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.
posted Tue Aug 20 2013
Today I am talking with Matt Grimm, the final member of the Retro Game Crunch trio. You can also read the previous interviews Shaun Inman and Rusty Moyher. There's still a few days left to help push the Retro Game Crunch to the finish line. Pledge now!
Josh Before we talk about the Crunch, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Matt I'm just your average 28 year old. I grew up playing every video game I could get my hands on. The Dreamcast was my last console. I didn't touch video games for around a decade, got into music and cars. Within the last two years I've started falling in love with old video games all over again.
Josh Where did you go to school?
Matt I attended a local community college, Rose Sate College. I got my associates in Web development. And that's it for school. It is increasingly apparent that real life experience trumps attending college when it comes to the web or similar technologies. I'm glad I never bought into the idea of needing to attend school for years on end while racking up huge amounts of debt. If you can't tell thats a subject I'm very passionate about. Schools are becoming irrelevant (for certain fields of study) and I hate debt.
Josh What did you do before you started making music?
Matt I don't know that I can really answer what I was "doing before music". Music has always been a part of me. I'm always writing and recording small ideas since I was a kid.
Josh Your bio says you are a sound designer. How is that different than a musician, composer, or game developer?
Matt Sound design is kind of new to me. I don't claim to know anything about it professionally. I kind of stumbled into it because it's part of game development. You need sound effects. And I wanted to make my own. So I started really "listening" to things in the real world and tried figuring out how I could make a believable version of that with the NES sound chip. I think the best sound effect I've created to date is probably a crow's caw. (It's for an unannounced game Shaun Inman and I have been working on, before retro game crunch that is).
Sound design is very interesting, it's a totally different mindset from writing music. If you're trying to emulate a sound from the real world, you have to slow down, listen to things over and over and try to break them into little components. Then you need to know your tools well enough to translate that into a believable version of the sound. The other side of sound design is even tougher. Coming up with a totally abstract sound to represent an action or character on screen is crazy. I second guess a lot and probably make 4-5 sounds before finally choosing the one that "feels right". With the NES, players still have to use their imagination because it's pretty limited but that's the fun in it.
Josh Do you think there is a lot of overlap between game audio and other genres of music?
Matt There's a ton of overlap with game audio and other music. Its funny how in the 8bit and 16 bit era all the game music was trying to sound as real as possible. Now we can have actual music tracks play in games. But the tables have turned. Now real music wants to sound digital and "chippy" like old video games.
Josh Do your skills in one cross over to the other?
Matt Skills for writing music (at least on a computer) totally cross over when trying to make old game music. From the technical side of things it's all basically the same skills. When I was in high-school I had one of my first experiences with making music on a computer using FruityLoops (FL Studio now). That helped set a foundation for my understanding of music creation software in general. And honestly I could even go back further and say Mario Paint on the SNES was my first real experience creating music on a computer. If your comfortable with programs like Garageband, Reason, etc. moving over to something like Famitracker will be easy. If your comfortable with programming and writing code (understandably a different skill set) there's options like MML to compose NES music. MML is currently my preferred way of making NES music.
From the less technical and more musical side of things, it all translates skill wise. The fundamentals of making good, interesting music are what's important no matter the medium.
Today I write all my music with a keyboard and GarageBand using the YMCK 8bit plugin. From there I recreate the song in MML code and compile it into the nsf format.
Josh What's special about game audio?
Matt What's special, at least in my opinion, about game audio is the limitations. A lot of modern chiptune artists make music with real hardware and use the low-fi sounds produced by these sound chips but what I'm talking about is the actual limitations of the format as it was in 1985. You only have a few channels to work with and the sound engine in your game (that you had to write from scratch) has to manage playing music and sound effects at the same time on those 5 channels. So not only is the audio sonically limited because of the sound chip but the storage of data and usage of music and sound effects introduce a lot of unique challenges. With the modern technology we use to build games we don't have any of these problems but I try to impose those limits on myself when composing. While the stuff I'm doing is not 100% accurate to the true limitations I want it to be as close as possible. It makes everything feel more authentic for sure. The main reason I nerd out hardcore about this stuff is because it's one of my life goals to make a real NES game. I'm essentially training and preparing myself for the real thing.
Josh Can audio be a part of game interaction beyond background music?
Matt Definitely. The lack of music can be just as important. Some of my favorite moments in games are when music cuts out and simple sound effects are all that's there to set the mood. It really makes things dramatic. Especially if music had been playing the whole time up until that point. It can make a scary area of a game intense.
