Q&A with Peter Kaempf: The Startup within 160-Year-Old STABILO & the Making of Digipen

I recently reconnected with Peter Kaempf, a member of the innovative creator community on the HWTrek platform, who I had met at SXSW in Austin last year and who my co-workers ran into at the Intel Partner Summit at Embedded World in Nuremberg. Peter is Head of Special Product Development at STABILO International GmbH. Fortunately for us, he was keen to talk with us about the development of Digipen and so provided a wonderful interview. Enjoy….

Peter Kaempf and HWTrek CEO Lucas Wang (Intel Partner Summit, Embedded World 2017)

Please introduce yourself and your project?

The Digipen is a sensor-enhanced writing instrument with internal data processing capabilities and an external data link for communication with compatible devices. It will register accelerations and its position in space and correct this position data for drift. At the same time, it can be used as a regular ballpoint pen, on regular paper. Motion data can be stored in 64 Mbit of internal memory or transmitted via a BLE connection to a connected device. Myself, I directed the STABILO pen development since 2000 and have a background in aerospace engineering. We have been looking for ways to connect handwriting and computers for years, and a few years ago I decided to jump into this venture full time. Thankfully, the company trusted me to do this, so I assembled a small team of engineers and started the development of the Digipen. Including myself, we are now 5 people working on hard- and software. On the sales side, we currently use an external consultant and are in the process of building up our own expertise.

When we first met, you were demoing Digipen at SXSW 2016 in the German Haus – very much in the spirit of a startup, something a bit unusual for a large, more than 160-year-old company. Was this “startup approach” a calculated part of the product development process and marketing strategy for Digipen?

Yes, absolutely for the development. While the company culture is a valuable part of STABILO, it is less well suited to a geeky, risk-taking undertaking. I figured we need a different culture to become successful quickly, at the price of an increased risk of screw-ups. Yes, we had screw-ups, but they were limited, so I am very happy with the outcome. On the marketing side, I hope to profit from the high brand awareness STABILO enjoys in Europe, and the SXSW demo was rather unusual for our general approach.

What’s the inspiration for your project? What problem does it solve or address?

We study the importance of handwriting and see that kids today have less handwriting proficiency than the generations before. You can’t blame them – with all the digital distractions, there is simply not much time left for developing the fine motor skills required for good handwriting. In school, this becomes problematic: The curriculum expects them to have a high degree of automation in their handwriting from fourth grade on, so they can take notes and follow the topics in parallel. However, when this automation was never learned properly, the process of handwriting will absorb too much of the kids’ cognitive capacity – they fall behind and cannot follow the teacher anymore. With the Digipen, we hope to develop a measurement tool so teachers and parents can see how far a kid is on the way to fully automated handwriting. We also develop exercise books to train them, so we work to get a full solution in place that will address the handwriting crisis in schools. In Germany, we see severe handwriting problems in more than half the boys already, so this is a very serious problem that has slowly grown bigger and bigger over the last years.

What are the applications & use cases for Digipen? Do you have any interesting user stories to share around these applications?

The primary application is the measurement of the degree of automation in handwriting. But there is more:

Plot examples of saved sensor data from the Digipen

Since the pen can measure acceleration and angular velocities around all three axes and updates its attitude information every 5 ms, it can be used for motion tracking in 3D. The internal force sensor can be activated by an optional button, so a proportional, user-selectable scalar parameter can be added. This allows the pen to be used as an ergonomic computer mouse with force-sensitive input or as a 3D motion controller in a virtual or augmented reality system.

For users with developed handwriting skills, the sensor signals of the product can be fed into a pattern matching algorithm that will run on the connected device. The sensor fusion in the product will normalize the sensor readings, subtract drift and reduce the data volume such that the data link to the connected device does not need more energy than necessary. On the connected device, individual characters are modeled by Hidden Markov Models (HMMs) and concatenated to word models. A statistical language model is used to enhance recognition performance and restrict the search space. The resulting text output can be displayed and stored on the connected device. This is the version I demoed on SXSW.

One of the more interesting use cases, aside from education, for Digipen, is medical. An example is using AI to compensate for the hand movements of users with Parkinson’s. Can you speak more to this and other medical use cases?  I’ve read a fascinating report from MIT about using digital pens and AI to help detect early signs of dementia – Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc.

Yes, the Digipen can be used to diagnose Parkinson’s or even schizophrenia. Our first customer uses it for Parkinson diagnostics, and it can be used to fine-tune the cocktail of medication each Parkinson sufferer needs to reduce the tremor as much as possible. For tremor compensation, we would need some active movement by the pen, which we have not implemented. For us the medical applications look a bit scary, with all the regulation and certification hurdles, so we want to focus on the school market right now. However, we are happy to produce the pen for a partner who wants to sell it as a medical device.

What solutions did you use for hardware design?

First, I took apart all my computers, laptops, digital cameras, and cell phones to see how others do it. Then I made a very crude first design that used a circuit board wedged between two halves of a split wooden rod, just to see how the signals looked. The next step used a cylindrical 3D-printed body and then when the internals could be defined better, I got help from a German industrial designer to finalize the outer shape and the inner layout.

What solutions did you use for prototyping?

The first circuit boards were prepared with the help of local companies for small-scale circuit board production. I wish I had learned of HWTrek’s website earlier – when we met in Austin, most of the prototyping work had already been done. But for the initial small production volume, I still needed someone who could economically produce the injection-molded parts of the pen. STABILO does a lot of injection molding, but on a much bigger scale with multi-cavity tools, which would have been much too expensive. So I was happy that I found two partners in Asia for some of the injection molded parts that we now use for the first production use of the Digipen.

What resources have you used for sourcing and supply chain management?

Being located close to Nuremberg made the embedded world fair here the first destination. This was a great start into the field, and the next step was a cooperation with several local companies, motivated by public funding. With the combined experience we could cover the first years well. But I remember that it took one year until I found a force sensor small and sensitive enough for my demands.

For the production of circuit boards, we have started a cooperation with a Japanese producer of electronic components, so this part of the supply chain has been outsourced. The non-electronic parts are sourced locally.

What were the most difficult things to source for your project and how did you source them? 

The force sensor is unique and was not easy to find, and also the battery was initially hard to source. However, two years later the selected model is offered by a wide variety of companies – I was simply a bit ahead of the curve.

What tools, if any, do you use for real-time collaboration on your project (with team members and partners)?

Email is far and out the most important. I also use video conferencing and the telephone, but with my busy schedule, the asynchronous nature of email is ideal.

What have been the significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced on the project? How were they resolved?

The biggest challenge was and still is my ignorance. I am still learning something every day. Now, this may sound like a platitude, but there have been many face-palm moments where in hindsight all was so obvious.

A big challenge is also the time it takes to develop good software and the time to produce good injection molding tools. Fortunately, the contacts I got through HWTrek could produce good parts in a fraction of the time the molds would have taken here in Germany. Thankfully, my experience with injection molding helped to make the contact with the Asian partners very smooth and pleasant.

