Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Hardware isn’t easy — especially if you decline to take advantage of the global manufacturing infrastructure, build everything in a flat in London, and use only local labor and materials. But that’s what the creators of successful Kickstarter project Moon did, and they have no regrets.

Back in 2016, I got a pitch for the Moon, an accurate replica of our satellite around which a set of LEDs rotated, illuminating the face in perfect time with the actual phase. A cool idea, though for some reason or another I didn’t cover it, instead asking Alex du Prees, one of the creators, to hit me back later to talk about the challenges of crowdfunded, home-brewed hardware.

The project was a success, raising £145,393 — well over the £25,000 goal — and Alex and I chatted late last year while the team was wrapping up production and starting on a second run, which in fact they just recently wrapped up as well.

It’s an interesting case study of a crowdfunded hardware project, not least because the Moon team made the unusual choice to keep everything local: from the resin casting of the moon itself to the chassis and electronics.

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“At the time we wanted to make sure that we made them correctly, and that we didn’t spend a lot of our energy and money prototyping with a factory,” du Preez said. “We’ve seen a lot of Kickstarter campaigns go straight to China, to some manufacturing facility, and we were afraid we’d lose a lot of the quality of the product if we did that.”

The chief benefit, in addition to the good feeling they got by sourcing everything from no further than the next town over, was the ability to talk directly to these people and explain or work through problems in person.

“We can just get on a train and go visit them,” du Preez said. “For instance, there’s a bent pipe which is the arm of the device — even that part alone, we worked with a pipe-bending company and went out there like three times to have conversations with the guy.”

Of course, they weren’t helpless themselves; the three people behind the project are designers and engineers that have helped launch crowdfunding campaigns before, though this one was the first they had done on their own.

“I think Oscar [Lhermitte, who led the project] probably worked two and a half or three years on this, from ideation all the way to manufacturing,” said du Preez. “He had this idea and he contacted NASA and asked for this topographical data to make the map. He came to us because he wanted some technical and engineering input.”

The decision to do it all in the UK wasn’t made any easier by the fact that it was a demanding piece of hardware, the team’s standards were high, and despite being a great success, $200,000 or so still isn’t a lot with which to build a unique, high-precision electronic device from scratch.

The whole operation was run out of a small apartment in London, and the team had to improvise quite a bit.

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“We had this tiny little room the size of a kitchen we were producing these things out of,” du Preez recalled. “It wasn’t like a warehouse. And we were on the second floor — we’d get a delivery of like, a ton of metal, and we’d have to spend half a day hauling it up, then boxes would arrive and it would fill up the whole studio.”

They resisted the urge to get something off the shelf or ready-made from Shenzhen, choosing instead to rely on their own ingenuity (and that of nearby, puzzlingly specific artisans) to solve problems.

“One of the trickiest parts was that every single part is made with a different process,” he said. “If you want to make a piece of electronics in a plastic case,” for example a security camera or cheap Android phone, “it’s a lot quicker to develop and execute.”

Obviously the most important part to get right is the globe of the moon itself — and no one had ever made something quite like this before, so they had to figure out how to do it themselves.

“It’s quite large, so we can’t cast it in one solid piece,” du Preez explained. “It would be too heavy to ship. And it sinks — the material moves too much. So what you do is you make a mold, like a negative of the moon, and you pour the liquid inside it. And while the liquid is setting, you rotate it around, to make sure the inner surface is being coated by resin while it’s drying.”

In order to do this for their prototyping stage, they jury-rigged a solution from “wood, bicycle parts, and I think a sewing machine engine,” he said. “We had to put that together on the spot to keep costs down. We kind of replicated what we knew was already out there to test our materials and concepts. We knew if we could make this work, we just had to build or find a better one.”

As luck would have it, they did find someone — right up the tracks.

“We found this guy in Birmingham who basically has an industrial version of this, he makes molds and he has this big metal cage rotating around all day,” du Preez said. “The quality of his work is amazing.” And, of course, it’s just a short train trip away — relative to a trip to Guangzhuo, anyway.