Josh What other games have you worked on? What was your favorite?
Matt Flip's Escape is the only real commercial release I've been a part of. I worked on Super Clew Land and two other ludum dare games I did alone. Behind the scenes I've worked on 3 of my own personal projects. There kind of in limbo right now. Not sure what will happen. Finally, the unannounced game with Shaun. That one is my favorite. I think it contains some of my best work to date. I hope we get to continue with it after Retro Game Crunch and you all get to hear it someday.
Josh What musical work have you done outside of games?
Matt Like most guys, growing up I was in a lot of bands. The last one being Finding Chesterfield. It was just me and a friend writing emo, piano rock tunes. I've played guitar since about 7th grade and have always goofed around on the piano. I don't have any formal training (except for band in jr. high and highschool). Not many people know this but I play the alto sax, and pretty darn good too.
Josh How did you first get into gaming and what is your favorite game (retro or otherwise)?
Matt Well as far back as I can remember we had an Atari 2600 in our house. I was probably 4 or 5 years old. I remember playing Pitfall, Frogger, Kaboom, Night Driver, Kangaroo, Yar's Revenge, maze craze and many more. My parents (or whoever in the family owned the Atari) had some great taste in games. A year or two later I remember seeing the NES at Sears. I played the first two levels of Super Mario Bros and my mind was blown. It's all I asked for after that. Maybe a year later I got an NES for Christmas (1991). Best. Christmas. Ever.
Oh man! Choose just one favorite game?! Impossible. Well if I have to narrow it down... it will be on the NES because that's my favorite system. And the best memories I have, are with Battletoads. I still haven't beat that game to this day. I will though. Some. day.
Josh I've always been a fan of Final Fantasy's themes (the S/NES era). What game has your favorite music?
Matt Well let me say I am a sucker for slow, ending music. The type of song that makes you tear up a little because you just beat the game. The end themes for Super Mario Land (Gameboy) and Dr. Mario is what I'm talking about. Give me more of that.
There's a ton of games that have killer music so I'll list a few.
- *Duck Tales - "The Moon" easily the 3rd best song on the NES (behind Super Mario theme and Zelda theme)
- *Battletoads - everything about the music is killer. And don't miss out on that amazing pause screen beat.
- *The Blue Marlin - a true hidden gem in the NES library. I stumbled across it last year while building my NES collection. Gameplay not so great. The music is mind blowing.
- *Mother, Balloon Fight & Gyromite - Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka. My favorite composer of the era. He's worked on a lot of my favorite games but I really like these.
- *Little Nemo - it's just so dreamy and perfect
- *Donkey Kong - a special DK game just for the GB that most people missed. It's Epic. I look to it for constant inspiration.
- *Kirby's Dream Land - the game I probably played the most on GB. Super catchy (and happy) tunes
- *Super Mario Land - "Hip" Tanaka!
- *Super Mario World - Masterpiece. This is my childhood.
- *Earthbound (Mother 2) - more by "Hip" Tanaka. He's a legend.
- *Donkey Kong Country - everyone on earth probably knows "jungle hijinx". SO. GOOD.
- *Rocket Knight Adventures - another hidden gem. Only this game rules! Gameplay is great and music is too.
Josh How do you create music for a game? Do you have music ideas first or does the game come first?
Matt Well it can work either way really. I constantly write ideas as they come to me. If it doesn't fit the current project then I save it for later. That said, the game does need to come first for me. It doesn't need to be totally polished or even a finished idea. I just need something to go on. The music has to "fit" the game. I'm not sure there's a way to explain how you know what fits, it just feels right. Seeing visuals really helps me get in the right mindset. It's a mysterious process even to me. You just trust your instincts and go for it.
Josh I see your partners in crime have thousands of tweets but you only have three. What's up with that? Too busy composing to tweet?
Matt Haha. I guess you could say that. I do write a lot of music. You're probably looking at my old twitter account. I recently got the username 8bitmatt. Check it out. There's thousands of useless tweets for you over there. :) I do tend to be a man of few words though.
Josh What's the one question I should have asked you and didn't?
Matt What are my musical influences?
I've grown up listening to all geners of music. Prog rock, guitar gods, rap, metal, punk, country, jazz, big band, etc. Everything has probably influenced me in some way. I'll list some of my favorite artists, well the ones that I think have had the most influence on my style as a musician.
- Dream Theater - crazy time signatures, fast soloing, breakdowns. It's all thanks to them.
- MXPX - masters of melodies and songwriting.