What are the takeaways and lessons learned from working on this project that you’d like to share with other IoT hardware developers?

Stay with standardized solutions and simplify things as much as possible.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to the beginning of your product development?

Oh man, this would be a long list! I would not stop talking to my earlier self for days. It is impossible to compress all the interlocking experience in a memorable phrase. However, one short advice would be sure: Look at HWTrek and get some help!

If you are planning a new version of your project or future devices, what will you do differently?

The publicly funded research program was not terribly efficient but at that stage the right thing to do. A future project will probably do without it. A new version is already in the planning, and it will use fewer components. However, this is only possible with new parts becoming available now. For the future samples, I intend to turn to Asian sources immediately – with my HWTrek contacts I see this as the best way forward.

We all know the phrase “hardware is hard.” Is there something that was much easier than you had initially thought when you started out on your hardware journey?

Yes, hardware is hard, but it can be measured and observed. Software is sometimes much harder, especially when an unanticipated effect shows up only rarely and by chance. What went really easy was the contact and communication with far-away partners whom I knew only per mail.

What trend do you see that is changing your sector/industry or what shift would you like to see happen?

The trend is clearly modularization and increasing complexity. Everything from communication protocols to legal regulations has already reached mind-boggling proportions, and there is no sign of stopping. We should not let lawyers and accountants make the rules, but makers and builders. In other words: Let pragmatic people with a vision decide, not bureaucrats.

What’s next for your project?

We need to lower the BOM and widen the applications. In order to help third parties to develop for the Digipen, we are going to add libraries for letter recognition.

And now for something completely different, fun questions….

What are your ‘go-to’ sources for tech information and news? (Do you have any recommendations for a must-read/watch/listen to article, book, blog, film, or podcast, etc.?)

Whoa – that is harder to answer than it sounds. When it comes to tech info, I absorb news like a sponge and have a hard time later to tell where it came from. Obviously, sites like StackExchange and Slashdot should be mentioned here, but also personal contacts. I am fortunate to know an electrical engineer who is simply a genius – he helped me with the first samples of the Digipen, and I still talk to him regularly when I have new questions. Google only helps when you know what to ask for, but with a friendly expert who knows your situation, you will find a solution in minutes where without him it could have absorbed weeks of research.

What’s currently on your playlist, what are you listening to these days?

Classical music. Everything from Bach to Brahms. My playlist also includes Tchaikovsky or Vivaldi, and the most modern composer on it is Philip Glass.

Philip Glass (photo credit: PhilipGlass.com)

What fuels you (coffee, tea, or….)? When you’re low on creative juice, what is your #1 method to get back on track?

I consider myself an introvert, but I get motivated most by talking with others. It helps to verbally express a problem I have, and explaining it to someone else will also help me to understand it better. The reply will lead my brain on a new track, and when the conversation takes its course, it will result in new viewpoints and new ideas very quickly.

What do you recommend (place to go/see, what to eat) for a visitor to Palo Alto?

I was once in Palo Alto to fly from the local airport there. Was a fun time, and I still have a deposit at the flying club. But I have an odd taste of what to see – most memorable for me were places like residential areas of Tokyo, a nightly walk through Shanghai or a slum in Kenya. The biggest impressions I got from unanticipated and novel situations. So go where tourists will not!

Sorry, Peter, I’ve been recently prepared too many interview questions for a bunch of members of our community – both creators and experts – and as a result, they are intermingled in my thoughts. I, of course, meant to ask you about Erlangen and Nuremberg.

Considering Erlangen and Nuremberg – you know how it is: You never visit the spectacular things where you live because you always can do so tomorrow. Only when a friend from somewhere else visits you, you show him/her your town and get a chance to see it with other eyes. So I consider myself to be a poor guide of what to see around here.

By H. Helmlechner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
What gadget would you love to have from your favorite science fiction film or book?

A time machine, of course. Next would be the Star Trek computer that really understands voice commands.

Q&A: Steven Zhang, Lead Engineer for CALM.—a Wearable ECG Device Serving Unmet Mobile Health Needs

I touched base with a member of HWTrek’s community of creators,  Steven Zhang, who is the lead engineer for CALM., to learn more about the project and its development. CALM. is currently available for pre-order via Indiegogo, where the team has successfully raised about $39,000 (390% of its goal) and has been certified by Arrow Electronics.

Please introduce yourself and your project?

I am Steven Zhang, Lead Engineer for this project. We have made an affordable wearable ECG device, which we are targeting sports users at first, with intention of expanding to healthcare applications down the road. CALM. is for competitive endurance athletes.

What’s the inspiration for your project? What problem does it solve or address?

We saw an unmet need in the healthcare industry, for affordable wearable mobile health solutions that serve everyday monitoring and screening roles. Similar products are either 10 times more expensive or too big and clumsy to be useful.

We decided to target sports before healthcare because most of our team are triathlon enthusiasts, and we decided to provide training safety and sleep analysis for the sports market, while we iterate and go through regulations for healthcare (medical) use.

What solutions did you use for hardware design?

We used Autodesk Fusion 360 as well as Altium.

What solutions did you use for prototyping?

Hardware: 3D printing and small PCBA services

Electronics: Nordic Semiconductor nRF52 Development Kit, Analog Devices AD8233 Evaluation Board, a cheap Chinese ECG signal generator called SKX-2000, and a Hantek oscilloscope.

Mechanical: Anet A8 3D printer

Software: Balsamiq, Sketch.app, ionic framework, Amazon AWS

We skipped a lot of traditional prototyping steps, went straight to a small batch of PCBA samples, and did not make any breadboarded prototypes. We also went straight from 3D printing to injection molding and skipped CNC.

What resources have you used for sourcing and supply chain management?

We used Octopart and Alibaba.

What were the most difficult things to source for your project and how did you source them?

A cheap, reliable, and fast provider for plastic injection molding. We discovered Protolabs, and they had what we need, albeit with some restrictions. Their online quote and DFM system made it possible to go from CAD to plastic faster and cheaper than going back and forth via email and site visits to a traditional injection molding provider.

What tools, if any, do you use for real-time collaboration on your project (with team members and partners)?

For real-time collaboration, we used Autodesk A360 and Skype.

What have been the significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced on the project? How were they resolved?

Getting the team to agree on unique creative designs. Using 3D printing significantly improved the process by being able to create multiple prototypes, and iterating quickly.

What challenges have you faced in the development of CALM. that are specific to the design and development of a wellness/health device?

Differentiating with existing players like Fitbit, Garmin, and communicating the differentiation to a crowd who are interested but not professors of fitness. We are always asked, even internally, “How is this beneficial to the normal person, who wants to stay fit?“ We are in fact, not targeting a “normal person”. Our target is competitive athletes. Trying to satisfy a broad audience often leads to scope explosion and being mediocre (less focused) at the main purpose.

