Page 1
Standard

Three delayed keyboards (or four future keyboards)

Anyone who has been involved with crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, and particularly those who have backed hardware products, know all about product delays. I’ve written before about how crowdfunding sites are invigorating the hardware startup market, allowing hardware products to reach the market that would never have done so in the past. The flip side is of course that not all the hardware products that receive crowdfunding do in fact reach the market.

Many crowdfunded products have famously failed, such as the Eyez by ZionEyez HD video recording glasses whose principles seemed to simply disappear off the face of the planet without delivering any products (and it’s unclear if they ever worked on their product at all). That case was covered by Forbes and Network World, although it only raises about $350,000. More recently Kickstarter has made it harder for pie-in-the-sky hardware ideas to make it onto the site. One interesting case was the Skarp Laser Razor, which raised over $4 Million on Kickstarter before the site suspended their campaign. The company quickly switched to IndieGoGo and raised over $450,000. Whether Kickstarter was right and the project ultimately fails remains to be seen.

A product doesn’t need to be crowdfunded to be a colossal failure. The Gizmondo handheld gaming console built up a lot of hype before flaming out fast once they launched. I suppose it’s good they at least launched, although it was apparently the worst-selling console of all time, selling less than 25,000 units. The company behind it had apparently burned through $300 Million, most of it in the six months before it declared bankruptcy. In case you were wondering how a company could spend that much money in such a short period of time, you might remember the story of one executive of Gizmondo who the year following the bankruptcy crashed his $2 Million Ferrari Enzo into a poll on the Pacific Coast Highway at such a such speed that he literally split the car in two. It was later found that he had illegally imported over $10 Million worth of sports cars that were being leased in the UK to the US, and then stopped paying the leases.

Now I wanted to look at three keyboards I’ve previously discussed, and see where they fit into this story. I’m not saying these products will fail, and I certainly hope they do not, but some are examples of hardware crowdfunding projects that have been excessively delayed. Two keyboards, the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse, were crowdfunded. One, the Kinesis Advantage, is an existing keyboard from a longtime keyboard manufacturer, that has been awaiting an update for many years (for example being announced as forthcoming in 2013).

Let’s start with the two crowdfunded keyboards, since they are incredibly similar. Both the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse are split ergonomic keyboards whose halves can be moved as mice, allowing one to both type and use the mouse without having to ever move your hands off the keyboard. Both raised similar amounts of money (the KA raised just under $240K and the KM raised just over $150K. The KA cost $200 during the campaign (and is currently accepting pre-orders for $320), while the KM cost $299 during the campaign (and is slated to sell for $399 retail). Both keyboards launched their campaigns with non-mechanical key switches, and later updated their designs to support Cherry MX mechanical switches (I suppose if you’re buying a keyboard for $200-300 you expect quality switches). Both companies are beyond their promised ship dates.

The KeyMouse
The KeyMouse

For a long time I suspected the KeyMouse, even though it raised its money later than the King’s Assembly, would ship first. I thought that because the company was out there showing working demonstration hardware of their designs. The KeyMouse was shown at CES 2015 in Las Vegas, and won an Innovation Award at CES 2016, just a few months ago (it was actually announced in November 2015). I didn’t back the KeyMouse, and the updates they’ve posted have been made available only to backers, so it’s not entirely clear what is going on with the product. What I can glean from the comments is that they’ve offered all their backers full refunds, as well as a promise to sell them the final product when released at the same price they paid during the campaign. That seems like a very good way to deal with whatever problem they’re having. Most companies don’t ever offer refunds to Kickstarter campaigns, as it’s not required, and they’ve usually already spent the money. So while I don’t know what happened to cause KM to start offering refunds, it seems a good sign that they’re offering refunds, as it means they’re likely not insolvent. Maybe we’ll see products shipping from them, but don’t hold your breath on seeing it this year.

