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Christian Carlberg, who makers might recognize from Battlebots, has designed a cool new programmable flashlight that he’s getting beaucoup bucks through Kickstarter to develop. We asked him to write up this account of what he’s up to. I don’t know about you, but I definitely want one of these lights when it’s available. -Gareth

Christian writes:
When I told people at the Bay Area Maker Faire that I was going to make an open source, programmable flashlight, some called me crazy. Now, seven weeks later, my project, HexBright FLEX, is one of the top ten most-funded Kickstarter projects to date, raising over $170,000, with over 2000 backers who think I’m not so crazy, including MythBusters legend Grant Imahara.

Some Backstory
For fun, I decided to build myself a simple, “dumb” flashlight with the help of a friend, Terry Cooke. I made the body out of hexbar stock that gave it a unique look and a very comfortable grip. I choose a powerful CREE LED, the XM-L. Terry did the board layout. The result was a sexy, compact, and powerful light. I called it the HexBright PRIME and started thinking about improvements. While making the PRIME, we kept changing the program, kept re-flashing the board. It made perfect sense to make the upgrade USB-compatible so we could talk to the microprocessor directly. And we figured we might as well make it a rechargeable flashlight if we had a USB plug to play with. I got excited: a powerful, rechargeable light that I could program however I wanted. This was going to be a very flexible light for all users, so I called it the HexBright FLEX.

I had this idea and nowhere to go. The PRIME was pretty simple and cheap to make, but the FLEX was quite a bit more involved. Then a buddy of mine told me about Kickstarter, a crowdsourced funding website. This made perfect sense — I could generate seed money to develop a really innovative light, the HexBright FLEX.

I made the Bay Area Maker Faire 2011 my target date to launch HexBright on Kickstarter. I enlisted the help of my friends to get a website together along with video and pictures. I literally filmed the day before Maker Faire and launched on Kickstarter the first day of the Faire.

I spent both days at the Faire handing out fliers. Most people were interested, but more than a few people were skeptical. That’s OK, I’ve been called crazy before. When I built combat robots for television, people thought I was nuts for spending months building something that got destroyed within minutes. Then I won the BattleBots super-heavyweight championship. Twice. I have been invited to sit on the couch of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, then in NYC as a guest of Matt Lauer’s on The Today Show, and I consulted for an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Invenstigation that also included a cameo. One day, I bought a Happy Meal with a toy replica of my combat robot in it. Now that’s crazy!

While at Maker Faire, I bumped into two friends of mine who did not think I was nuts: super-techies Jeri Ellsworth and Grant Imahara. I knew Jeri from a past job we worked on together and Grant from back in the combat robotics days before he became impossible to reach by email. Grant was super cool and gave me a HexBright video review.

After Maker Faire, I concentrated on the Kickstarter site. An interesting, unexpected thing happened/ People started emailing me with really good advice. HexBright FLEX is crowd-funded and also crowd designed. People told me what was important to them, which USB plug was best, some good thermal management tips, and ideas for aftermarket accessories.

The Result: The HexBright FLEX is a powerful, USB rechargeable flashlight you can reflash your own source code to an Atmel ATmega IC. The ATmega was chosen for cross-platform capability. There are also unused pins that you can run additional hardware or sensors off of for the hardcore hacker. Want to add a photocell sensor? A speaker? No problem.

You might be asking by now why would anyone want a completely programmable light? I don’t know. I want the public to figure that out. So far, there is one guy wants to bolt his FLEX to his airplane’s tail and blink out his call numbers in Morse code. Another simply wants to dial it to the perfect reading light level so as not to disturb his sleeping wife in bed. There are a bunch of folks who want to keep it connected to a USB harness for their robotics platform.

And this is the other half of my plan: build a community of users who can swap source code and aftermarket design changes for some interesting and creative lights. I don’t know where this will eventually lead, but I know there are a lot of crazy people out there and I bet the results will be brilliant. [pun intended]

HexBright on Kickstarter

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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Comments

  1. 2000 backers, so I must be missing something.  Why would you want to reprogram a flash light?  Off, On, Intensity, Flash.  What else?

    1. Star Soup says:

      How many flashlights do you own that can lead you to the bathroom dimmer than a candle, then beam 500 lumens of WTF at a home intruder’s face?