What are the takeaways and lessons learned from working on this project that you’d like to share with other wellness/health device developers?

There are plenty of untapped niches for wellness/health. Don’t try to cater to everybody with mediocrity, create something that does one thing very well, and you can always add sub features later.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to the beginning of your product development?

Buy a 3D printer early on.

If you are planning a new version of your project or future devices, what will you differently?

We will be making accessories that expand the usage models for CALM. – such as waterproof accessories for swimming. We will also be working towards a medical model.

We all know the phrase “hardware is hard.” Is there something that was much easier than you had initially thought when you started out on your hardware journey?

No, hardware IS hard.

What trend do you see that is changing your sector/industry or what shift would you like to see happen?

More streamlined regulatory scheme for wireless communication devices, and medical devices.

What’s next for your project?

Ramping up mass production for this model, and kicking off development of our next model.

We are also continuously working to improve our analytics algorithms.

And now for something completely different, fun questions…

What are your ‘go-to’ sources for tech information and news? 

Engadget

What’s currently on your playlist, what are you listening to these days?

I am not a music fan.

What fuels you (coffee, tea, or….)? When you’re low on creative juice, what is your #1 method to get back on track?

A good sleep and energy drinks!

What do you recommend (place to go/see, what to eat) for a visitor to Tokyo?

Japan is very seasonal, research seasonal activities before coming. Cherry blossom in the spring, fireworks in the summer, food festivals in autumn, and hot springs in the winter.

What gadget would you love to have from your favorite science fiction film or book?

Geordi La Forge’s bionic eyes (Star Trek The Next Generation)

This is a screenshot of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s character Geordi LaForge from the episode Suddenly Human. It is used for identification of, and critical commentary upon the fictional character “Geordi LaForge”

If you are working on an IoT healthcare device or want to transform your existing device into a smart, connected one, check out our opportunity to jumpstart your project through our 5-day Asia Innovation Tour – Connected Health Solutions – that will take you and more than 20 other global connected health innovators on visits to manufacturing facilities, certification labs, top-tier medical companies, distributors, healthcare market research firms, and discussing product development strategies with more than 500 industry leaders at the HWTrek Meetups in Shenzhen and Shanghai. This event is free admission. We will arrange and cover the costs of a single company representative, local transportation to visiting companies, institutions, and factories. However, please be aware you need to cover your flights and accommodations, and possibly need to apply for a visa. Learn more and apply here.

A Chat with Lisa Kikuchi of SenSprout — How Smart Agriculture Sensors Will Transform Farming

kikuchi-300x300Through a mutual connection among the wonderful community of IoT hardware innovators on the HWTrek platform, I recently caught up with Lisa Kikuchi, Manager at Tokyo-based SenSprout Inc., to learn more about the company and the low-cost smart agriculture sensor that they’ve developed. SenSprout successfully raised $169,931 for its Indiegogo campaign on a goal of $10,000.

Can you tell us the founding story of SenSprout? What inspired you to start it and what’s your vision for it?

SenSprout started from a research project by our current Technical Advisor and Associate Professor in the Engineering Department of University of Tokyo, Dr. Yoshihiro Kawahara. He applied his research knowledge of network technology and printed electronics into the field of agriculture, where he saw a lot of potential for optimization using engineering technology. After publishing his initial findings in a paper, he realized that there is a lot of demand for his prototype soil moisture sensor and decided to take part in the foundation of SenSprout Inc. to accelerate the development and sales of his sensors. We see a lot of opportunities for our product to change the way people use precious water resources to grow various types of crops around the world.

I saw that recently your company has released SenSproutPro. Can you tell us about its features and applications?

We have already done field testing of our SenSprout Pro sensors in multiple locations around Japan and will start official sales in April 2017. Our sensors can measure soil moisture at 3 different depths (10, 20 and 30 cm) and also ground level temperature. All the data is sent to the server via a gateway. We have also developed software to view the data — smartphone (iOS/Android) and web application from which users can access the real-time data.

dsc03471

What have been the significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced on the project? How were they resolved?

The complexity of soil science has been a challenge for us since we originally started as an Engineering project. One sensor will give you different data if the soil type and condition change. We’ve tackled this issue by collaborating with the experts in the field. We work with professors from the Agricultural and Life Sciences Department of the Universities of Tokyo as well as scientists from other universities and research institutes.

What are the difficulties your company face to do IoT agriculture business in Japan?

Even though there has been a rise in the formation of “agritech” startups and new technologies globally and in Japan as well, there is not enough awareness among typical farmers about the benefits they could receive from utilizing such technology. Since we think of farmers and farming corporations as our main B2C customers, the difficulty of creating the market itself is an issue we still face.

dsc02248-1180x600

In your opinion, how can IoT technology help to improve the agriculture sector? What are the benefits?

There are several areas in which the sector could benefit from the use of IoT technology. First, the technology could replace much of the manual labor that still takes place on the ground, enabling the farmers to cut labor costs and to focus on more value-added work such as marketing and even processing of their farm products. Also, cultivation based on data and analytics could lead to better quality and higher yield. In Japan, specifically, the aging and decreasing population of farmers is a major issue. Technology could help solve this issue by storing their vast amount of experience and knowledge in the form of big data, which could be passed on to the next generation and those entering the field without prior experiences, including private companies.

What resources have you used for sourcing and supply chain management? What were the most difficult things to source for your project and how did you source them?

We have yet to use any platform for sourcing and supply chain management and have secured the supplies ourselves. We pick the suppliers ourselves and source all the necessary parts, sometimes even running our own 3D printers for the production of parts. For the supply chain, either we or the factory where we outsource the production takes care of sending out the products to customers. We still see a lot of space to lower the supply and production cost and want to explore more options for the sourcing of network modules. We currently do business with the people that we have worked with since our prototype stage.

dsc02234-1180x600

What are the takeaways and lessons learned from working on this project that you’d like to share with other hardware startups?

One major takeaway is that no matter how much improvement there may possibly be, coming up with a prototype idea, actually making that prototype, and showing/testing it with the people who have demand for it is the most important thing for hardware startups. No one will give you honest feedback or support until you actually have something that they can touch and experiment with.

What trend do you see that is changing the agriculture sector? What shift would you like to see happen?

We see that there are some interesting new players entering this sector not only in the production phase but also later stages such as distribution. New technologies and ideas that have come up will change the old dated distribution networks and not only benefit the farmers but also the end customers, which is basically every human being (because no one can survive without food, right?). I personally would like more and more young people to enter and succeed in the sector utilizing the latest technology, especially in the production phase and make farming one of the most desired and inspiring occupations for young people.

dsc02239-1180x600

What’s next for your project? Any plan to enter the overseas market?

We have started a project on remote irrigation control and have partnered up with other cutting-edge companies to work on this. Also, we’d like to explore the overseas market, starting with India and the US where we have already started some initial experiments. We see a lot of opportunity for our solution in countries where water resources are scarce because we could help farmers increase revenue and help save the environment by optimizing the use of water resources at the same time.