 

KA Beta Pair Pic from KS
King’s Assembly 3D-Printed Beta (from the back)

The King’s Assembly has never, to my knowledge, actually shown off its prototypes publicly. Some pictures have been released to backers in updates on Kickstarter, and recently they took orders for what they called Beta keyboards, basically prototypes with 3D-printed plastic parts, that they somehow managed to sell to people for $650 each before the Kickstarter units are ready to ship. I suppose it’s pretty clever getting people to pay for your beta testing hardware. It’s a little galling for some KA backers who paid for two units – a final unit when released, and a pre-production unit earlier. That pre-production unit was supposed to be ready a few months after the campaign ended in April 2014. Those backers, who paid $350 for the privilege of getting an early unit in addition to the final one, don’t get the Beta units. I guess if the money and testing received through the beta program help get the product finished, however, people will be happy to get their products in the end. At this point even the Beta units haven’t shipped yet, although they seem to be in some form of final assembly. Once they get to Beta customers, it will be interesting to see people’s reaction to them. I wonder if Beta customers are restricted from posting photos of the units online. We’ll see what happens when they get into customer hands. Even assuming they get them out soon, and they all work perfectly, I wouldn’t expect a final unit to ship from KA before 2017. If they do get the Beta untis out, it will at least show they’ve managed to manufacture working units in some quantity, although that won’t prove that they can mass-produce the product using the money given them by backers in 2014.

Advantage Pro Keyboard
Kinesis Advantage Pro

Back in 2012, an employee of Kinesis started a thread on the Geekhack keyboard forum about what features people would like to see in a future version of the Kinesis Advantage contoured keyboard. I’ve written about the Advantage before (Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades? and How I would re-design the Kinesis Advantage keyboard). It’s a great keyboard, and I’ve used one myself on and off for years. The thread on Geekhack is actually still active, and there have been some interesting updates in the past four years. Of note, in early 2013, that same employee said the keyboard could be expected that year. As recently as last week, he was saying no date for the release, although other indications show that it is likely to come out this year (and in response to a tweet I sent them, they responded Q2). In the discussion online, it was revealed that the company only has about a dozen employees, and while the Advantage is the company’s most expensive keyboard, it isn’t the company’s most profitable. They sell many more of their less-expensive split adjustable Freestyle line of keyboards, which they’ve updated more frequently, adding for example Bluetooth support. In addition, they sell a line of foot pedals and other accessories.

Other priorities combined with some design problems has led to this delay now of more than four years. In the scheme of things, however, what’s four years? By my reckoning the last major update to the Advantage line was in 2002, when they introduced USB to the keyboard. That’s fourteen years since the last update. The overall design, however, hasn’t changed since it’s launch in 1996, which is twenty years ago. Twenty years selling the same design is pretty long by any reckoning, although Kinesis’ design is certainly modeled, at least in part, on the original Maltron keyboard that was designed in 1976 – so one could argue it’s a forty year old design. I’ve written how I would improve it, although my suggestions from 2014 are mostly functional, not design, changes. One design change that many people have asked for is the ability to split the keyboard into two halves, similar to their Freestyle keyboards. It seems that isn’t in the cards for the update planned this year, but they’ve said it’s not impossible in the future. It’s important to note that while this design update has been delayed, it’s not like the other keyboards which have backers that have put up money for them in advance. Kinesis certainly is under no obligation to update their keyboard, and while many people want an updated version, they’re not financially on the line if Kinesis never updates it.

 

Keyboardio Model 01
Keyboardio Model 01

I know the title of this post mentions three keyboards, but I’m going to mention one last keyboard because technically it’s not late yet. In fact I’ve mentioned this keyboard in at least two previous posts – A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence… and The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding. The keyboard is the Keyboardio Model 01, and I’ve been following it for quite a long time. If you look at the two previous posts you can see quite a change in its appearance over time. Part of what has been interesting about this keyboard is how much information was shared about its design long before it was crowdfunded on Kickstarter. What started out as an, I guess obsession is not too strong a word, for its designer Jesse Vincent, has been shared all along the way. Jesse started by documenting his keyboard on his blog, as well is in keyboard forums. He went through many many prototypes, and landed in a hardware incubator called Highway1, where he further refined the design. Finally, after years of work, sharing his trials and errors, and even his code, he launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.

