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Back from China

Shenzhen, the capital of Guandong, China’s manufacturing region, where the sun is never really able to break through the smog.

(This has been reposted from Kickstarter)

Manufacturing in China

Prototyping is like cooking, manufacturing is like baking. When you cook, you can adjust while you work. You taste, add more pepper maybe, a squeeze of lemon, you taste again, add a splash of cream, a pinch of salt. You keep adjusting until it goes on the table. Baking is different, you mix all the ingredients, put it in the oven and pray for the best. It if fails, you got to start over from the beginning.

Manufacturing a relatively complex piece of electronics like the Kick, takes hundreds of different parts from different manufacturers. Some parts needs to be handled in a particular way, stored at a certain humidity, soldered in a certain way. When the assembled unit literally comes out of the reflow oven, it has to be tested properly to make sure everything if put together the right way and is working properly. The WiFi, the internal sensors, the charger, the battery, the LEDs, the buttons etc, etc. everything has to be tested on every device. There is literally a thousand small things that can go wrong and a lot of nail biting and obsessing over details. Designing the test jig and building an automated test procedure can sometimes be as much work as building the product in the first place.

I was in China last week to work with the factory who makes the plastic parts, and to visit potential manufacturers for the electronics. There is a lot of manufacturers in Guandong. From the really large ones like Foxconn and Flextronics who focus on customers who need massive volume. Then there is the tier below who are very professional, but who sometimes are able and willing to work with smaller customers as well. Then there is the smaller factories. The smaller the factory, the lower the price, but the more oversight they need. There are factories where workers walk around in spacesuits making little marks on notepads, and there are factories that are almost like sweatshops. Hot, smelly and poorly lit. The poor reputation that Chinese factories have is to a large degree based on poor conditions in the smaller factories.

This is the end of the production line for the printed circuit board assembly. The long chamber in the foreground is the reflow oven where the components are soldered. At the far end is the stencil printer and the pick’n place machine, the robot that places the components on the printed circuit board. 

I want to mention the fantastic help from several people like Chris Gammel, Bunnie Huang, Adam Scheuring, Billy and William from Dragon Innovation and of course Jenny Odegard. They helped locating the right kind of manufacturers, sent introductions and with visiting the factory sites.

It is critical to use a larger mainstream factory that have a reputation to uphold and an established customer base. The trick is to find someone who are still hungry, and flexible enough to take on smaller production runs. I think we found the right electronics manufacturer and that feels really good after our initial false start to manufacture the electronics.

Translation of the flowery language used by Chinese factories can be unintentionally funny. Instead of “To create the greatest value for customers and stuff”, why not “To create great value for customers and shit”. That would be my kind of people.

Molds

Two of the five molds used to make the Kick enclosure, ready for transport to the big injection molding machines.

I visited James at HiTop who makes the molds and the plastic parts. The molds are done and we worked on the T1 shots. The parts looks good for the most part, but there is a few adjustments we need to make.

As you can see in the above pictures, gaps appear when you squeeze the case. We are adding some features to the case to better keep it tight. Please note: The case above is a test-shot without any surface finish. The final parts will be polished and wet-etched to give them a fine-textured matte finish.

Molds are seldom perfect on the first try. I hope we are able to sort all remaining problems for T2. If not, there will be a T3. I was probably a little disheartened when I realized we could not fix the issues with tweaks or by adjusting the plastics mix. We need to design in additional features for the parts. James tried to lighten me up by sharing war stories about working with automotive manufacturers who sometimes were at T50 or T60 before they got it right.

The design changes has been done, but we’re holding back on implementing changes as long as we can in in case other issues appear during beta testing. The shipping date is still dependent on the delivery of the pesky batteries.

iPhone everywhere

China is totally preoccupied with the iPhone to a degree I haven’t seen anywhere. The Apple logo and iPhone 5 posters and images are everywhere you go. Even in the hotel toilet stall :-)

Beta update

The first pre-production/beta units have been assembled and are about ready to go out to the beta testers. We have way more people offering to test than we have pre-production units, so we can’t accept more testers.

M

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Manufacturing update

This poor blog hasn’t seen much love lately. As you know we had a successful Kickstarter campaign, so info and updates has been posted over there. We’ll move back here eventually. But for now, you can get the latest manufacturing update on the Kick here.

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Shooting test portraits with the Kick

We did some test shots with the Kick the day before yesterday and Alex helped me out. Actually, he did all the shooting and I helped him out!

Kick may not be your typical portrait light. But we made some shots anyway, just for the heck of it. Alex made some lighting diagrams to go with the images.

Per, who we cajoled into posing for some of the images, helped us get access to an empty theater. We needed a large pitch black space for some technical shots to illustrate how far the light would reach when using an iPhone as a camera. You can see the examples in an update under our Kickstarter page.