3step


[contact-form-7 id=”13140″ title=”Contact Form Test”]

How Portable Gaming Wearables Create a Truly Immersive Experience

VR headsets, such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC’s Vive or Sony’s PlayStation VR are probably the first things to come to mind when thinking about gaming wearables. Despite the literally game-changing immersive experience they offer, VR headsets lack important features of truly wearable devices, such as portability, usability, and a fashionable design, which create additional obstacles to the product development process. In the following, we review how companies could overcome these obstacles and create portable, user-friendly and stylish gaming wearables that pave the way of how we will play video games in the near future.

Avegant Glyph: Bigscreen experience in headphone form

Avegant Grid

In contrast to VR headsets, the Avegant Glyph simulates a large screen by projecting an image through millions of micromirrors directly to the retina. The main application uses include movies and video games on any HDMI supporting mobile device and laptop. The Glyph can even be used as an FPV viewer for camera-equipped drones. During the prototyping phase, Avegant developed the optics and circuit boards, while Tekna made ergonomic and aesthetic adjustments. Challenges included finding the right headset size for various head shapes as well as reducing weight, size, and part count.

With a Kickstarter campaign raising $1.5 million, multiple awards and a current collaboration with United Airlines, the Avegant Glyph is a technological and commercial success. (One of the co-founders represented the company as a participant in HWTrek’s first Asia Innovation Tour in 2014.)

If you are looking for DLP solutions for VR headsets with millions of micromirror arrays, then start by connecting with an expert from Texas instruments on the HWTrek platform. If you are looking for a completed solution, we recommend getting in touch with SuperD on the HWTrek platform.

The Omniwear Arc gives gamers a sixth sense through haptic feedback

4a487b7b595daa4d3007f4e0c7708225_original-1

Initially developed for football helmets to prevent players being hit, the Omniwear Arc consists of 8 haptic sensors, which send out signals to the gamers, revealing the enemy’s position. Gamers need to pair their mobile phone with the Arc and point the camera lens at the game’s minimap. In the prototyping phase, the number of sensors was reduced from 30 to 8, and the product design was changed from a skullcap to a necklace, as users asked for a smaller and more stylish solution.

The initial Kickstarter campaign of October 2016 was canceled, which might be related to a limited support of only 2 compatible games. If this challenge is solved, the Omniwear Arc has the potential to become a valuable companion to professional video gamers in the following years.

If you’re interested in creating a device such as Omniwear Arc and are in search of sensor solutions, you can reach out to Japan’s MegaChips—a fabless manufacturer creating tech for value-added mobile & IoT industry applications. They offer the frizz solution, a next-generation sensor-hub LSI for wearables and smartphones with high-end arithmetic processing and low-power consumption

For joint design manufacturing support, you can start your project development journey by connecting with an expert on the HWTrek platform such as Rone Phoenix Nest, which specializes in providing an overall design solution, including project evaluation, design & development, and supply chain management for IoT wearable devices. Also check out our interview of Roger Li, COO of Rone Phoenix Nest: “Turning Amazing Wearable Designs Into Amazing Products.”

Ubisoft O.Zen uses biometric data to improve respiration

ppt_deck-o-zen-retailer-pptx-2

Published by Ubisoft France in the end of 2015, the O.Zen is designed to improve one’s breathing, resulting in stress reduction and a healthy heart rate. From 2009 to 2015, Ubisoft worked together with Neotrope to develop the wearable heart rate sensor as well as a breathing game, which analyses and makes use of the user’s biometric data. In 2013, Ubisoft teamed up with Souffl to test the marketability of the solution.

The results of the market studies suggested to publish O.Zen for mobile devices instead of computers and to follow an early adopter acquisition strategy, which is often pursued by start-ups. Since October 2015, the O.Zen is available in France. With the O.Zen, Ubisoft pioneered the usage of biometric data inside video games. Biometrics is still a new concept to video games. However, the amount of potential application uses is huge: Using the gamer’s heart rate to influence the shooting accuracy or holding one’s breath in an underwater level are examples, which we might see in the near future.

If your biometric device project development journey is just kicking off, consider reaching out to an expert on the HWTrek platform providing a full package of services from product ideation to mass production like JoyMed Technology, which can provide product/electrical/mechanical design, verification, and contract manufacturing services.

For ECG/EEG sensor solutions for your biometric device project, look to experts on HWTrek such as RichPowerWell Being Digital, and Neurosky.

If you’re looking for an expert to help develop a connected wellness app or heart rate sensor for a device biometric device project, you can connect with Neotrope on the HWTrek platform.

The GEAR controller enables amputees to play video games

gear-trio_dsc1542-300-768x617

George Levay lost both hands and parts of his facial skin as a result of a meningitis infection 5 years ago. The idea to develop a video game controller for the feet came during a simple class assignment at the biomedical engineering department of the Johns Hopkins University. Levay and his fellow students Adam Li and Nhat Tran formed the GEAR (Game Enhancing Augmented Reality) team and developed the first prototype, which consists of adjustable padded footwear and 3 sensors to pick up foot movements, such as tilting and raising the heels. The PCB enables each shoe to control 8 buttons, which could eventually increase up to 20.

With the help of Johns Hopkins, the GEAR team could file a provisional patent and won the $7,500 grand prize in the 2016 Intel-Cornell Cup for innovative applications in the area of embedded technologies. Currently, the team is looking for a licensing agreement with a big company to make their invention accessible to a wide audience.

For a project like the GEAR controller, you can connect with an expert on the HWTrek platform from Murata for sensor and control switch solutions. Kyoto-based Murata focuses on the design, manufacture, and supply of IoT electronic components, including sensors & modules.

In addition, consider reaching out to Japan’s Taiyo Industrial for flexible printed circuit FPC boards that meet needs for fine-pitched circuitry.

An outlook to a truly immersive gaming experience

While VR headsets took almost the entire spotlight of gaming wearables in the recent years, these case studies show that there is much more to expect in the near future. I cannot wait for the day when I am flying at 30,000 feet to the next CES show, put on my mobile VR headset including limb movement sensors, hold my breath and control my heartbeat, while my shirt gives me haptic signals from all directions. Innovative gaming wearables are an indispensable ingredient to bring a truly immersive gaming experience to the next level.

Internal Resources

Turning Amazing Wearable Designs Into Amazing Products Interview with Roger Li of Rone Phoenix Nest

Accelerate IoT and wearable device development time with Hexiwear

The Buzz: Fashion and Wearables

External Resources

Wearables are Changing the Future of Games

10 Potentially Game Changing Wearable Technology Innovations

(This post was written by a guest writer)

Creator Profile: Federico Rodriguez, Founder of FRETX—now on Indiegogo

We reached out to a participant in our second Asia Innovation Tour, Federico Rodriguez  (Founder of FRETX) who joined the HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour, August 2015, to learn more about his project and his insights. FRETX launched its Indiegogo campaign on November 2, 2016.