Attention to detail, especially regarding the globe, led to delays in shipping the Moon; they ended up about four months late.

Late arrivals are of course to be expected when it comes to Kickstarter projects, but du Preez said that the response of backers, both friendly and unfriendly, surprised him.

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“It seemed quite binary. We had 541 backers, and I’d say only two were really pissed off about not having their moon, and they were irate. I mean they were fuming,” he said.

“But no one really got publicly angry with us. They’d just check in. Once they email you and you give them a response, they seem to be very understanding. As long as we kept the momentum going, people were okay with it.”

That said, four months late isn’t really that late. There are projects that have raised far more than Moon and were years late or never even shipped (full disclosure, I’ve backed a couple!). Du Preez offered some advice to would-be crowdfunders who want to keep the good will of their backers.

“It’s really important to understand your pricing, who’s going to manufacture it, all the way down to shipping. If you have no game plan for after Kickstarter you’re going to be in a tricky situation,” he said. “We had a bill of materials and priced everything out before we went to Kickstarter. And you need some kind of proof of concept to show that the product works. There are so many great hardware development platforms out there that I think that’s quite easy to do now.”

Their attention to detail and obvious pride in their work has resulted in a lasting business, du Preez told me; the company has attracted attention from Adam Savage, Mark Hamill, and MOMA, while a second run of 250 has just completed and the team is looking into other projects along these lines.

You can track the team’s projects or order your own unit (though you may wish you’d gotten the early bird discount) over at the dedicated Moon website.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

All of us grew up around tech different from what we have today, and many of us look back on those devices with fondness. But can you recall the exact sound your first Casio keyboard made, or the cadence of a rotary phone’s clicks? Conserve the Sound aims to, well, conserve the sound of gadgets like these so that future generations will know what it sounded like to put a cartridge in the NES.

It’s actually quite an old project at this point, having been funded first in 2013, but its collection has grown to a considerable size. The money came from German art institution Film & Medienstiftung NRW; the site was created (and is maintained) by creative house Chunderksen.

The whole thing is suitably minimal, much like an actual museum: You find objects either by browsing randomly or by finding a corresponding tag, and are presented with some straightforward imagery and a player loaded with the carefully captured sound of the device being operated.

Though the items themselves are banal, listening to these sounds of a bygone age is strangely addictive. They trigger memories or curiosity — was my Nintendo that squeaky? Didn’t my rotary phone click more? What kind was it anyway? I wonder if they have my old boombox… oh! A View-Master!

The collection has grown over the years and continues to grow; it now includes interviews with experts in various subjects on the importance of saving these sounds. You can even submit your own, if you like. “We welcome suggestions in general, sound suggestions, stories, anecdotes and of course collaborations,” write the creators.

I for one would love to revisit all the different modems and sounds I grew up using: 2400, 9600, 14.4, 28.8, all the way up to 56.6. Not exactly pleasant noises, admittedly, but I anticipate they will bring back a flood of memories, Proust-style, of BBSes, hours-long download times and pirated screen savers.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Romain Dillet

Lego Mindstorms have paved the way for many programmable toys. And Austrian startup Robo Wunderkind is building a new kind of Lego-like programmable kit. The startup first launched on the TechCrunch Disrupt stage and just raised $1.2 million (€1 million) from SOSV, Austrian Federal Promotional Bank and multiple business angels.

Compared to many programmable toys out there, Robo Wunderkind is still a Lego-like building kit. This is key as too many toys forget that it’s fun to build something with a few bricks.

Robo Wunderkind also has special blocks to turn your dumb robot into a connected one. In addition to the usual sensors, such as proximity sensors, motion detectors and light sensors, the company also has some more sophisticated ones. You can put a tiny camera in your construction, use an IR blaster and receiver and program a tiny LED screen.

But the best part is that Robo Wunderkind also sells Lego adapters so that you can put together a sophisticated robot that uses both Lego bricks and Robo Wunderkind modules.

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The company has two different apps in the store. The first one called Robo Live lets you control your robot in real time. The other one Robo Code has a brand new user interface and now detects the blocks you’re currently using.