      How many flashlights can you solder a microphone to and have it go nuts with a variable brightness disco strobe perfectly tuned to the music tempo/BPM?

      How many flashlights can you solder an accelerometer to so it automatically dims when you point it toward the ground, brighter when level, and flashes when dropped(even when turned off)?

      How many flashlights let you signal morse code, record your signal, and repeat it on an infinite loop?

      How many flashlights blink the number of minutes left before the battery dies?

      How many flashlights can you plug your cellphone’s car-charger?

      How many flashlights can do all of these at the same time?

      Why let someone else determine how your flashlight is supposed to function, for you?

      Do you even read makezine sir?

      1. Good answer to the same question I had, but you could have left the last snark line out.  Be nice and helpful or one might be tempted to ask, “Did you go to kindergarten, sir?”

      2. johngineer says:

        I read on makezine that they have a “be nice” policy. Just sayin’

      3. “How many flashlights can you solder an accelerometer to so it
        automatically dims when you point it toward the ground, brighter when
        level, and flashes when dropped(even when turned off)?”

        Brilliant invention.  When you are ready to kickstart the “accelerometer flashlight” let me know.  Happy to include the patent application in the crowdfunding effort. http://bit.ly/kikpat

        (author is a registered US patent agent)
        (special note to haters:  yes, I know it’s open source, but you need IP rights to enforce an open source license.  Hence the need for a patent)

        1. Star Soup says:

          I hereby and hitherto release the design concepts and implementation of an accelerometer motion-aware flashlight into the public domain as a “common technology” that shall withstand patent law on the grounds that “everyone’s already doing this since before the patent was filed”.

          1. Yes, which raises another important
            point.  It’s always a good idea before you get too far into a
            project to make sure no one else has done it before.  Patent
            searches are excellent for this.  A patent search on
            “accelerometer motion-aware flashlight” would have revealed that
            Maglite has a patent application on file for one. 
            http://bit.ly/accelerometerlite

            Once we found that patent application,
            we would have searched for a commercial product and found the Mag
            XL100 http://www.gearcarrot.com/blog/2010/03/maglite-xl100-review/

            Now we would have been in a position to
            see if the open source accelerometer based flashlight you thought of
            was a significant improvement over Maglite’s version. If not, then
            it’s on to bigger and better things. If so, then seriously consider
            filing your own patent application before going public.

            Because if you don’t, they will.

            http://bit.ly/kikpat

          2. Star Soup says:

            You may be right, but I’m not sure this really applies or should be addressed to me.  I’m just a user who intends to buy a Hexbright and solder new things to it.  I hope Maglite doesn’t bust down my door to come confiscate my toys.  Or is this just a common topic on makezine; patent everything always…?

          3. Star Soup,

            Sorry.  Didn’t meant to be overly harsh.  I actually think you do have a cool idea, not withstanding anything Maglite may have done.

            Playing is fun.  People tend to take notice, however, when $ gets involved.

      4. VRAndy says:

        Question : “How many flashlights can you solder a [Something] to and make it do [Something]?”

        Answer : All of them.

        1. Star Soup says:

          I think you are incorrect.  I just tried soldering a mic to my cheap Mag 2x AA pen light.  Nothing interesting happened.  I can’t even find the USB port to upload firmware changes! :confused:

        2. Star Soup says:

          I think you are incorrect.  I just tried soldering a mic to my cheap Mag 2x AA pen light.  Nothing interesting happened.  I can’t even find the USB port to upload firmware changes! :confused:

      5. Star Soup says:

        Sorry for the snark, all.  I was just responding to what I perceived as snarkiness from the OP since he phrased is post in the form of a rhetorical question.

      6. Star Soup says:

        Sorry for the snark, all.  I was just responding to what I perceived as snarkiness from the OP since he phrased is post in the form of a rhetorical question.

  2. I’m one of those 2,000 backers, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the HexBright!

    I don’t have any grand plans for it yet, but just the idea that it’s programable and hackable is appealing all on its own.

  3. Scott Baker says:

    This is an amazing idea.  I would never have thought to make something so mundane and simple as a flashlight programmable and expandable – yet I can immediately see a million uses for the idea.  As an aircraft mechanic, I was very hard on flashlights, so it’s good to see durability is a key factor in your design.