Over the course of the past two and a half years, HWTrek hosted 100 hardware creators and accelerators to visit Taiwan, Beijing, and Shenzhen on Asia Innovation Tour 2016 (April), Asia Innovation Tour 2015 (August), and also on the first tour in April 2014. The fourth tour is currently underway in November 2016 and takes the latest cohort to Shenzhen, Osaka, and Kyoto to meet manufacturing industry experts, see assembly lines in China and Japan, and gain insights about their consumer markets for smart, connect devices. Learn more about the Asia Innovation Tour Winter 2016 here.

gif-chords_zpssoiwgwa0


Please introduce yourself and your project?

My name is Federico (from Argentina) and I’m the founder of FRETX, a French startup that develops a fun and dynamic product for those who want to start playing the guitar as fast as possible. FRETX is a hardware device that attaches to a guitar and lights up the spot to place your fingers so you can learn your very first song in less than one hour.

The hardware device is controlled by a mobile app that contains the songs and exercises, as well as letting YouTube teachers connect their content to our device.

Our Company believes that people can learn and share new skills by engaging with technology and without a previous technical background and with the most entertaining experience ever.

background

What’s the inspiration for your project? What problem does it solve or address?

Started playing the guitar when I was 15 and I still, at 33 years old, dislike reading music notation or tabs. I’ve seen many of my friends going through GuitarHero without the real experience of playing the guitar and thought that we should really make something in between and get more people into playing music.

What solutions did you use for hardware design?

We started our prototype with an electronic textile, but after clashing with the reality of its cost, we decided to go for flexible circuit solutions. Most of the first prototypes were handmade plus the help of Arduino and Digi-Key.

What solutions did you use for prototyping?

Real prototyping got a bit difficult because we did not know many things about electronics, so platforms such as HWTrek really helped out to reach suppliers and become more professional in our communication with the supplier companies.

What resources have you used for sourcing and supply chain management?

HWTrek and Alibaba.

What were the most difficult things to source for your project and how did you source them?

Understanding the scope of their work and reliability of quality

Is your team co-located or do you work with remote team members?

I work with remote team members in Pakistan, Malaysia, France, and Singapore

What tools, if any, do you use for real-time collaboration on your project (with team members and partners)?

Mainly Slack.

What’s the greatest challenge working with a team?

Keeping everyone motivated and sticking to our vision.

What have been the significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced on the project? How were they resolved?

Remote team management and cash flow were the main issues. We solved them with investors and hiring teams.

What have been the significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced on the project? How were they resolved?

The main issue was to face the reality that having a perfect product from day one is not possible. So after lots of UX testing and customer insight, we got into the fact that we could have downgraded the product and features a long time ago because they were not important to any of our customers.

What are the takeaways and lessons learned from working on this project that you’d like to share with other hardware startups?

Lots of UX design at the beginning will save your startup from adding crazy features.  We spent a nice chunk of time developing crazy stuff that we thought were awesome but just made it harder for people to understand and use.

Once we decided to have a product that teaches you how to play the very 20 chords in 1 hour, we got rid of a bunch of things and made it happen.

Keep in mind: UX is everything.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to the beginning of your product development?

Start testing and community building and find co-founders from day one.

If you are planning a new version of your project or future devices, what will you do differently?

I’ll recruit the team and put them together in a hack house for 2 weeks. 1 day on the production of prototype and 1 day of user testing during the 2 weeks before going fast speed or pivoting.

todo-junto_zps6h4a9auu

We all know the phrase “hardware is hard.” Is there something that was much easier than you had initially thought when you started out on your hardware journey?

Yes, you can outsource a bunch of stuff through freelancer.com rather than look for local teams.

What trend do you see that is changing your sector/industry or what shift would you like to see happen?

There is a lot of Buzz nowadays in new experiences and channels to distribute music and entertaining content so it fits our startup vision as well.

I would like to see more open hardware and open software around the hardware ecosystem so we can link easily between devices and grow our products value.

What’s next for your project?

We’re launching on Kickstarter in September 2016. We’re totally concentrated on that task now.

You joined the HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour to China and Taiwan in August 2015, what did you learn or what are the significant takeaways you have from the experience?

That some manufacturers help you a lot and you need to convince them to work with you in the same way as to convince investors to back you. Hardware is hard and it’s great that it is like that. Otherwise, competition will arise easier. Certification and all those legal problems need to be understood as well as manufacturer capabilities.

And now for something completely different, fun questions:

What are your ‘go-to’ sources for tech information and news? (Do you have any recommendations for a must-read/watch/listen to article, book, blog, film, or podcast, etc.?)

As a small fast read content that is super helpful to startups, I would recommend the Persuasive Presentations from HBR, which really help me on my slides and presentations. Storytelling is way more powerful than a nice looking render guys.

What’s currently on your playlist?

A bunch of Tame Impala and Hot Rats from Frank Zappa. Amazing record. Also, I have dug into some Japanese guy named Aoki Takamasa.

What fuels you (coffee, tea, or….)? When you’re low on creative juice, what is your #1 method to get back on track?

I play the guitar with Open G tuning that has a super bright open string. Also, I started to skateboard some weeks ago and I’m loving it. Both activities really make you feel relaxed and good ideas come inside.

While currently living in France, you’re originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina; what do you recommend for a visitor to Buenos Aires (place to go/see, what to eat)? 

Definitely meat and Mate for drinking. We’ve been doing that for the last 500 years, so we’re good at it. There are also some hidden gems like eating pasta. A bunch of Italians came over and the legacy stayed with us.

If someone goes to Buenos Aires, one should go to a Milonga, which is a place where people dance the tango, get a glass of Fernet, see the crowd dance and enjoy talking to the portenos (natives of Buenos Aires), maybe the most sociable crowd in this world.

And, one last fun question: What gadget would you love to have from your favorite science fiction film or book?

Real-time holograms such as those in Star Wars.

Interview with IDT—Oregon Scientific and the Oregon Air Smart Air Monitor

We interviewed a member of the HWTrek expert community, IDT, about their Oregon Air Smart Air Monitor, a product developed under their Oregon Scientific brand. IDT is an ODM/OEM provider of lifestyle products in three major product groups. They are experienced in areas of sensors, digital imaging, digital voice and music technology, smart home, and smart metering, and other IoT related technologies. They have 40 years of experience in sports and health products.

If you’d like to contact an expert from IDT, you can connect with Sam Tang on the HWTrek platform. IDT offers four solutions on the platform: ODM/EMS for Smart Home Products, ODM\EMS for Smart Learning & Educational Products, Smart ODM /EMS Service for IoT Applications, and ODM/EMS for Sport, Fitness, and Healthcare Products.

Following is a brief translation of part of the interview.  The complete interview, originally published in Chinese, can be found here.

