SparqEE's Cell: Add GSM Data to Anything.

SparqEE's Cell is a just launched Kickstarter project to build a GSM data module ready to integrate with Arduino, Raspberry Pi, or any other embedded hardware kit. In addition to the cellular board they are also offering SIM cards with discount data service; a first in the projects I've looked at.

Chris Higgins, one of the SparqEE founders, graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the project and their vision for how the Cell will be used. Enjoy!

Josh: Hi Chris. Before we talk about the Kickstarter project and Cell, could you tell me a bit about your company. Where did the name come from and where are you located?

Chris: SparqEE is a Southern California company that is “of the people, by the people, for the people,” if I may borrow those words from President Lincoln. We created SparqEE to make great technology that helps the world but also to change the game - in our society, money is horded by few when it’s the workers who drive companies - SparqEE shares all equity with our team. Anyone who wants to be involved and works hard will get a slice of the pie.

My 7 years in the defense industry was very demoralizing because even though I always delivered, successfully ran projects, attained patents, and innovated continuously, my income was fixed. But now with SparqEE, the harder we work the more benefits we reap.

Josh: How did you found it and find your co-conspirators?

Chris: It started back in 2009 when I was running a transportation based R&D project, I met my co-founder when meeting with the University of California, Riverside’s Center for Environmental Research and Technology (CE-CERT) team. We immediately recognized each other’s talent, had a phone conversation and talked about working together, and then in early 2010 made it official and started SparqEE.

Both co-founders are electrical engineers with a heavy background in programming, hardware, and networking so we wanted to write that into our name with “Spark” being related to electricity, the blood of technology.

Now our team has expanded and includes people we’ve worked with in the past, people we’ve met at MeetUp events, others from CoFoundersLabs – good people are everywhere, you just have to look and get involved!

Josh: What other products have you created? What other products will you create?

Chris: As for what we’ve created already and what we’re focusing on, it's vehicle telematics. We already have some history making a device for Raytheon and Oregon DOT but will be expanding that line greatly – we’ve got some fun stuff coming out for the car buffs out there! We are bootstrapping a few different directions but Telematics is one we’d definitely like to focus on.

Josh: Tell me about the Cell, your Kickstarter project. What can it let me do that I can't do with a typical Arduino?

Chris: The CELLv1.0 actually easily plugs into an Arduino, Raspberry Pi, or other breakout board – just take a look at the available shields. So right out of the box you can send messages over the cellular network.

If you take it one step further and look into the very minimal selection of cellular dev kits out there, you’ll soon realize the real reason for launching this Kickstarter.

On face value, the CELLv1.0 hardware is simply much more compact and less expensive than any other option currently on the market, but it’s the other facets that are the real differentiator, the entire ecosystem SparqEE has setup is where the value is:

  • Price: definitely an important aspect as we're driving down the price of not only starter kits in the cellular arena but in production systems too. The CELLv1.0 is definitely the least expensive dev kit currently on the market.
  • Servers: We're offering our servers for use by the community so that users don't need to know anything about the server-side, all they see is the CELLv1.0 attached to their Arduino or Raspberry Pi, then the reception of that data at their internet enabled device.
  • SIM: With the CELLv1.0 users can use their own SIM straight from their smartphone, a prepaid one, or the SIMs we set up for this Kickstarter which are actually one of the most beneficial pieces of this project and for the community at large.

With M2M (machine to machine) applications and anything cellular really, the providers are one of the biggest hurdles. Since our goal is to make cellular as ubiquitous as Bluetooth and WiFi we needed to take care of everything, including the providers. So we put together a SIM card offering that works anywhere in the world, is the easiest to setup, no minimums, and is the lowest cost I've ever seen - check out www.SparqEE.com/products/SparqSIM for more info.

Josh: I see that some of the reward levels include Dev Points. What are dev points and what can I do with them?

Chris: If you take a look the Kickstarter project under the section titled “Reward Levels” we list a number of possible breakout boards, such as GPS, accelerometer, and relay, as well as shields for the Arduino and Raspberry Pi. Then, we assign a number of “Dev Points” to each one – so essentially you just add up the number of dev points for the rewards you want and select that purchase level.

Josh: Why did you go with dev points instead of traditional Kickstarter rewards?

Chris: Kickstarter rewards always seem to have way too many options and variations. The “Dev Points” is our attempt at simplifying the choices. Since our project offers a number of optional breakout boards and shields, we wanted people to easily be able to select whatever they wanted without having a million reward levels for every combination – as an example, if someone wants a relay board and accel board, all they have to select is 2 dev points under the rewards and that’s it!

Josh: Does this really work with Arduino out of the box? Can I use the regular Arduino IDE with it?

Chris: Yes, definitely. As we progress we’ll be having simple and quick explanations and examples showing you just how to connect all the hardware and the code to use. For the Arduino, if you get the Arduino shield along with the CELLv1.0 simply plug CELLv1.0 into the shield and then onto the Arduino, plug-in power, open up the Arduino IDE and you’re off – right out of the box without any extra components!

