Like it or not, a whole new wave of Hardware Startups is coming our way. Crowdfunding campaigns are making it possible for everyone with an idea to "test the waters", tech-savvy Angel investors are eager to help successful ones cross over, and Venture Capitalists are sitting on the other side, always on the lookout for potential additions to their "hardware portfolio". It's these billion-dollar acquisitions that made everyone jump on the bandwagon, and there's no going back. At least for now.
That's all great, and we want to believe that good things will come out of this whole frenzy. But instead of staying on the sidelines, we thought we should get involved and start asking some hard questions. After all, these guys didn't think they will be able to get away with just some nicely produced videos and a couple of high-res photos, right?
For our first issue, we picked a relatively innocent target - Spark.io, guys behind the Spark Core development board. By embracing Open Source and Open Hardware as the core part of their strategy, Spark has so far been a positive example in the sea of otherwise dull (and potentially creepy) IoT "platforms". So we thought we should give Zach Supalla, CEO of Spark a call...
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"I had a problem that was very real to me, which was my parents communicating, and I saw a way to solve this problem with connectivity," Zach says explaining the motivation behind their original project called SparkSocket - connected lighting product inspired by helping his father overcome challenges associated with hearing loss. They ran a Kickstarter for this one, but only managed to get halfway to their funding target.
"The feedback that we had received from the market was that our product was not good enough," Zach said.
After iterating on product ideas and joining the HAXLR8R incubator program in Shenzhen, they eventually came up with an idea for the Spark Core and ran a Kickstarter, this time with great success. They have been shipping boards since the end of last year, and most of us probably already had a chance to play with one. We were curious about the choice of CC3000 as a WiFi module.
"This might still be true, but at the time of our launch, this was the only affordable WiFi module that you can purchase in low quantities extremely easily. For instance, there are other companies that make affordable WiFi modules, when you get to scale - Broadcom and Qualcomm are two of note. One of the challenges with them is that it's difficult to gain access to these chips in low quantities. And to be meaningfully Open Source, that was important for us," Zach said.
In terms of what other modules were taken into consideration, he says that "The main ones that we were evaluating at the time were RN171, GainSpan solution and the CC3000. And the main part of it was being affordable. There are some features that CC3000 doesn't have that others did but when it comes to providing something that's cost-effective solutions its a trade-off you inevitably must make. CC3000 doesn't add up to 802.11n, it doesn't do SoftAP setup, although they have their own thing SmartConfig, which is pretty slick, but has its quirks also."
On the communication side, Spark is using a slightly modified version of CoAP. "What we didn't like about MQTT is two things: one, we wanted it to do request-response model and MQTT is pub-sub and second, it didn't define the payload which felt to us like it's not solving enough of the problem. CoAP had much more of that defined and it felt like a more complete solution," Zach says.
Spark's approach to solving problems seems to be pretty open and hacker-friendly. Instead of trying to specify and define standards for everything in advance, they adopt a "learning" approach. "When we're not sure about an answer for something, let's just leave it open and see what people do, and see if the community starts to fall into a pattern, and then let's just adopt that pattern."
A good example of this was device-to-device communication using Spark. While device-to-cloud communication seems to be fairly well specified (after all, that is the core use-case), device-to-device aspect was left fairly open. In figuring out ways to address this, community seems to have converged into a particular pattern over time. Instead of doing this type of communication ove Read more »
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(all stickers posted on poster-designated locations. no vandalism here)
South by Southwest 2014 is approaching, bringing along the usual tech-startup-launch frenzy, streets filled with party buses and endless hordes of geeks drinking themselves into oblivion. Although Interactive traditionally draws from software crowds (most of which with hopes of becoming the next Twitter or Foursquare), hardware is getting to be too-big-to-ignore and year after year more and more hardware-related events are starting to pop up. After all, SXSW is about about revolutionary things and new technologies that are shaping our future. And we all know hardware is where it's at.
So here it is, SXSW2014 guide for the Hardware-minded ...
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For the third year in the row, SXSW is putting out a free and open to public sub-event called SXSW Create, dedicated to hacker, maker and DIY scene. Event is taking place at the City Terrace of the Long Center, March 7-9 and is open between 11AM and 6PM every day.
SparkFun will be there hosting a hands-on e-textiles workshop every day as well as number of great talks and demos. Epilog Laser will be showing off their gear for all the hobbyists to drool on while Texas Instruments will be doing new product trainings as well as giving away free product samples, cupcakes and coffee :) The list of participants goes on, so drop by and check it out.
Stage Two is a one-day event taking place between 2PM and 6PM on Sunday, March 9th at Pincer Terrace of The Long Center, focusing on consumer electronics industry. This one is a series of 5-minute lightning talks by who's who of new hardware startup scene (Pebble, Sphero, Grant St., Dragon Innovation...) mixed with a lot of SXSW-style afternoon drinking, tacos and live music. Complete list of speakers is listed on the event page.
Talks are the heart of SXSW. Though we can spend all day being cynical about the motivational crap that sometimes goes on there, some of the talks are truly spectacular and make the whole thing worthwhile. Here are some that might be of interest to the hardware crowd :
- Hardware Isn't Hard, It's Complicated - two and half hour long in depth look at all of the hardware product development stages.
- Why Software Companies Should Care About Hardware - general talk about challenges and opportunities in creating successful hardware
- Exploring the Future of Virtual Reality with Oculus - everyone loves Oculus VR. This is the chance to grill the core team with all of your questions
- Open Source Licences for Makers & Humans - licenses matter, especially with Open Hardware. This seems like a good forum to talk about it
- Democratizing the Internet of Things is An Urgency - Aayah Bdeir is going to talk about various issues related to ongoing explosion in IoT.
- The Complete Hardware Crash Course - workshop on creating the fully functional device using Firefly Open Source Wearable/IoT platform.
- Elevating Everyday DIY to the Tech Level - TI is hosting a 4-hour workshop on building a special 3D printer using DLP development kits and MCU LaunchPad.