- Larry Coryell - I wish I could play like him.
- The Secret Handshake / Mystery Skulls - we're the same age but I look up to this guy. He's a genius. Probably the most influential on my style. I hope to work with him on a project someday.
posted Sat Dec 08 2012
Today we are talking with Rusty Moyher, another member for the Retro Game Crunch team. You can read the previous interview with Shaun Inman here. There's still a few days left to help push the Retro Game Crunch to the finish line. Pledge now!
Josh Before we talk about the Crunch, could you tell me a little bit about yourself? Where did you go to school? What did you do before you started making games?
Rusty Sure! I got started making games pretty early. In 1993 my family received a hand-me-down computer, an old black and white Macintosh Plus. I discovered, with a program called Hypercard, I could make rudimentary games. They were far from amazing, but I had a blast making them.
Gradually I became more interested in film and started making my own movies. At Sacramento State I earned a B.A. in English because I thought it would help me write better screenplays. But it turns out you get better at writing by simply writing more.
Josh What did you do at Apple?
Rusty Fixed computers. Produced a couple internal videos too.
Josh The Kickstarter site says you are also a filmmaker. What films have you made?
Rusty Most recently, For America. It's a grindhouse flick about a man being evicted from his home by the evil banks. Naturally, it turns into a punch out.
Josh Do you think there is a lot of overlap between film and game creation? Do your skills in one cross over to the other?
Rusty I’ve spent the better part of 10 years writing, producing and directing independent films. I’ve always had a passion for creating and sharing experiences with people. My background as a writer, director and editor colors everything I do. Games are not movies (and they shouldn’t be), but both are designed as an experience.
Josh How did you come up with the idea of doing one game every 30 days for six months rather than a more traditional schedule? What are the advantages to doing it so quickly?
Rusty I've found a healthy amount of focus and pressure help me make better decisions. 30 days should give us just enough time to focus on the gameplay and then polish it for release. The idea came from making Super Clew Land. We felt 30 days was just about the right.
Josh Tell me about Bloop. What is it and where did the idea come from?
Rusty Bloop is like a Twister / Hungry Hungry Hippos love child. Two to four players tap tiles on iPad as quickly as possible. The tiles shrink and hence begin to collide. It's a hilarious party game.
The original idea for Bloop came from frustration. I was working on a more complicated iPad game. It was just too much for players to set up easily. I want a simple experience people could just play without needing to learn or set up anything.
Josh I saw it was nominated for Indiecade 2012. There's a lot of interesting stuff nominated this year. Did you expect to get recognition for Bloop?
Rusty No way! I was blown away and honored to have Bloop among so many other amazing games.
Josh Have you collaborated with others on previous games?
Rusty I’m only just discovering the Voltronian power from combining the strength of a couple like-minded Indies. Last month I made the original version of Super Clew Land with Shaun Inman and Matt Grimm. It’s been such a blast, we haven't stopped collaborating.
Josh What ideas do you have for game styles in the Retro Crunch? Can we expect platformers or other styles, or something completely new?
Rusty No way of knowing yet! Everyone who backs our Kickstarter gets to submit and vote on themes. When all the votes come in, a winning theme is declared. Then we design a game based on the theme. Only then will we discover the style of the game.
Josh What is the one existing game you wish you had created?
Rusty I would love to have worked with the team behind Super Metroid or Final Fantasy VI.
Josh What's the one question I should have asked you and didn't?
Rusty Do you have even more amazing games planned for the future? You bet. :)
posted Fri Dec 07 2012
The Last Rocket
I first met Shaun Inman at a conference two years ago where he showed me an iOS game he was working on. Since then his NES style platformer The Last Rocket has become a hit on iOS, as well as contributing to several Lundam Dares. Shaun and his friends are in the final days of a Kickstarter project to build six retro styled games in six months. I asked Shaun to tell me a bit about the project and the motives behind it.
As of this writing Retro Game Crunch is only 60% funded with 8 days left. If you pledge now you will get to contribute to the design and plot, then receive an awesome finished game each month along with a variety of bonus goodies.
Josh Hi Shaun. Thanks for joining me. Before we get into the Retro Game Crunch can you tell me a bit about yourself? Where did you go to school? Where do you live now? What did you do before you got into game building?
Shaun Thanks for having me Josh! I'm an independent game designer and developer. I graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design's Graphic Design program. I currently live in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before I got into game design, I primarily designed and developed the web apps Mint and Fever.
Josh What drew you into game building? And how did you decide on retro vs more modern art styles and genres?