The campaign was actually quite simple for a crowdfunding campaign. No stretch goals or other oddities. The keyboard was sold for $299. A $999 limited edition actually sold 11 units, amazing to me (to many people it’s probably harder to believe they sold over a thousand keyboards at $299, but while there are many keyboards available for over $299, I don’t know of too many over $999). The Keyboardio folk did a 25 State road trip during the campaign, driving from coast to coast and showing off the keyboard in various maker spaces. In the end, they raised over $650K, more than both the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse combined. In addition, while I don’t expect the keyboard to ship by its April 2016 date (see, it’s not late yet), I do expect it to ship well in advance of the other two crowdfunded keyboards. There’s no question in my mind that the Keyboardio Model 01 will ship, and not many months after their original ship date.

One can certainly argue that the King’s Assembly and the KeyMouse are much more complicated than the Keyboardio, and that’s mostly true. The Keyboardio has no pointing device (although it can move the mouse position using keys), it doesn’t move, it has many fewer parts, less keys, etc. However, it’s clear from looking at the stories of these keyboards that the Keyboardio was planned out well in advance of being crowdfunded, while the other two were only rough prototypes then (and over a year later for both, they essentially still are).

In the end, we have four new keyboard designs all supposed to be released in the coming year. I hope they all make it to production, and sooner rather than later. This is, to some extent, the beginning of a keyboard renaissance, and in large part it’s due to crowdfunding expanding the hardware market (see The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding). While not all keyboard crowdfunding campaigns have ended well (such as the failed Multi-Touch glass keyboard), it seems that if keyboards like the above can all reach the market it will encourage others to experiment and come up with new keyboard designs. While hardware crowdfunding has almost always been associated with delays, it’s still a major driver of innovation, and I hope we’ll see more products soon (although if you really want to ship stuff on time, I won’t oppose that).

The end
Keyboardio Model o1
Standard

The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding

I’ve worked in both hardware and software companies over the years, and both are interesting and challenging, but there there is something special about making something you can hold in your hand, and that people will see on store shelves (even if virtual). One of the amazing things that crowdfunding sites have enabled is hardware products to come out faster and from smaller companies than was possible in the past.

I should add that almost all great hardware companies have great software behind them. Certainly with any electronic product, there is software controlling it. Sure, not all hardware needs software – my friend’s Grape Ninja product which became the OXO Tomato & Grape Cutter – doesn’t need software to operate. It did benefit from crowdfunding as part its marketing campaign, however, before moving to OXO.

I’ve touched on this, particularly in Crowdfunding hardware and Sous Vide cooking, and earlier in discussing A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence…, and I think this trend towards individuals and small teams coming out with more innovative hardware faster is only going to accelerate as more and more successful products come to market.

In A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence… I mentioned Keyboardio, a company started by an inventor who just wanted a better keyboard. At the time the inventor had just joined an incubator focused on hardware products. The fact that such an incubator exists is, I believe, also due to the ability of these companies to raised funds through crowdfunding. Betting on many small teams to be able to make it to large-scale manufacturing before crowdfunding was an option, would have been a much bigger bet for an incubator.

In that earlier post, the prototype for Keyboardio’s keyboard looked like this:

Keyboard.io
Keyboardio Model 00 (Blog)

The incubator that Keyboardio joined, Highway1, recently held a demo day for its companies where after several months in the incubator a new version of the keyboard was shown:

Keyboardio Model o1
Keyboardio Model o1 (Blog)

Besides the aluminum construction, the keyboard is split and adjustable. In perhaps an homage to the earlier prototypes, the wrist rests are still made from real wood. The keyboard is hackable – it is Arduino-compatible and comes with a screwdriver so you can open it up and modify the hardware. Interesting in the Keyboardio keyboard? If so, sign up on their web site to get updates. I expect a crowdfunding campaign soon.

