Last March, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino registered a new limited company in London, and booked a booth at CES, the consumer electronics trade show, taking place 10 months later. She had no team, and only a dated prototype product that she had designed back in 2005.
“I thought what’s the biggest kick in the ass that I can possibly give myself? And that’s paying £8,000 for a booth in Las Vegas.”
The product, which now bears little resemblance to that original design, is called Good Night Lamp. It’s a light in the shape of a house, that connects to your home wi-fi network, and through that to its family of smaller, connected lamps which you can give to friends and family around the world. When you turn your big lamp on, so do the little ones, wherever they are. It’s a simple way of communicating to loved ones living remotely.
A balance between simplicity and hackability
Alexandra is well-known in the UK and abroad as a figure in the internet of things (IoT) community. Her twitter name, @iotwatch, rather gives it away, and she’s taken on a role as an IoT catalyst and enabler, organising the London Internet of Things meetup, amongst other community-focused activities. And the Good Night Lamp sounds like a classic IoT product. But Alexandra prefers not to talk about it that way:
“I don’t tell the internet of things story to potential customers. Because it’s not essential to an understanding of what the product does. I tend to skip beyond that. I tend to tell stories around the Good Night Lamp that are far more about feeling connected to someone when they’re in a different timezone; feeling connected to someone who doesn’t have as much technology literacy; enabling people to sync up whenever they’re available to talk to each other.
“In a way the technology is boring; what we’re doing isn’t rocket science. People just forget about the magic of how it works, they just go, oh yeah, my mum lives in another country and actually that would be super-handy.”
The stories she tells about Good Night Lamp are shaped by the vision she has for the lamp. It’s a domestic product, rather than a gadget or a computing device:
“My interest is in bringing something to the mass market, and at mass market price, and in large quantities, to change people’s ideas about what technology can be in their homes, and what technology is about.
“That’s another thing that informed the materials we’re using: wood, plastics; it feels like a very warm product, as opposed to something that’s extremely shiny, like a gadget. It feels closer to Ikea than it does to Apple,” says Alexandra.
That’s not to say she isn’t aware of the benefits of making the device hackable, rather it’s about finding the right balance, focusing on the core customer, while catering to other groups, like geeks and makers.
“If there’s a case for it to do more, I’d rather it came from people who take it apart and do what they want with it. Rather than try to build too much complexity into a product that naturally should just be able to do one thing, and one thing really well.
“We’re going to hide in a whole bunch of things, technological Easter eggs as it were, for someone to just figure out, things like building on top of an RGB LED but just using it on white, and then letting people go, ‘Oh wait, I can do colour signalling; I can connect it up to GitHub so when I get a ticket, or someone forks my code, or something happens I get a little red house,’ say. And an API’s absolutely on the cards.
“Those are things we’ll never talk about on the packaging of the product, but we’ll definitely build in.”
The Arduino invasion
This focus on making a simple consumer product may be a little surprising when you consider Alexandra’s background. Born in Canada, but brought up in Europe and the Middle-East, she discovered design while at school in Kuwait:
“I thought this is awesome, I want to do this for the rest of my life. Which is a good thing to get into when you’re 14,” she says.
She moved back to Canada, and took a product design course at the Université de Montréal, but after finishing, decided North America was not for her, and went on to take her Masters at Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (IDII) in Italy. The school, in its short lifetime (between 2001 and 2005), attracted leading academics, designers and researchers, not least of which was Massimo Banzi, who introduced Alexandra to early versions of the prototyping board he and others were developing, called Arduino.
After graduating, and spending a year working in Amsterdam, Alexandra moved to London to set up a business inspired in part by the work she had been doing on connected devices at IDII. Tinker, as it was called, was a studio that researched and made technology bridging the digital-physical divide, taking on work for advertising agencies, big technology brands, retail and cultural clients. But they started off by running the first Arduino workshops in the UK, in early 2007. They were also the first distributors of the boards in the UK:
“I packed Arduinos and shields every day from my flat in Hackney. It was all done so inefficiently it’s almost laughable. I ended up buying envelopes at inflated prices from a corner stationery shop and going to the post office with these massive Ikea bags of stuff, not even printing postage online at that time.”
The practice grew around the Arduino platform, with clients seeing the opportunity, just as makers do, for devices that bridge the digital/physical divide.
“The Arduino was a means to an end. Once you understand the capability of cheap electronics, then you understand how easily you can come up with ideas you can prototype, that then can become products for your company. That side of the business always interested me massively.
“I always knew the Arduino was a stepping stone into a world where people could make things very quickly. The real challenge lies beyond the Arduino, but in our practice, in the studio work, we never really needed to do anything more than that.”
While the work was exciting, the business wasn’t financially viable, and Tinker closed its doors in December 2010.
Going to the end of an idea
With the Tinker team dispersed and working on other projects, Alexandra turned her attention back to the lamp prototype she had designed at IDII.