Shaun I've always played games. When I wasn't playing them I was reading about them. When I wasn't reading about them I was day-dreaming about them. One day I realized that I had cobbled together enough skills in the three core disciplines of game design: graphic design, programming, and music, to tackle creating my own game. When I use the word "retro" I'm referring to limited palette, resolution, and sound channels, and a focus on one or two gameplay mechanics. The limitations reduce distraction and force a designer to zero in on what makes their game fun and unique.
Josh What was the inspiration for the Retro Game Crunch?
Shaun Retro Game Crunch was inspired by other game jams like Ludum Dare. The thematic and time constraints promote the same kind of focus as the retro aesthetic. Usually at the end of these jams, you go back to your other projects. After the most recent Ludum Dare, Rusty, Matt, and I didn't want to abandon the momentum we had built up with Super Clew Land. So we kept working on it for another month. We think the resulting Super Clew Land Complete turned out great and decided we wanted to do it (at least) six more times!
Josh I'm a huge fan of the NES/SNES era Final Fantasies. I've always felt the are the perfect blend of story, graphics, music, and level grinding. Any chance we will see any RPGs from this game crunch or are you sticking with platformer styles, or even branching out to other styles?
Shaun We'll definitely be branching out. We love platformers as much the next guy but we're very conscious of not making the games too same-y. Rusty and I both love the 16-bit Final Fantasies too and would love to make an RPG. It's a tall order for 30 days but if a theme presents itself that would best be served by an RPG we might just have to go for it.
Josh Have you ever collaborated with others before on a game? How do you think these games will be different from your solo efforts?
Shaun Before Super Clew Land, Matt and I worked together on Flip's Escape and an unreleased iOS game. Neven Mrgan, Alex Ogle, and I created Millinaut during a previous Ludum Dare. Seeing what we were able to accomplish in such a short time made me crave collaboration—which is crazy because I've been working solo for more than seven years!
Josh After the six games are done what are your plans for them? Will they be ported to other platforms? Print up t-shirts? Start a Saturday morning cartoon?
Shaun Ha! We haven't really decided what to do with the games after they're in backer's hands. If any of the games seem well-suited for touch input we'd love to port them to iOS. I'd also love to have Ashley Davis, who did the illustrations for the posters, do illustrations of each character we create. An extended poster series? Who knows!
Josh I loved the Last Rocket. It has such a fun style. Any chance we'd see a sequel?
Shaun Maybe. I've already developed a plot and new gameplay elements. I just need to find the time to develop it!
Josh When we first met you showed me a prototype you were working on. In the game the character could switch from Game Boy era graphics to Super Nintendo. Whatever happened to that?
Shaun Mimeo and the Kleptopus King was a ridiculously ambitious project for my first real game. The tech demo was cool but couldn't support a full game (it was just too inefficient). I'd love to pick up the idea again once I'm a little more experienced. And maybe with a bigger team. Four resolutions means four times the graphic, music, and level assets!
Josh It seems that retro game building has gone from a hobby to your full time job. After the Crunch is over do you think you will stick with making games or you will be sick of it?
Shaun I'm looking at Retro Game Crunch as a learning and growing experience. I doubt I'll be sick of it. Rusty, Matt, and I survived the first crunch and are eager to start again. We'll probably weather the six months just fine!
Shaun let me know they just added something new. If you pledge Retro Game Crunch now you will also get a Bonus Jam Pack with Mac/Windows versions of several games by their indie-coder friends, including Fathom, Escape, and Midas.
posted Tue Dec 04 2012
This entry is my first Innovator Interview, Terence Tam, creator of the amazing Open Beam aluminum system launched on KickStarter. I first discovered Open Beam while doing research for my CNC machine. After being so happy with the product I contacted Terence for an interview. He graciously took time out of his busy schedule to speak with me about OpenBeam, how an engineer cooks a turkey, and lessons learned from running a KickStarter project. I think you will enjoy reading is as much as I enjoyed talking with him.
JM: Why don't you introduce yourself and talk about what OpenBeam is.
TT: Okay so, my name is Terence Tam and I am a mechanical design engineer. I have a day job working at a company that builds optical microscopes for biological sciences research. I came up with OpenBeam in my spare time.
Prototype Quad-Robot. Richard DeLeon, Metrix:Create Space
OpenBeam is an extruded aluminum construction system. In the industry it's called a T-slot extrusion and the name comes from the four T shaped slots that run down the sides of the beam. The thing that makes Open Beam different than most of our competitors is that it is an open source system. We publish all the mechanical CAD files, publish the engineer prints and publish all of the specifications, which is why it's called OpenBeam.