HWTrek: During the process of product design and manufacture, what was the biggest challenge? And how did you overcome it?

IDT: Oregon Air is an intelligent air detector that has many core functions. The primary components include PMI sensor, humidity sensor, 1.3-inch OLED display and 2600 mAh rechargeable battery. Our biggest challenge is combining all of these components and at the same time making the product size smaller. So when choosing the sensors and components, we needed to balance accuracy, quality, size, and cost requirements. After continuous research, analysis, verification, and communication with different suppliers, we successfully put all the sensors into this limited space while retaining the original fashionable design at the same time.

HWTrek: Will the strong R&D and manufacturing capabilities of IDT be open to other hardware innovators? How does one cooperate with IDT?

IDT: Smart Service is a team dedicated to the development of other innovative hardware products. With an R&D team of more than 100, it provides innovative customers with R&D, industrial design, patent registration, product certification, product localization improvement and integration with mature supply chain management systems, production quality control, professional production lines, and logistics management to provide timely delivery of high-quality products to help their creative ideas become real industrial products while improving the process to reduce development time to 90 days to meet market demand.

IDT: Sanpower Group has more than 25,000 retail outlets worldwide, a variety of retail channels including distributors, B2B, and electricity providers. IDT’s Oregon Scientific brand has mature sales channels in Europe, the United States, and Asia Pacific. Relying on these powerful sales channel resources can provide a broader sales network for innovative creators to help them grow more quickly.

she101_1000_10she101_1000_11she101_1000_9

HWTrek: How do you improve internal coordination and integration of resources to achieve innovation relying on your strong group and corporate resources?

IDT: For the first time, we tried to promote our product on a crowdfunding platform. This is a new model that presents a great challenge for the traditional enterprise. But Oregon Scientific, always at the forefront of innovation, unafraid of challenges, and with a positive attitude, achieved good results by surpassing the crowdfunding goal on the first day. Next, Oregon Scientific will continue to make a breakthroughs in this direction, gather the online flow entry, in addition relying on the Group’s strong offline retail sales channels for transfer of offline customers to mobile terminal, followed by the formation of word of mouth guiding more traffic to the offline experience or consumption and the formation of an “Internet + retail” sales model.

The Oregon Air was launched on JD.com’s JD Finance crowdfunding platform in China.

oregon-air

Interview with Serge Didenko and Alireza Tahmasebzedah, Co-Founders of BLOCKS Wearables

We reached out to a participant in our first tour HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour (Spring 2014), Serge Didenko, and his fellow co-founder, Alireza  Tahmasebzedah, of BLOCKS Wearables, to learn more about their project and insights.

Over the course of the past two years, HWTrek hosted 80 hardware creators and accelerators to visit Taiwan, Beijing, and Shenzhen on Asia Innovation Tour 2016 (April), Asia Innovation Tour 2015 (August), and also on the first tour in April 2014. We’re organizing the next tour in November 2016 to Shenzhen, Osaka, and Kyoto. You can register on the HWTrek platform and create a project to apply to join the Asia Innovation Tour Winter 2016 cohort destined to meet manufacturing industry experts, see assembly lines in China and Japan, and gain insights about their consumer markets for smart, connected devices.

Serge participated in the first Tour, April 2014. Here’s what he had to say about it:

I’ve learnt a lot from this trip, not just from the manufacturers, but [also] from [fellow participants], so I think it’s great to connect to those people here [on] this trip…Looking forward to working again with HWTrek.

And furthermore,

HWTrek has been instrumental in connecting Blocks to leading manufacturing companies in Asia, superior to any other organizations that offer similar services. Not only that, they were also incredibly helpful in developing a detailed manufacturing plan with our team. Altogether it has undoubtedly accelerated our delivery time by at least 4 to 6 months.

Blocks successfully raised $1.6 Million on Kickstarter in November 2015.


HWTrek: We’d love to catch up with what you’ve been doing since you attended HWTrek’s Asia Innovation Tour in April 2014. What are you working on?

Blocks is the world’s first fully customizable smartwatch – an open platform for wearable technology.

media-kit-12

HWTrek: Since your successful crowdfunding campaign, you’ve opened to general pre-orders for Blocks, how is that going?

Ali: Very well. We are getting a good level of pre-orders with minimal marketing efforts and we are happy that our community is growing.

HWTrek: What solutions did you use for hardware design?

Ali: It took us a long time and many different iterations to arrive at the current connectors, protocols, screen type, and module selection, etc. At times we were actually building the prototypes and testing it, and at other times we used simulation solutions.

HWTrek: What solutions did you use for prototyping? What chipsets/MCUs/development kits did you use?

Ali: A range of different platforms like ARM mbed, Intel’s Edison, and BeagleBone, etc.

HWTrek: What wearable chipset/MCU solutions did you choose for going to mass production?

Ali: We are using Qualcomm’s Wear 2100 platform.

media-kit-6-1

HWTrek: What are some of the major lessons you learned along your entrepreneurship journey?

A dedicated team that is ready to keep going no matter what (getting investment and building prototype on time do not always go to plan).

HWTrek: What advice would you give someone who might have an idea, but has yet to launch a hardware startup?

Love what you do because you will have to work very hard for it and give up most of your free time for that dream. But the journey will be also fun as long as you have the right team.

What resources have you used for sourcing and supply chain management?

Ali: It was mostly done by our ODM but at points, we used help from HWTrek.

What were the most difficult things to source for your project and how did you source them?

Ali: The sourcing was mostly done by the ODM. We did make some higher level connections with the management of the supplier companies for some.  

HWTrek: Looking back, what are your takeaways from participating in HWTrek’s Asia Innovation Tour during April 2014?

The power of network – try to befriend a couple of hardware startups ASAP. Spend some money on actually going to Taiwan and staying there – there is nothing like doing development and talking to manufacturers on the ground.

HWTrek: What trend do you see that is changing your sector or what shift would you like to see happen?

Consolidation of the first wave of smartwatch makers – the big players are coming in. There is still a lack of a true killer application out there. We hope to bring the variety of much-needed sensors with Blocks.

HWTrek: Do you have any recommendations for a must-read/watch/listen to article, book, blog, film, or podcast, etc.?

kevinrandom.com/startup-ceos-101/

media-kit-16

Interview with Anton Zriaschev, CEO & Founder of Glance Clock—Now on Indiegogo

Over the course of the past two years, HWTrek hosted 80 hardware creators and accelerators to visit Taiwan, Beijing, and Shenzhen on Asia Innovation Tour 2016 (April), Asia Innovation Tour 2015 (August), and also on the first tour in April 2014. We’re organizing the next tour in November 2016 to Shenzhen, Osaka, and Kyoto. You can register on the HWTrek platform and create a project to apply to join the Asia Innovation Tour Winter 2016 cohort destined to meet manufacturing industry experts, see assembly lines in China and Japan, and gain insights about their consumer markets for smart, connected devices.