“When Berg announced they were doing Little Printer, and Alice Taylor announced she was doing Makielab, I thought fuck it, what am I waiting for? Because the Good Night Lamp had been an idea that I always wanted to spend time and energy on. I thought, you know what, I just have to do this now, I just have to try it out and see what happens, because otherwise, it’s going to be one of things that I talk about with really doing anything about it. And I’m not one of those people. I’d rather investigate something to the point of killing it if need be, or making it blossom, ideally. Really going to the end of an idea, rather than just letting it lie.”
Which brings us to the £8,000 booth at CES, a seven year old prototype product and a 10 month window to make it ready for Vegas.
An early priority was redesigning the product to make it easier to manufacture. The tooling for the moulded plastic body of the original design would have cost up to £75,000 in Europe. So working with furniture designer Tom Cecil, the team set about simplifying the idea, the form and the materials.
The current design is based on a single piece of veneered MDF, which is CNC-milled down to the veneer, and then wrapped around the internal components so there is no external glueing needed.
The team’s work to lower manufacturing cost was also driven by a desire to focus on what they considered most important:
“Any design that you make, you have to assume that someone else will get on that bandwagon. So where are you crystallising value? What makes things difficult to copy? In our case, right now, it’s not the product per se, it’s the software infrastructure we’re building around it, and the way in which the lamps are connected,” says Alexandra.
They’re also looking for investment. Like many hardware startups, they turned to Kickstarter, but failed to meet their funding goal. Alexandra is sanguine about it:
“It wasn’t successful, and I don’t mind that too much, because we ended up engaging with the people who had promised us money – 500 or so people, who really cared about what we were doing – extremely enthusiastic. Two days after, we opened up a store, we took pre-orders and gave our backers a 10% discount, because we didn’t have to give Kickstarter 10%, so we thought let’s respect that, and try to look for funding elsewhere.”
Of course, funding is limited, partly because many investors are yet to be convinced there is money in IoT, also because the investment model for hardware is different from software and web services. And for hardware startups coming from an open maker culture, the protection of designs and IP can also be a problem:
“The assumption right now is, once you get to the point of wanting to make a business, that you’ve never told anyone about the idea you’ve been working on, because you’ve saved up £15,000 to write a patent. Are you out of your mind?! I don’t have a patent for Good Night Lamp, and I’m starting to seriously question whether I should find the extra £15,000, because it’s such a part of how the investment community sees value.
“That’s something you don’t get told when you’re tinkering around with an Arduino, but you should probably consider.”
While Alexandra is intentionally building a business around a mass-market product, this collision of two worlds – the open world of maker culture, and the (to some degree) closed world of commercial product development – can cause problems for any maker with aspirations to move their project from one world to the other:
“The first things that you’re asked about are the things that are completely anti-hobbyist, like, ‘Do you have a patent?’, ‘Of course I don’t have a patent; I’ve got an Arduino board with 4 LEDs, what are you talking about?’
“We’re going to enter into these conversations, with the world of physical DRM as it were. It needs to happen, because they were made for a world that we don’t live in any more. That’s something that policy-makers could look into: are patents a decent way of evaluating a product’s value, when you’re talking about IoT stuff, when you’re talking about maker communities and you’re talking about encouraging entrepreneurs to move ahead with their ideas?”
Retail is another challenge for a novel product like Good Night Lamp, that doesn’t fit into traditional product categories:
“Is the Good Night Lamp a piece of lighting, or is it a gadget? If you had to put it in a department store, would you put it in lighting, or next to the computers?” asks Alexandra.
But the retail landscape is changing, and that also presents opportunities:
“There’s a real shift happening. Because of the failure of the high street to interest people, there might be opportunities for us to come into the traditional retail space, and make an impact, when people figure out how to sell these kinds of things,” she says.
The maker movement has been enabled by a community of trailblazers: the people who first built accessible prototyping and fabrication tools; the people who thought it would be a great idea to open a community hackspace where anyone could come to work and learn from their peers; even the people who thought it would be interesting to publish a magazine for makers.
As well as supporting a growing movement of hobbyists working on personal projects, these trailblazers have started to clear pathways for makers who are trying to reach commercial markets.
Alexandra is one of these trailblazers, discovering and grappling with the challenges that makers face on this path: making tooling for mass production, finding investment, protecting IP, moving from a one-off prototype to a viable product. Most of all, having the perseverance to keep on blazing.
Right now, in 2013, it’s difficult to say how much of the trail has been cleared. We can’t see the wood for the trees, as it were. But I’m excited to see so many people taking this path, and I’m optimistic that at some point in the future, we’ll look back at this time and see the path that Alexandra and others have cleared, the path that has helped the maker movement become a driving force in innovation and creativity.
Andrew Sleigh thinks, writes and talks about technology in Brighton, UK, and also on Twitter. He also makes things, none of which have shown any commercial promise, but he shares them on his blog anyway.