JM: So someone could make their own beam on their own out of some other material if they wanted to?
TT: Well, yeah, there could be someone using Kickstarter money for Tangi-beam out there, but more importantly the CAD files for all of the connectors are are freely available. You actually could print a set of them on a Rep-Rap if you like. It's probably not going to be cost effective for you to do so because we injection mold them and we run the mold in pretty high quantities which brings the cost down. So that brings me to the other part of what makes OpenBeam unique. Because it’s open source and crowd funded, I do not have investors to answer to. I designed the system for the lowest cost possible. I did this by injection molding the joining plates and use standard metric nuts instead of proprietary nuts.
JM: Is that common among other systems? To have special dimensions that require special parts?
TT: As far as I know pretty much everyone requires you to buy a special nut from them. And that's actually where most companies make their money. They sell the beam at ten dollars per meter which is a pretty common price, but then charge 30 cents a nut, and with each joint needing 3-5 nuts, this adds up quickly.
JM: Woah. So that's the razors and blades model.
JM: Had you used some other extrusion before and then decide to go your own route?
TT: Yeah. I used 80/20 quite a bit early on in my tech career. I used to mentor for FIRST robotics (Dean Kamens For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology program,) where mentors partner up with kids and we have six and a half weeks to build a robot. We used a lot of 80/20 for our competition robots. It's a nice system. It's a little heavy for competition use so we’d end up drilling a lot of holes in the extrusions where we didn’t need the material to take the weight off. But it is a very flexible system. I mean, with a team of kids we can give them a bunch of Allen keys and nuts and bolts and in four hours they can build a frame and start driving around, so it's definitely a very powerful system. For work we use 80/20 for some framing for prototyping and such. We've switched to OpenBeam at work, obviously.
JM: It's always good to eat your own dog food.
TT: Right. Definitely I use OpenBean for work projects and personal projects.
Kaloss Crate. Matt Westervelt, Metrix:Create Space
JM: So do you have rack in your kitchen made out of OpenBeam?
TT: Um… that hasn't passed the girlfriend acceptance test yet but I use it a lot in my garage for storage. I have some robotics projects that are using it and some 3D printer projects. At work mostly I use it for framework for building test equipment.
JM: Now you said there is a 3D printer project. I notice you just posted on one of your several blogs about something called, what was it, lemon drop?
TT: Lemon Curry. Lemon Curry is actually a Rep Rap project. As far as I can tell there isn't an official Lemon Curry machine yet; it's still just a collection of links. But it's really a mission to build a DLP projector based resin printer. The common Rep Raps are all extrusion based or fused filament fabrication (FFF) machines where you have a spaghetti of resin passing through what is essentially a hot glue gun and depositing it using either an XY bot or a Rep-Rap style bot.
JM: And that's why a lot of the things I've seen produced that way, they sort of have these striated lines in them?
TT: Right, if you look closely at them you can see layers where the spaghetti has melted and re-soldered. You can see the different layers. In a DLP resin type machine your building material is actually a photo polymer, which is a kind of plastic that is tuned to harden into solid plastic at a very specific wave length of light. So there are resins that will harden at about 405nm and 385nm (UV range). At 405nm you can actually use visible light to hit the resin and it will cure. So the machine that I'm building takes the solid geometry and slices it and instead of trying to extrude with an XY print head, it's taking the cross sections and projecting it with a DLP project onto a vat of resin, and the part is pulled out of this vat.
JM: So it's doing an entire layer at a time, then?
TT: Yes and potentially it can build faster and you can hit higher accuracy with it. We are currently looking at using 100 micron in XYZ steps, at 100 microns the projector I'm using is 1024x768 so that 104x76.8 mm build space and you can hit 0.1 mm resolution. Each pixel cures a 0.1x0.1 mm area on the resin. So it's a pretty high resolution machine and the biggest advantage over a FFF machine is there won't be any delamination problems. In an FFF build, because of the way the layers are laid out the part is actually really strong in X and Y but if you flex it in the Z axis you can actually shear layers off. In a resin printer because of the way the curing process works the entire object cures in a solid block so there aren't layers that you can delaminate at a later time.
JM: So how close are you having your first print?