From Alex’ portfolio

 

 Alex Asensi is a friend and a young emerging photographer/filmmaker. He set up some typical lighting scenarios and made some test shots using one or more Kicks as the sole lighting source.

This shot uses a single Kick above. The girl is Katarina, Per’s niece, who were nice enough to be our model for the shoot. This lighting gives hard dark shadows. Katerina has a beautiful strong face that can take this kind of lighting. But lighting from a steep angle, like this will exaggerate and bring out any skin imperfection. Normally you would do do a little retouch and soften the skin a bit. You would also reduce the reflections along the nose and forehead. We have done minimal post processing to these images.

In this shot Alex used 2 Kicks about 45 degrees from each side. This fills in the shadows and makes the face less 3-dimensional. Katarina looks great in any light, but you get a little bit of “deer-in-headlights” or papparazzi feel here.

 

This shot was made with 3 Kick lights. One on each side and one above dimmed down a bit. The Kick does a decent job for this kind of dramatic lighting.

 

Here is an example of using colored light on the background. Per stood against a grey background if I remember correctly. The light is behind his back, and directed at the background. You don’t have to do it quite as explicitly as in these examples. A little touch of light can be enough to make your subject stand out against a dark or dull background. Very handy if you have little room to shoot and you want to avoid the up-against-the-wall look.

 

 

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Titanic sails tonight

Launching is scary. To let your invention out into the big bad world for the wolves to rip it apart. Or worse, being met wit a yawn, or no one even noticing. But you just have to put on your batman undies and go do it.

We went live a few hours ago and the reception has been awesome! I’m happy to report that the Kick is live and kicking on Kickstarter.

It is simply fantastic to see the Kick resonating with so many different people. There is a flurry of ideas on what people want to do with it.

Head over to Kickstarter and have a look. If you like it, pledge. And lets get a lighting revolution started!

 

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Sneak peek of how streaming light works

OK, so here comes another update and a lo-fi sneak peak on the light streaming capability. Light streaming is basically sampling light from a running video (or the phone camera), amplifying it and blasting it out.

 

 

We have been working like dogs for what feels like ages now. If it was easy, they wouldn’t call it hardware. But we are are getting very close to manufacturability. The major issues are sorted and I hope we can announce some definitive dates soon.

 

Later,

M

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Update on the tiny light

Just a brief update.

Progress has been good on the tiny version. The second prototype PCB works without too many alterations.

I had to port the code to a bigger microcontroller, the little Cortex-M0 ARM chip with USB port might not be ready to ship in time, so we are now running on a Cortex-M3, the bigger brother.

Battery life and battery management has gotten a lot of attention as well. In order to conserve as much power as possible, various parts of the device is powered down when not strictly needed. The LED drivers of course, the WiFi section, the sensors,etc. The goal is to consume as little power as possible in standby mode. The microcontroller is always on. That is, when the device is powered down, a single pin on the microcontroller is alive, barely. The rest of the device is powered down or in a deep sleep state. That single pin is connected to the power on button. When you press it, the device wakes up and is ready almost instantly.

WiFi takes a lot of work. In order to communicate WiFi devices have to be on the same network. There are basically two ways to do this. The old way is “infrastructure mode” where one device sets up a WiFi access point. That would typically be the internet router in your house. All other devices connects to this access point and you are in business. There is also “ad hoc mode” a way for devices to set up a direct connection between them. Very useful for short lived connections and perfect for our purpose.

But not all devices supports direct WiFi connections. Notably, the iPhone/iPad does not allow an automated connection to a third party device. So we have to do some of the heavy lifting on our end. When the device starts, it sets up its own WiFi access point called “RiftNet”. If there are more than one light in range they will manage the connection between them automatically.  You connect the phone to RiftNet via Settings on the iPhone/iPad, and then you can control all the lights remotely from the app. Maybe not a super elegant solution, but that is the way we have to do it if we want to support iOS. If that changes in the future, we might be able to add support via a firmware update.

Later,

Morten

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December update

Greetings, carbon units. Here is an update on the development over the last couple of months. Lots is happening and this is probably going to be a bit long and no pictures. So if your brain suffers from Social Media Induced ADD, you may struggle :-)

Onboard WiFi and Remote Control

One of the most requested features is remote control of the light. Lights get put in all sorts of hard-to-get-to places and it would be very convenient to be able to control the lights remotely. But how best to do it?

What should the controller be like? Should it be a separate remote control unit? Should one of the lights act as a master able to remotely control other lights? Or should we use a tablet or phone as controller?

A dedicated remote control device would probably be the best in terms of reliability and ease of use. It could be optimised for a single task. It could also use a simple and robust radio protocol and low cost radio chips. But it would be expensive to make a separate device.

