An inspired idea grown in a makerspace can produce retro magic. That’s the message from 8bitlit collaborators Bryan and Adam. In less than two months, they’ve gone from concept through prototyping to small scale production. Their touch-sensitive Mario Brothers-themed pendant lamp is starting to sell. “Da-ding!”
Late last year, Bryan was reveling in laser cutting: cutting projects, toying with joinery, and learning. Several projects were in process: a peristaltic pump, a T-slot screw together enclosure, and a tree-shaped lamp. He had tried snap-together laser cut joints and was experimenting with acetone welding. These worked well. What new project could he build with what he had learned? Creating an acrylic box was already on Bryan’s short list of ideas. However, as a child of the 1980s when Mario reigned supreme, the box idea quickly made the leap to being a Mario cube. A quick mashup with his tree-shaped lamp project and voila! The Mario Cube Lamp was born.
Now, how to make it? Bryan had a great idea, knows software, design circuits, and is a maker, but he didn’t have the means to bring the cube to life. With work, a family, and a baby due soon there was no way he’d have the time to build the product. The answer became apparent at a Christmas party where Bryan met Adam, a member of TechShop.
Like so many others have, Adam grew as a maker in a makerspace. These tool-filled, collaborative environments are where learning, teaching, and making are a way of life. The confidence and competence he earned had convinced Adam that fast prototyping for product development is what he wants to do. In a way, Adam was Bryan’s natural compliment with the experience and the means to make the venture a reality. Over banter that started with Arduino development but led to the coin block lamp, Adam quickly concluded “I could build that!” The date was December 15.
Within two days, the first prototype had been built and the odyssey had begun. Over the next two months they would learn many things, face many challenges, and experience many satisfying successes. As I write this, they stand on the cusp of selling into a new channel with great potential.
From the start, the features they wanted in the product were clear. The cube had to be translucent, it needed a touch-sensitive bottom, and it had to play the coin sound. However, getting it right and keeping it cheap would be a real challenge. For example, the ATTiny microcontroller was tempting to use because of its low cost but there was a nagging concern that it might not be capable enough to do the job. The list of things they didn’t know was long.
Many answers came from prototyping, learning, and improving with each iteration. They plowed through prototypes: acrylic choices changed, circuit board design improved, building techniques were refined. They iterated on the product: fully-assembled product made room for a kit version, suspended pendant lamp was augmented with a light stand option, pricing points changed. In a maker world with access to good tools, cost-effective rapid improvement is a realistic business expectation.
Along the way, fellow makers and enthusiast communities were also there to help with answers. What’s a cost effective way to trigger a light with the touch of a hand? What was the best design approach to implementing the ATTiny microcontroller? How could you generate the musical tunes associated with triggering the light? The willingness on the part of others to help them kept the project moving ahead with improved prototypes.
As time went by, Bryan and Adam became increasingly convinced they had created something special. More people were experiencing the product and having a reaction similar to theirs. The sights and sounds of a joyful youth spent playing video games were resonating. People who triggered the lamp were actually enjoying it more than they expected. Smiles were quick to surface. While many aspects of marketing will eventually become a challenge, they were confident in their product concept.
Rapid progress on the product led quickly to selling. The first sales were among friends and family. Soon after, they opened a store on Etsy.com, where their amateur video quickly drew 11,000 views — an inspired start. Just recently, the product found its way to the video game fan product site Lootiful.com. It’s only the beginning but things are looking bright this February 13.
So what troubles them as they look ahead? A variety of unknowns, but primarily scaling. What will happen if they get a big order? How could they fulfill 1,000 orders if they have sudden success? Problems like this confront every successful product and while they’re nice to have, they can keep you awake at night. Unfortunately, little is available to help with these challenges in today’s makerspace network and this needs to change.
In the meantime Bryan and Adam are having a blast. What’s more satisfying than making something you love? What’s more gratifying that delivering a product that exceeds customer expectations? Hopefully things will continue to go their way and they’ll have started a video game fan product business. What’s next? Guess we’ll have to wait and see. “Da-ding!”
Do you know of a product innovation worth featuring? A new business-in-the-making? Is it a story with an interesting odyssey, especially involving makers collaborating? If so, drop me a note at MakerInnovation@me.com. We want to shine a light on innovative product ideas by makers.