Signe Brewster at GigaOM did a nice write-up of Highway1’s recent demo day, highlighting each of the hardware startups that presented along with Keyboardio. Other products included a camera you can stick to a wall to allow easier and better selfies and group photos (I can’t call them groupies, I’m sorry), electronic textiles, connected sports bras, robotic kits, and connected blocks. As a foodie (perhaps you figured that out from my crowdfunding post that focused on Sous Vide cooking devices), the most interesting after Keyboardio to me was the PalateHome Precision Grill which cooks your food algorithmically, based on type of food and how well (as in well done, not as in a measurement of quality) you want it cooked. Sous Vide might make perfectly-cooked meat, but it takes a long time and something is definitely lost when direct contact with the heat is removed from the process. I’ll be keeping an eye on PalateHome, although I’m not sure it will be available outside the US anytime soon.

In the old days, you couldn’t start a hardware company without knowing you’d be able to raise the money to do a first manufacturing run. In today’s world, with 3D printers to help prototype faster and cheaper, and crowdfunding to help get pre-payment for products, a lot of ideas which once stayed in people’s heads or at most sketches in a notebook, are now coming into existence. It’s an exciting time for hardware startups, and I think we’re going to see a lot of innovative hardware products released that would never made made it to market in the past.

The end
Sous Vide Equipment (Anova)
Standard

Crowdfunding hardware and Sous Vide cooking

This is not a post about cooking. This is a post about crowdfunding and how it is changing how many products are coming to the market. I touched on this briefly in my post on forthcoming keyboard designs, but Sous Vide as a category gives a clearer view of what is going on in crowdfunding of new hardware.

Let’s get the cooking stuff out of the way. Sous Vide (French for ‘under vacuum‘) is an interesting intersection of technology and cooking. The basic concept is to create a water bath where the water is circulated and heated to a very precise temperature (to a tenth of a degree). Food items are vaccum-sealed in plastic bags and inserted into the water bath. Using lower than normal cooking temperatures, the foods are cooked through and can be accurately cooked to very specific degrees for different types of foods.

Sous Vide Equipment (Anova)
Sous Vide Equipment (Vacuum sealer, Anova circulator, pot)

In use since the 1970s in restaurants where the equipment costs thousands of dollars, the first widely available ‘consumer’ unit, the Sous Vide Supreme, came out in late 2009 and cost about $400. In the years since then a number of companies have come out with competing devices, both of the self-contained variety like the SousVide Supreme (called water baths), and the more common immersible device (called circulators), that are inserted into a pot or other container and heats and circulates the water within that container. One downside of Sous Vide is that any cooking effect that requires higher heat or exposure to air, such as the browning of meats, doesn’t occur. Another downside is the length of time required to cook the food, although one might compare it to slow cookers.

Sous Vide is interesting as a new cooking technology. One doesn’t see too many completely new cooking techniques introduced into the consumer kitchen. We bake, boil, braise, fry and roast. Most cooking fits into these general techniques. One might argue that pressure cooking is a different technique – although it has been commercially available for about 150 years.

More interesting to me, however, is how Sous Vide as a product category has grown in the past few years, and how crowdfunding has been largely responsible for that growth. Developing new hardware products, whether computer accessories or cooking devices, is a very difficult undertaking. One of the main reasons developing new hardware is difficult is that startup costs – the costs of getting the initial devices designed and manufactured in a factory – are very high. In the past, it was very difficult to get people to pre-pay for hardware from unknown companies. Inventors of new hardware devices instead either had to raise a lot of money, difficult in all cases, but even more so when your product is new and the market is unconfirmed, or sell their idea to a larger company who had the means to manufacture their product. Crowdfunding has allowed many hardware products to come into existence that otherwise would never have made it to market. Sous Vide cooking equipment is just one category of hardware that has been propelled by the availability of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but I think it’s an illustrative one.

Nomiku

The first crowdfunded Sous Vide device, Nomiku, was brought out on Kickstarter. It’s campaign successfully raised $586,061 (based on a $200,000 goal) with 1,880 backers on July 18, 2012. This was at the time the most successful food device crowdfunding campaign.

