, I don't get the impression from the video that it can be "programmed wirelessly", but rather operated wirelessly.

Ben Freed

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 1:28 p.m.

G-Man, The chip is designed to be programmed wirelessly and either work as a "brain" inside an electronic device or as a sensor that can relay information back to a central hub (again, wirelessly). I'm sorry if that was unclear fromt he article.


Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 11:25 a.m.

Best of Luck!

Sally Carson

Thu, Jan 17, 2013 : 6:06 p.m.

Thanks Barzoom! :)