We reached out to a participant in our third tour HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour (Spring 2016), Anton Zriaschev (CEO and Founder of Glance Clock) to learn more about his project and his insights.

While on tour in Shenzhen, Anton had this to say: “Pretty excited to be here in China, so thank you HWTrek, to see how we are going to produce our Glance Clock.


3_clocks

Please introduce yourself and your project?

I’m Anton, founder, and CEO of Glance Clock. Glance Clock is a smart wall clock that is integrated with your favorite Apps and devices and display valuable information at the right moment.

Glance Clock recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and reached its goal within two hours. You can support Glance Clock by pre-ordering here.

What’s the inspiration for your project? What problem does it solve or address?

I was inspired by a book called Enchanted Object by David Rose MIT Media lab professor. Rose explained the future of IoT where ordinary things become enchanted by leveraging Cloud connectivity and its power. These all connected devices and Apps generate data. People overwhelmed by notifications and incoming information. The only one way ho to interact with this data is checking your phone.

I’ve realized that I want to simplify the way of how people interact with digital data and get notifications. I did not want to develop a gadget but wanted to bring new value to a familiar object. After several brainstorms, we’ve decided to go with a clock.

What solutions did you use for hardware design?

Altium Designer, if I got you right.

What solutions did you use for prototyping?

3D printing, Laser cut, and manual finishing etc….

What resources have you used for sourcing and supply chain management?

We usually use Digi-Key and local providers.

What were the most difficult things to source for your project and how did you source them? 

Sensors. It takes the time to find, test and approve a particular sensor. We usually order many different components and test them all.

Is your team co-located or do you work with remote team members?

We are all working at one laboratory.

What tools, if any, do you use for real-time collaboration on your project (with team members and partners)?

Slack, Skype for voice calls.

What’s the greatest challenge working with a team?

Organizing people and getting things done on time.

calendar

What are the takeaways and lessons learned from working on this project that you’d like to share with other hardware startups?

Iterate and make as many prototypes as you can afford.

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to the beginning of your product development?

Work with professionals from the beginning. Cheap labor cost two times more.

If you are planning a new version of your project or future devices, what will you differently?

Listen to early customers.

We all know the phrase “hardware is hard.” Is there something that was much easier than you had initially thought when you started out on your hardware journey?

For me “Hardware is fun.” I love to develop things and am passionate about good design. I usually over expected the required effort so I have noticed with such situation that you’ve mentioned =)

What trend do you see that is changing your sector/industry or what shift would you like to see happen?

It’s happening right now. Many things around us have become connected and utilize displays. It’s a huge potential for my business.

What’s next for your project?

Launch and Shipping.

You joined the HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour to China this past spring, what did you learn or what are the significant takeaways you have from the experience?

For me, it was really interesting to see how manufacturers work. How thousands of Chinese people carefully assemble product by product.

goals_steps

And now for something completely different, fun questions:

What are your ‘go-to’ sources for tech information and news? (Do you have any recommendations for a must-read/watch/listen to article, book, blog, film, or podcast, etc.?)

I read all tech news such as TechCrunch, Mashable, and The Verge, etc. I love to read biographies of famous entrepreneurs like Elon Mask, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates. Listen to IoT podcasts and watch TED talks.

What’s currently on your playlist, what are you listening to these days?

Armin Van Buren – latest iTunes podcast.

What fuels you (coffee, tea, or….)? When you’re low on creative juice, what is your #1 method to get back on track?

Walk across the city or take a long shower.

What do you recommend (place to go/see, what to eat) for a visitor to Singapore (or anywhere you’ve lived that you’d like to share)?

In Singapore go to Marina Bay Sands Hotel roof during the night and look down at the city. This is awesome view! In every city go to the highest possible viewing point and stay there. It’s the best way to glance behind the horizon.

What gadget would you love to have from your favorite science fiction film or book?

I don’t know… maybe something like flying camera from “Mr. Nobody.”

Interview with CTO of Betternet about Betterspot—Launches on Kickstarter September 14

Over the course of the past two years, HWTrek hosted 80 hardware creators and accelerators to visit Taiwan, Beijing, and Shenzhen on Asia Innovation Tour 2016 (April), Asia Innovation Tour 2015 (August), and also on the first tour in April 2014. We’re organizing the next tour in November 2016 to Shenzhen, Osaka, and Kyoto. You can register on the HWTrek platform and create a project to apply to join the Asia Innovation Tour Winter 2016 cohort destined to meet manufacturing industry experts, see assembly lines in China and Japan, and gain insights about their consumer markets for smart, connected devices.

We reached out to a participant in our third tour HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour (Spring 2016), Morteza (CTO of Betternet) to learn more about his project and his insights.

While on tour in Shenzhen, Morteza had this to say: “I am here looking for partners and gaining some experience in hardware development. This tour has been really fantastic. I learned a lot from visiting factories, from talking to projects from other participants, and the HWTrek team.”


Please introduce yourself and your project?

I am CTO of Betternet, a startup launched with the idea to equip the Internet for a better life—an Internet without censorship, spies or hackers. Betterspot is our next product, a smart secure router with the aim to make it easy for everyone to use the security tools available.

Betternet launched a crowdfunding campaign for Betterspot on Kickstarter September 14, 2016.

cable-0

What’s the inspiration for your project? What problem does it solve or address?

In a sense, the Internet is a nice place that helps everyone solve problems and find answers to all questions. But, in a sense, it presents the means for hackers, corporations, and governments to monitor activities and to break into one’s private life. There are many tools out there to decrease the risks, but not everyone can afford setting up one: they are either difficult to setup, or expensive to maintain. Betterspot administers the best tools in the easiest form.

Is your team co-located or do you work with remote team members?

Betternet’s headquarters is located in Vancouver, Canada. We have remote team members in the Middle East and Asia.

What tools, if any, do you use for real-time collaboration on your project (with team members and partners)?

We use Trello for task management. We also use Slack and its integrations for real-time collaboration.

What’s the greatest challenge working with a team?

A team that thinks together and builds together. It’s like playing a symphony. Working in harmony is the most challenging task.

What have been the significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced on the project? How were they resolved?

Betterspot is our first hardware product. We entered a new world in which its disciplines are different from that of software and, unfortunately, a bit old-fashioned. The most challenging part was choosing the bests from all the manufacturers around. HWTrek did a great job and helped us find our partners.

Betterspot_app

What are the takeaways and lessons learned from working on this project that you’d like to share with other hardware startups? What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to the beginning of your product development?

Take enough time to build your prototypes. Never rush into the next level before you have a fully functional prototype that you love! Even if it is a software feature that is remaining and you think there is no reason for it not to work, give it a try!

If you are planning a new version of your project or future devices, what will you do differently?

We are working on Betterspot’s user-experience for the new version. The look-and-feel and its functional properties will be different so that users can interact with the device a lot easier. We are going to do more fieldwork and will talk to a lot more people to design and manufacture Betterspot v2.