Josh: I'm confused by why there is a separate cellular board and jumper board. What is the advantage of making it two pieces?

Chris: The Jumper board is mainly for development and not meant for production systems (although you could use it for that). The main point of making it a two piece is to allow people to affix the small Cellular board to any product whether development or production.

To give a bit of insight into the cellular industry – the certifications are very stringent and expensive (~$30k), so by creating and certifying the small Cellular board, it allows others to use this module in their final products without having to go through the whole recertification process.

Josh: What do you think people will do with the Cell once they get it?

Chris: People have already been writing in to tell us about what they're going to do with the CELLv1.0 from tracking their bike for theft protection to real-time updates while racing. Others have mentioned plugging this into their BeagleBoard and thus expanding the capabilities of yet another very useful development platform.

Some ideas we came up with at SparqEE were a vehicle tracker and engine kill switch, a device that could open doors, turn on lights, and control temperature at a remote cabin or beach-house, and even early warning systems looking for heat signatures of forest fires or earthquake monitoring.

The possibilities really are endless with this component, but my favorite idea is to make a remote quadcopter to hold my Canon 60D. I really like photography and videography and with the CELLv1.0 I could fly across the city and snap pictures or take video of anything, anywhere.

The SparqEE CELLv1.0 steps in wherever there is a project that is simply out of reach using Bluetooth and WiFi.

Josh: SIMs for GSM data aren't cheap. Typically you need a full plan like the kind you'd have on your cell phone, right?

Chris: Yes and no. You do need a SIM card with a plan, similar to your cell phone, and they are typically expensive but we’ve solved this one too. With the CELLv1.0 you can use the SIM straight from your phone, a prepaid one, or the SIM card offering we put together for this project. We’re able to provide SIMs that work anywhere in the world, are the easiest to setup, no minimums, and are the lowest cost we’ve ever seen! - Check out www.SparqEE.com/products/SparqSIM for more info.

Josh: How are you able to make your own SIM cards be so cheap? Is there a monthly fee in addition or is it just cents per kb?

Chris: There are no additional monthly, yearly, or whatever other fees. We do have to charge once for the SIM card itself and activation, which comes out to less than $10, but past that there’s nothing more than the cost for data or SMS usage that you need. What you see on our page is really the extent of the costs.

As for how we’re able to offer these plans and prices, it’s because people believe in SparqEE and Kickstarter and want to see M2M flourish as much as Bluetooth and WiFi have. With affordable SIM cards, a whole new range of applications is enabled.

Josh: When will the SparqEE SIMs be available?

Chris: Since we’ve garnished so much positive feedback for our SIM offering itself, we’re working to get it up and running for the Kickstarter launch so people that need SIMs will be able to get them with their CELLv1.0.

Josh: The page mentions integrating the Cell into a product. Does that mean I could order a bunch of the boards from you for a discount? When will that be available?

Chris: Our first objective is to deliver to our supporters through Kickstarter – if you believe in our goals and support us through Kickstarter, our first priority is you. Only after the Kickstarter rewards and ecosystem are delivered and setup will we offer units for sale. At that point we imagine people would be able to order either the Jumper or Cellular boards or both, but as far as price is concerned we’re comfortable saying that if you pick up a CELLv1.0 and some dev points through Kickstarter you’re getting a great deal, a deal that won’t exist later. We appreciate the Kickstarter community and the early funding they’re providing.

Josh: Why did you choose to go with a Kickstarter instead of other funding routes?

Chris: I doubt you’ll be surprised to hear that investors aren’t all that interested in spending money to help the technological community nor thin margins. Kickstarter is a great way to get initial seed for an idea, a little bit of PR, giving you maybe just enough to be noticed if you need another round. But in our case, we believe Kickstarter will provide enough capital infusion to actually allow us to bootstrap our next iterations, circumventing the investors entirely.

Josh: When can we expect a followup project from you guys? Cell 2.0 maybe? Anything else on tap?

Chris: We’ll have follow-up projects coming up right after the CELLv1.0, maybe not on Kickstarter, but we’ve got ourselves a roadmap which includes using the CELLv1.0 on 2 other projects. People can "Like" our Facebook to get our updates! But really, we don’t imagine that the CELLv1.0 will need to be upgraded for tens of years – 2G is only just being phased out by AT&T by 2017 so 3G support will last for a great while and the CELLv1.0 will still dominate in both the 2G and 3G spaces.

Josh: What's the one question I should have asked you but didn't?

Chris: How about how we came up with the idea for the CELLv1.0? We were working on the Keychain Tracker project and thought it would be easy to get a small, inexpensive cellular module, SIM and integrate it – we were dead wrong. So, we saw that the industry needed someone to come in and minimize the pain for everybody out there and help make cellular technology and SIMs, or what amounts to relationships with cellular providers, more readily available. Thus the Kickstarter project was born.

Thank you Chris. Good luck to the whole SparqEE crew. Go check out the Kickstarter project and the SIM pricing now.

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Posted August 20th, 2013

Tagged: arduino interview