TT: I want to do this right. What I mean by "doing this right" is, I'm using OpenBeam, of course, and I'm using Open Rail as my linear bearing. I'm developing a lower cost linear bearing carriage for Open Rail. The reason for doing this is, well, I love what the Open Rail guys have done but I think for 3D printer applications the V-groove bearings are a little bit expensive and, frankly, probably a overkill. So I'm trying to develop an injected molded part and I'm prototyping it by machining it out of production representative materials. I can test the plastic's self-lubrication properties. I'm probably four to six weeks away from my first print.
JM: So this would be a different carriage but it would still attach to the Open Rail?
TT: Yes, this would be a different slider carriage. My design would be modular so people can adapt it for Maker Slide and Open Rail, and of course Open Rail + OpenBeam combinations. There are couple of dimensions I'm going for. Specifically if you are going to use the OpenBeam NEMA 17 motor mount you can put one of the OpenBeams on each side and that spans a 75mm gap. I'm designing it so that on a 75mm gap, if you put the Open Rail extrusions on the sides the carriage will slide right over that. You can put matching brackets on the other side, you can use a 608 bearing adapter to mount a tensioner pulley and so for about twenty five dollars total worth of hardware you now have a linear rail system. (My goal is to keep the carriage under ten dollars.)
JM: That would be great. When I first started looking into CNC machines I found the linear rail system was always the most expensive part.
TT: Right, and if we can drop the price on that and drop the price on the 3D printer electronics (and I know some guys at Metrix:Create Space working on that problem,) we can drop the price of a 3D printer significantly.
H-Bot Prototype. Gavin Smith, Robots and Dinosaurs
JM: I'm curious, what drove you to decide to make your own company and launch a new product? Was it just that you wanted it to exist? I mean, lots of people came up against these problems but they didn't decide to start a company around it?
TT: Well, I think when you are building an open source hardware project like this you really need some sort of continuity. This can't be just a flash in the pan project on KickStarter. For all of the guys who've backed me on KickStarter, it would be a real shame if I tomorrow I decided "you know what I'm tired of this, I don't want to do this anymore". I kind of got the feeling that's what MakerBeam did. If you look at their history and you look at their fulfillment, yeah they fulfilled their KickStarter rewards but today if you want to buy MakerBeam the only place you can buy it is through Spark Fun in the
US. And you can only buy it in either a small or large kit. You can't buy individual components. It's a very restrictive purchasing model. So it's really unfair to all of the guys who have backed them because now they have a bunch of parts and can't get more. There's nothing worse than not being able to get more and build stuff. So at the beginning of the KickStarter I decided that I would spin up a company to do this, to handle fulfillment and ongoing support.
Now, truth be told, yeah the extra income source is nice, but I've actually reinvested everything back into my company. I setup the project in such a way that when I bought my first lot of extrusions I would have a lot of additional material left over. If people needed extra material they could order it from me and I could ship it to them. We have a web store up and running now at openbeamusa.com.
JM: So you planned this as a business from the beginning; something that would be sustainable?
TT: Right. I designed this to be sustainable. Someone else is handling fulfillment for me so when my day job becomes too busy I'm not delaying orders by three or four weeks before I can ship them. Someone else is doing the packaging and shipping. I decided to be a very hands off when it comes to day to day operations My time with OpenBeam right now is spent on building the infrastructure and growing the community. I'm working on a forum right now. I'm working on getting open designs out there around OpenBeam so that people can reference them and design around them.
JM: The KickStarter ended fairly recently, right? May or June?
TT: It ended in late April, early May.
JM: When did your web store open?
TT: I never really announced it to the world but at the end of June it was running. For the first eight weeks I was more concerned about fulfilling the existing KickStarter pledges. With the exception of the trebuchet kits, which we are still building, tuning and
documenting, we've shipped all of our orders from KickStarter. The majority of them shipped in June with a few in July. We actually shipped earlier than the original schedule.
JM: I seem to recall you had some issues with actually figuring out how to mail heavy pieces of metal through the postal service.
TT: *laughs* Yeah. Actually it was FedEx. We had all the orders ready to go but I didn't feel too confident, I guess. So I randomly grabbed five orders and shipped them first. I was actually more concerned about the billing and the database merging and making sure that all the waivers are generated correctly, so I wouldn't be hit with a six digit FedEx bill. And then the reports came in like "hey man, you shipped me an empty tube!" or "hey man, I got the extrusions and nothing else!". We later found out the tubes had been breaking open in shipping and FedEx had been sealing them back up for us.
JM: Well, that's a good thing to learn.