Robo Code is where Robo Wunderkind shines because you can put together simple algorithms by arranging virtual blocks in the iPad app. It’s a good way to introduce a kid to conditional statements and loops.

You won’t build a robot as sophisticated as a robot built using Lego Mindstorms. But Robo Wunderkind seems more accessible and good way to try robotics before switching to Arduino and Raspberry Pi when your kid grows up.

The company successfully raised a little less than $250,000 on Kickstarter back in 2015. You can now buy a starter kit for $250. Advanced and professional kits will also be available soon.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Devin Coldewey

Logistics may not be the most exciting application of autonomous vehicles, but it’s definitely one of the most important. And the marine shipping industry — one of the oldest industries in the world, you can imagine — is ready for it. Or at least two major Norwegian shipping companies are: they’re building an autonomous shipping venture called Massterly from the ground up.

“Massterly” isn’t just a pun on mass; “Maritime Autonomous Surface Ship” is the term Wilhelmson and Kongsberg coined to describe the self-captaining boats that will ply the seas of tomorrow.

These companies, with “a combined 360 years of experience” as their video put it, are trying to get the jump on the next phase of shipping, starting with creating the world’s first fully electric and autonomous container ship, the Yara Birkeland. It’s a modest vessel by shipping terms — 250 feet long and capable of carrying 120 containers according to the concept — but will be capable of loading, navigating, and unloading without a crew

(One assumes there will be some people on board or nearby to intervene if anything goes wrong, of course. Why else would there be railings up front?)

Each has major radar and lidar units, visible light and IR cameras, satellite connectivity, and so on.

Control centers will be on land, where the ships will be administered much like air traffic, and ships can be taken over for manual intervention if necessary.

At first there will be limited trials, naturally: the Yara Birkeland will stay within 12 nautical miles of the Norwegian coast, shuttling between Larvik, Brevik, and Herøya. It’ll only be going 6 knots — so don’t expect it to make any overnight deliveries.

“As a world-leading maritime nation, Norway has taken a position at the forefront in developing autonomous ships,” said Wilhelmson group CEO Thomas Wilhelmson in a press release. “We take the next step on this journey by establishing infrastructure and services to design and operate vessels, as well as advanced logistics solutions associated with maritime autonomous operations. Massterly will reduce costs at all levels and be applicable to all companies that have a transport need.”

The Yara Birkeland is expected to be seaworthy by 2020, though Massterly should be operating as a company by the end of the year.

Gadgets – TechCrunch Steve O'Hear

Tech Will Save Us, the U.K. startup getting kids excited about technology through a range of ‘hackable’ toys, has raised $4.2 million in Series A funding led by Initial Capital. The round also includes Backed VC, SaatchInvest, All Bright, Unltd-inc, and Leaf VC, along with angel investors Chris Lee (co- founder of Media Molecule), Martin […]

Gadgets – TechCrunch John Biggs

 Out in the desolate wastes of deepest Iceland, magic blooms. The Icelandic sagas tell of fairy houses to magical rings that control the world and now one of those, the Wave, has landed on the Internet. The Wave is a ring that controls sound. It is essentially a wearable MIDI controller which lets you play and modify sounds as its made, allowing you to play music in thin air. It’s a… Read More

Gadgets – TechCrunch Romain Dillet

 Employees of French startup Devialet just learned this morning that they would get a new CEO. Co-founder and (former) CEO Quentin Sannié is going to focus on the long-term vision, while Franck Lebouchard is joining the company to become CEO. While the board of the company elected Lebouchard as CEO on Friday, this change has been in the works for months. Lebouchard has worked at McKinsey… Read More

Gadgets – TechCrunch Romain Dillet

 Employees of French startup Devialet just learned this morning that they would get a new CEO. Co-founder and (former) CEO Quentin Sannié is going to focus on the long-term vision, while Franck Lebouchard is joining the company to become CEO. While the board of the company elected Lebouchard as CEO on Friday, this change has been in the works for months. Lebouchard has worked at McKinsey… Read More