Nomiku Sous Vide
Nomiku Sous Vide (Instagram)

 

Codlo & Sansaire

Perhaps based on this very successful campaign, two fairly similar devices were crowd funded the following year, Codlo and Sansaire. Codlo was mildly successful, raising £128,961 (based on a £100,000 goal) with 1,139 backers in July 2013.

Sansaire did significantly better raising $823,003 (based on a $100,000 goal) with 4,084 backers in September 2013.

AquaChef Clarity & SOUSIMPLE

Two more Sous Vide devices were pitched via crowdfunding, but failed – the AquaChef Clarity and the SOUSIMPLE. The AquaChef Clarity raised less than a third of its $100,000 goal before it was cancelled in November 2013. It was a full water bath device, and while I can’t say why it failed, it could just have been bad timing coming so soon after the successful campaigns of the Codlo and the Sansaire. It could also be that the full water bath Sous Vide devices are less popular due to the amount of space they take up.

Meat diagram from AquaChef Clarity campaign
Meat diagram from AquaChef Clarity campaign

The SOUSIMPLE allowed you to adapt an existing device such as a rice cooker or a slow cooker, to do Sous Vide cooking. It was put out on Kickstarter in January 2014 but was suspended when it became clear that it would not reach its goal of $25,000. Part of the reason might be that it was revealed in the comments for the project that the whole device was essentially the repackaging of a $17 digital temperature controller with a wooden frame and cables for $85. More than just being marked up (which frankly I think is fair if they make the product more useful and easier to buy), the revelation was that the product was not innovative. People who buy from crowdfunding sites are buying innovation.

Anova & Mellow

Currently there are two interesting campaigns going on, Anova and Mellow. Anova is finishing up a campaign on Kickstarter, where it has currently raised $1,712,328 from more than 10,000 backers. The campaign ends on Tuesday. The Anova is actually a second-generation device, an upgrade from the first-gen device which came out around the same time as the Sansaire last year. The upgraded Anova is less expensive, adds control through a smartphone app, and some other convenience features.

Mellow
Mellow cooking Salmon

Mellow is not using a traditional crowdfunding service, but rather is allowing pre-ordering through its own website. This means Mellow doesn’t get any money until the product is ready to ship (different than most crowdfunding) but it is similar in that the company can gauge interest in their product well in advance of committing to manufacturing (similar to crowdfunding). The Mellow is not an immersible device like these other Sous Vide devices, but is a full water bath. The innovative feature that Mellow brings to the table is that it can not only heat the water in the bath, but can cool it too. That means you can put a steak a cold bath in the morning, and have it heat up in the evening to cook so its ready for dinner when you get home. Another interesting advantage of the cooling ability is that you can bring down the temperature of the food after cooking. Like the second-gen Anova, Mellow can be controlled via a smartphone app, and in fact must be controlled via an app as it has not screen or other way to control the device.

As an aside, Mellow is not the first cooking device to attempt both cooling and heating. An earlier crowdfunding campaign, the CoolCooker, attempted to do something very similar in the context of a slow cooker. It even offered a version that supported Sous Vide cooking. The campaign failed to raise the $25,000 it sought, and was suspended in January 2014.

Crowdfunding hardware is not easy

So what do all of these Sous Vide crowdfunding campaign teach us? A few things:

  1. New innovative devices, even if just good refinements of existing products, can find traction through crowdfunding sites
  2. When one product creates a new product category through a successful crowdfunding campaign, more products will follow in the category.
  3. Just because a category is hot, doesn’t mean every product thrown out there will be successful. Taking advantage of a popular category won’t work, as those buying through crowdfunding sites are sophisticated enough to see who is innovating and who the posers are…
  4. Companies can use crowdfunding to significantly reduce the risk involved in launching a new product, and small companies who could never afford to ramp up factory production of their products can use crowdfunding to make it possible.
  5. Crowdfunding is not just for initial products, but can be used for multiple products from the same company.
  6. Crowdfunding doesn’t need to be done through the big companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but can be done on one’s own site. This is more useful when you have a good way to direct traffic to one’s site.
The end