TT: So our backers received the orders fully sealed but all of the stuff on the inside was gone! So we put a ship hold into effect. We re-engineered the package. We actually did a bunch of drop testing. FedEx has a standard test. It's something like 6 drops from one meter onto a steel plate. We engineered our packages to survive that at a minimum. Our package can withstand about twelve drops from eight feet onto concrete. We have this on high speed camera. We looked at the footage and documented everything. FedEx is in the process of certifying our packaging right now so we can get a discounted insurance rate from them. All of this is to put us in a better position so that when we put out a package we know that our customers will receive it in good condition.
It's funny. For most people who do a KickStarter, shipping and handling is probably the last thing on their mind. You go through such a long process to bring a project to life, but that last piece is so critical. The first thing that your customers will see is your packaging. If there is any damages when they open it all the hard work is washed down the drain. I wish I had paid more attention earlier on to my packaging. That's one of my regrets about the way that my KickStarter went. It's not bad right now, it does the job, but it could have been better.
JM: I have to say all of the extrusion I ordered arrived in perfect shape. The metal caps on the end are sturdy. I had to get out my big pliers to open it.
TT: But the metal caps are about a buck fifty per package and that's not including the cost of the tubes. And it's a one time use cap. Once we pound that cap in there's no way to get it back out. Someone once ordered something, asked to upgrade the shipping to air freight, and asked me to toss in an extra screwdriver. I was like, "Umm.. no. You've seen how we package these things." It's pretty much a destructive process to get anything out so… It does the job, but it's kind of a pain in the butt sometimes.
JM: It sounds like you've really designed this to be a coherent business that has a bright future. Are you planning to start ramping up production? Do you have advertising? Are you going to start working with retailers or resellers?
TT: Right now I'm more focused on the international backers. The reason for that is the challenges of shipping internationally are about five times bigger than shipping domestically. Domestically, if someone has heard about OpenBeam already, they know where to get it. The URL is molded into every plastic piece that we sell. Our existing infrastructure, although not great, will handle domestic orders just fine. Twenty percent of our KickStarter backers were international though. They come from all over the European Union. They come from Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Rim region. I think I've got a couple of guys in Russia. Supporting these guys is important too, but it can't be a hundred bucks in shipping for fifty bucks in parts. So we are very actively trying to spin up international distributors. Solarbotics actually just became our first international distributor. If you are Canadian, SolarBotics.com actually carries OpenBeam components now. We are talking to someone in New Zealand and Australia. We are hoping to have Hong Kong coming on line as a distribution point. They will service Singapore and probably some of the other international orders until the EU guys have spun up.
So that's where my focus has been. I'd like to do some more advertising in the US. I'm actually kind of on a budget crunch right now so I'm not sure if running an ad is going to be the best way to do this, but I do a lot of "community outreach". So whenever I'm traveling, like in about three or four weeks I have to go to the Twin Cities Minnesota area for a wedding, I always see if there's a local hacker space. I bring an OpenBeam kit and I offer to buy them pizza. That's how I've been selling Open Beam in the US. And it works. I mean, not to sound cocky, but the product sells itself. The guys who are into building things, they are my target audience; and they screw a couple of parts together and then they get it.
JM: I took some to our local maker space here and the guys were very excited to play around with it.
JM: So, after you get all of your shipping stuff worked out what do you think is the next step? Do you want to introduce kits? Bullk pricing? New brackets?
TT: So there's a couple of exciting things going on. We've actually partnered up with MicroRax and we're going to be offering pre-cut lengths and pre-cut construction kits. MicroRax will also have the ability to do custom length cut extrusions too. With that I can then offer a kitting service to 3D printer builders. There are a couple of plans out there for Rep Rap machines that use extrusions. I can actually offer a kitting service to guys who are designing 3D printers and my dealer pricing is very competitive, and the total cost of ownership is probably lower than Misumi when you factor in the bracket and fastener costs.
I plan to offer my design in a kit form as well. That competition will help lower 3D printer pricing across the board. I have a couple of friends at Metrix that are working on cheaper 3D printer electronics, so that's pretty cool. We are going to be releasing kits in conjunction with them. With the pre-cut kits, I'm probably going to be shipping some kits out for review and hopefully getting some interest and business that way.
Camera rig with iPod teleprompter. Matt Westervelt, Metrix:Create Space
JM: I notice that you have a couple of other blogs. There's one for yourself and one for TamLabs, though it looks like you haven't updated them in a while. I'm guessing you've been very busy lately.
TT: *laughs*. Yeah.. So I have a personal blog at terencetam.com. I think the last update is "okay guys! the KickStarter is going live!"
JM: And then you just fell off the face of the earth.