  4. Scott Baker says:

    This is an amazing idea.  I would never have thought to make something so mundane and simple as a flashlight programmable and expandable – yet I can immediately see a million uses for the idea.  As an aircraft mechanic, I was very hard on flashlights, so it’s good to see durability is a key factor in your design.

  5. Scott Baker says:

    This is an amazing idea.  I would never have thought to make something so mundane and simple as a flashlight programmable and expandable – yet I can immediately see a million uses for the idea.  As an aircraft mechanic, I was very hard on flashlights, so it’s good to see durability is a key factor in your design.

  6. Brian Keefer says:

    This would be 40% more awesome with that mic standard. Imagine never losing your favorite light again, any old Commander Crisp whistle would turn it on wherever it’s gotten lost. Clap-activation, auto timing light, the disco strobe already mentioned..

    Who am I kidding, I’ll pick up one either way.

  7. Brian Keefer says:

    This would be 40% more awesome with that mic standard. Imagine never losing your favorite light again, any old Commander Crisp whistle would turn it on wherever it’s gotten lost. Clap-activation, auto timing light, the disco strobe already mentioned..

    Who am I kidding, I’ll pick up one either way.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I have a really kicking Fenix TA-21, but it doesn’t fit in my toolbelt pouch.  So I got one.  I particularly like the USB charging, I have a charger for the Fenix using the same 18650 cells, more junk on the desk. 

    I like the idea of an RGB version, Probably get that too when it comes out. 

  9. Caleb Crome says:

    Yep, I want one.  I want to put a phototransistor (or maybe microphone) to trigger it as a strobe, with a digital PLL so that the strobe will actually step through the phases of whatever you’re looking at.  For example, if you’ve got a fan spinning at 10 Hz, then I’d use the DPLL to run the strobe at 10.1 Hz, so that the fan will appear to move slowly (as opposed to motionless).

  10. Caleb Crome says:

    Yep, I want one.  I want to put a phototransistor (or maybe microphone) to trigger it as a strobe, with a digital PLL so that the strobe will actually step through the phases of whatever you’re looking at.  For example, if you’ve got a fan spinning at 10 Hz, then I’d use the DPLL to run the strobe at 10.1 Hz, so that the fan will appear to move slowly (as opposed to motionless).

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  13. Jamie Vaughn says:

    The really breakthrough use for a flashlight like this is to combine it with the wireless data transfer via light concept that inventor Harald Haas is developing. having a small flashlight in your pocket that can stream data to any compatible device wirelessly at speeds far above bluetooth…

    see TED video for demostration of his stationary photon data transfer module… http://www.ted.com/talks/harald_haas_wireless_data_from_every_light_bulb.html

    Now imagine having a portable version of wireless data transfer via light!! :D awesome

    1. Jamie Vaughn says:

      I found another good article on this concept: its called VLC (Visible light communication)

      Read about it here: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/08/110802090415.htm

      The other advantages it has is one communicator can broadcast simultaneously to a whole room. Security is more easily managed as blocking light is simpler than blocking WiFi. And you could do parallel communication by utilizing different wavelengths of light simultaneously to boost bit rates.

  14. Jamie Vaughn says:

    The really breakthrough use for a flashlight like this is to combine it with the wireless data transfer via light concept that inventor Harald Haas is developing. having a small flashlight in your pocket that can stream data to any compatible device wirelessly at speeds far above bluetooth…

    see TED video for demostration of his stationary photon data transfer module… http://www.ted.com/talks/harald_haas_wireless_data_from_every_light_bulb.html

    Now imagine having a portable version of wireless data transfer via light!! :D awesome

  15. Jamie Vaughn says:

    The really breakthrough use for a flashlight like this is to combine it with the wireless data transfer via light concept that inventor Harald Haas is developing. having a small flashlight in your pocket that can stream data to any compatible device wirelessly at speeds far above bluetooth…

    see TED video for demostration of his stationary photon data transfer module… http://www.ted.com/talks/harald_haas_wireless_data_from_every_light_bulb.html

    Now imagine having a portable version of wireless data transfer via light!! :D awesome