We all know the phrase “hardware is hard.” Is there something that was much easier than you had initially thought when you started out on your hardware journey?

No, that’s really hard! I can’t imagine how we could do it without the help of firms like HWTrek.

easy

You joined the HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour to China this past spring, what did you learn or what are the significant takeaways you have from the experience?

Wow. That was amazing! I learned a lot about the integrated hardware ecosystem in Shenzhen and the endless possibilities for hardware startups. I also met with innovators that were special at what they were doing. After getting back to our office, I received lots of emails from manufacturers. It shows the tour is really helpful for startups to know manufacturers and investors and to get known by them.

And now for something completely different, some fun questions:

What are your ‘go-to’ sources for tech information and news? (Do you have any recommendations for a must-read/watch/listen to article, book, blog, film, or podcast, etc.?)

I regularly visit Hacker News. It is a good mixture of culture and tech news. I also click on the links starting with medium.com!

What fuels you (coffee, tea, or….)? When you’re low on creative juice, what is your #1 method to get back on track?

I mostly drink tea. I bought a tea set from Beijing and learned about Chinese tea culture. I also bought a big pack of white tea that I drink when I need to get back on track!

What gadget would you love to have from your favorite science fiction film or book?

I’m not sure if it is mentioned in a book or movie, but I would like to have smart contact lenses to measure health conditions and to use as a display. I read Google is working on it so it is no longer a fantasy.

Connection Mode Dashboard Locations Network

Interview with Johann Kok, Founder of SeeBox

Over the course of the past two years, HWTrek hosted 80 hardware creators and accelerators to visit Taiwan, Beijing, and Shenzhen on Asia Innovation Tour 2016 (April), Asia Innovation Tour 2015 (August), and also on the first tour in April 2014. We’re organizing the next tour in November 2016 to Shenzhen, Osaka, and Kyoto. You can register on the HWTrek platform and create a project to apply to join the Asia Innovation Tour Winter 2016 cohort destined to meet manufacturing industry experts, see assembly lines in China and Japan, and gain insights about their consumer markets for smart, connected devices.

We reached out to a participant in our third tour HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour (Spring 2016), Johann Kok (Founder of SeeBox) to learn more about his project and his insights.

While on tour in Shenzhen, Johann had this to say: “I really enjoyed this trip; it was extremely insightful. I’m here with the main goal to establish relationships for future manufacturing and sourcing.”


Please introduce yourself and your project?

SeeBox is a unique ground-breaking tool and platform designed to educate children in physics and create the next generation of electronic and software engineers. Access to proper education in the region has left Africa with a skills gap that will hamper economic growth. Furthermore, there is a global shortage of engineers that will only become more pressing as technology use expands.

SeeBox is a gamified educational tool that is fun and easy to use by both children as well as students, offering unique benefits and no teacher required. It is also a cloud-based monitoring and control system, with application in the test and measurement environment. SeeBox has won numerous innovation awards, among them the educational category at the African Entrepreneurship Award in October 2015.

What’s the inspiration for your project? What problem does it solve or address?

SeeBox has huge potential for alleviating the growing international technology workers shortage. We want to change the way children are taught electronics because the existing methods are not producing enough professionals. This is especially relevant in Africa, where there is a dire shortage of technical skills, as well as a lack of technical training infrastructure.

The next disruptive technology confronting civilization is going to be artificial intelligence, as in robots. AI software will take over jobs of call center operators, and even advisory roles like law practitioners. AI cars and buses will drive themselves, factories will operate without human workers. Like all disruptive technologies before it, e.g. the industrial revolution, AI will bring creative destruction. It will destroy many jobs but will also create new jobs requiring different skills. Those who saw it coming will have prepared their children with the necessary skills as technology workers. SeeBox has the potential to empower young people to become participants in the coming AI economy, instead of victims.

What solutions did you use for hardware design?

Was done in-house by our own engineers.

What solutions did you use for prototyping?

Low-volume PCB printing and population, 3D printing for the enclosures.

home-banner-new

What resources have you used for sourcing and supply chain management?

Components are sourced from suppliers everywhere. PCB manufacturing is done in China and population is done by a local company. It is envisioned that later on as the volumes increase this could be outsourced to China as well.

What were the most difficult things to source for your project and how did you source them? 

The MOQ on many electronic components created a problem.  We ended up buying them from places like Digi-Key.

Is your team co-located or do you work with remote team members?

We work from a central office. Some of our engineers work from home some days and only come into the office few times a week.

What tools, if any, do you use for real-time collaboration on your project (with team members and partners)? Dropbox and Google Docs

What’s the greatest challenge working with a team? 

What have been the significant challenges or obstacles you’ve faced on the project? How were they resolved?

Financial and cash-flow constraints. We self-funded a part of the project. The Africa-wide competition we won in 2015 assisted greatly with the prize money enabling us to complete the project.

What are the takeaways and lessons learned from working on this project that you’d like to share with other hardware companies?

Perseverance, very hard work, knock on all doors and be willing to challenge yourself to learn new things and do what is necessary for the project to succeed. It will take over your life for a while 🙂

What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to the beginning of your product development?

Select your contractors and workers extremely careful. Don’t just assume that everyone is motivated, driven or even honest.

We all know the phrase “hardware is hard.” Is there something that was much easier than you had initially thought when you started out on your hardware journey?

Nope, it was pretty much all hard!

What trend do you see that is changing your sector/industry or what shift would you like to see happen?

The trend towards technology in education and the widening skills gap in education, with a growing need for technically skilled workers, and many traditional careers set to be replaced by AI and automation. SeeBox is well-placed to address the problem, by enabling more learners to be prepared for training in a technical career path.

child-using-seebox_slider-1

What’s next for your project?

SeeBox is now at commercialization stage. Development will continue, however, so we can expand the educational offering of the SeeBox.

You joined the HWTrek Asia Innovation Tour to China this past spring, what did you learn or what are the significant takeaways you have from the experience?

I build valuable contacts for when we are ready to outsource our production to China. I also established connections to future suppliers.

What are your ‘go-to’ sources for tech information and news? (Do you have any recommendations for a must-read/watch/listen to article, book, blog, film, or podcast, etc.?)

Dataweek, PC Mag, and several LinkedIn groups.

And now for something completely different, some fun questions:

What’s currently on your playlist, what are you listening to these days?

Mostly classical music.

What fuels you (coffee, tea, or….)? When you’re low on creative juice, what is your #1 method to get back on track?

I take a walk.

What do you recommend (place to go/see, what to eat) for a visitor to Johannesburg/Pretoria (anywhere you’ve lived that you’d like to share)?

It depends on what someone is interested in. If you like nature, culture, and history, in Pretoria I would say Union Buildings, Voortrekker Monument, Botanical Gardens, Groenkloof nature reserve, and Sammy Marks museum.

What gadget would you love to have from your favorite science fiction film or book?

I would like a holodeck room like in Star Trek.