TT: Yup. I like to cook and I like to take pictures, so that's pretty much my outlet for documenting recipes and photos I've shot.
JM: Now did I see in the blog a turkey with wires hooked up to it?
TT: *laugh*. Yes you did. So there's actually a fun story behind that. That was the first time I had to cook for my current girlfriend's, actually soon to be fiancée's, parents. They tasked us with providing the turkey for the Thanksgiving dinner; for both of her grandmothers and her parents and a couple of aunts and uncles. Well, if you ask an engineer to cook a turkey on a barbecue that's what you're going to get. It's a couple of thermocouples monitoring the cooking process. We did a couple of test runs and we ate a lot of smoked turkey in the week leading up to Thanksgiving making sure that we got it down.
JM: So you had all of your trials beforehand. What was the final result?
TT: I thought it was a little bit over cooked to be honest, but they loved it. They said it was one of the moistest turkeys they've ever had. It would have been preferable to have two smaller birds instead of one big bird, that said... the thermocouples are accurate to three degrees centigrade so by monitoring the temperature you can pull it out the moment it's done. There's only about a fifteen degree range for white meat before it turns really, really dry, so that was why we had all the instrumenting and monitoring. It was a really cold winter day in Chicago so I kept the fire going, smoked it over apple wood, and it turned out okay.
JM: Well they liked it, that's all that matters.
TT: Yeah, they liked it! Exactly!
JM: Were you happy with your KickStarter experience? Do you think you would do another one?
TT: Yes. I am definitely looking into another KickStarter, probably one for the linear bearing block once I have it designed. There are some minor issues with KickStarter in how it handles data and the tools. After my last rewards ship out I will be doing a series of blog articles on my post mortem. I'll probably email the KickStarter team a link to it with some of the constructive criticisms of their websites. But overall it has been really positive. The cool thing, and maybe it's because I'm in the open hardware / technology category, everybody has been really, really great and really understanding. When I had problems with shipping everybody was like "yeah hey. No worries. We understand. Delays happen. We'd rather that you sort this out before you take orders on the web-store". Not one person complained about the communications or the delays.
JM: Perhaps we are all just so used to dealing with beta software.
TT: Yeah. Certainly when you read some comments on the more consumer product oriented stuff, like the iPhone docks, you hear a lot more people complaining about "oh they slipped their dead line… This is bogus. The guys took their money and ran." I had none of that. I'm really thankful to my backers for that.
JM: When you launch your next product, why are you thinking of going with KickStarter rather than just making a run at trying to sell it?
TT: Well. If you think about the percentage that they take, the 5% off the top of the project, it's some of the cheapest advertising you can buy. Open Beam raised over $100k. KickStarter took 5% of it, so just over $5k and another $5k or so went to Amazon credit card processing fees. For me to run a single run of ads in Make Magazine, that itself is going to cost $1500. Essentially for $5,000 I got a product that was publicized around the world. I look at the countries and continents that my backers are coming from and I say to myself, “holy crap.” Even on a $20k advertising budget I wouldn't know how to reach some of these guys. That alone is worth it to me.
The other thing that's nice with open hardware is that it takes a lot of the risk out of the picture. Especially with open hardware, where I'm publishing my drawings, my cad files, all the specifications, etc….
JM: I imagine you still have to have a lot of capital to do that initial order.
TT: Yeah, there's a bunch of capital involved and the same time my only protection is to move fast and keep innovating, and be reasonable about the prices I charge.
JM: I've been very happy with the beam. I'm heading forward on my own 3D printer.
TT: I'm really happy to hear that.
JM: What do you think people are going to build with OpenBeam? It sounds like robots are on the table and certainly 3D printers. What else do you think people would want to do with it?
TT: Just today I got an enquiry from someone building a Magic card sorting robot. I thought that was pretty cool.
JM: A magic card… oh the Magic the Gathering cards?
TT: Yeah. *laughs* There's a couple of guys in Spain working on a structured 3D light scanner and another gentleman is building his own hologram studio with OpenBeam. I'm hoping that he'll share some photos of what he has done.
JM: I'd love to see a project gallery on the site.
TT: Yeah. I'm working on that too. There's some pretty cool projects in the works, definitely. There's a school in Marin County that just bought a bunch of OpenBeam so I'm guessing their students will be building a bunch of robots. The cool thing about being a construction system like this is you do get a lot of creative folks. Watching what they come up with is quite a reward.
JM: Awesome. Thank you Terence!
posted Mon Sep 17 2012