If we use  one light to control the others, we could also utilise low cost radio chips, but we would bave a challenge cramming the added functionality into the user interface. It could easily turn into menu system hell where you would have to hunt around in menus and settings screens to do the simplest things.

The last option is to use a tablet or phone as the remote controller. The advantage is that it has a big screen, touch control and you most likely already have one with you. With phones and tablets the radio alternatives are Bluetooth or WiFi. To use Bluetooth with an iPhone/iPad, we would need to put an Apple chip in each light, and, well, I don’t think that is a viable option for the time being :-) So it has to be WiFi. The awesome part is that WiFi is widespread, standardised, and WiFi access points usually has an internet connection as well. The downside is that I need to add an expensive WiFi radio chip and processor to the hardware and run a WiFi software stack. The iPhone/iPad does not support peer-to-peer networking with third party hardware, so they have to be connected to the same access point. Android don’t have those limitations, but 90% of all photogs have iPads and iPhones, so there is that.

Tiny version

Another comment is the cost, the size and the light output of the current Floyd prototype. Talking to photogs, everybody wants something different. The thing everybody agrees on is that more light, less weight and less heat is a good thing.

To test the remote control I needed a number of devices. So I designed a tiny version of the Floyd. It is small, has a knob for intensity, a knob for color temperature and a button to activate remote control. If you press the button, you control the light from your iPhone, else you  control the light with the two knobs. It can be reasonably inexpensive to manufacture.

The current state of affairs is that the hardware works, there is WiFi communication between the PC and the light, but there is an iPhone App to make. I’m working with Hans Olav (pronounced “Han Solo”. Get outta here Chewbacca, how awesome is that?) to get an iPhone App prototype up and running.

Communications FAIL

Earlier this year I tried to keep up on the blogging but I think that can safely be declared a FAIL by now :-) I am a slow writer. Making videos, even the very simple ones, takes even more time  and that is time taken away from development. But that have to change. I’m just not sure how. Hmmm, actually I do know how. Until this project gets more resources, I have to take time away from development to do more blogging and videos. Dang.

User Interface work

There has been a lot of comments and suggestions on the Floyd prototype and it is coming together pretty nicely. It has been simplified and made more robust during the last few months. I think it initially was a bit to “technical” for some, too much Kelvin and EV values. It is more visual now and defaults to preset values like Daylight  and Tungsten instead of 5600 and 3200. Pauric who is an awesome interaction designer is doing some work on the User Interface to simplify and clarify it further. He’s had some really cool ideas and I’m looking forward to implement the UI improvements.

Light and math

I’ve spent a lot of time working on the quality of the light itself. Processing color mathematically involves a lot of heavy duty calculations and they have to be done within a few microseconds to keep up with changes in light intensity and color. Floyd is now capable of working with and converting between several color spaces so it produces preceptually correct output when it mixes and adjusts colors. It’s kind of a mini-photoshop in there now. We’re not messing around.

Red, green and blue produces a color spectrum that has a dip around 570 nanometers, which is around yellow-orange. That is no problem when the light goes straight from the emitter and into your eyes, like it does from a screen. But it can be a concern when the light is meant to be reflected before it it enters an eye or a camera.  So I’ve experimented with mixing in additional LED emitters to add energy in the dip and see if we can get a more even spectrum. But when we add a forth or fifth emitter, we now have a underdetermined math problem. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but this is the kind of hard-to-solve math problem that involves big greek letters with little doodads both over and under. Thankfully I got a lot of help from Joriki who is a math god and can answer any question whatsoever, as long as he can do it in Algebra.

Adding emitters does improve the color rendering ability of the light. It also requires additional driver electronics, more processor power and increases the size of the device. Whether the improvement is marginal or essential is up to the individual and dependent on the shooting situation.  I’ll guess we’ll see eventually how this pans out. Is RGB sufficient as a video light or do we need RGB+?

Next up

If you think that remotely controlling video/photo lights over WiFi sounds cool, and you are a software developer, and you want to do something with it, please do get in touch at hello@riftlabs.com. I can get prototype hardware out to you (at cost).

To people who ask “when is it going to be ready?” all I can say is that it is ready when it is good enough. We’ve obviously made a ton of progress, so it is not that far away. It is ready when people say “This is has value. This is useful to me. I want one.”.

 

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Alpha version, UI demo

Coding the UI elements took way longer than I thought. Primarily because I’m really poor at estimating.

I’ve attached a video showing the progress so far. The UI is poorly organized  and very basic at the moment. Implementing nicer graphics is not going to take as much time (im my estimate :-)). What has taken time so far is implementing the underlying business logic for the UI; basic drawing routines, a declarative UI representation, viewports, display color conversion and other painful stuff.

It will take a few days to stabilise the code and then I’ll send the first unit out for alpha testing.

Next up is the new enclosure. There is still some suggestions to test and some manufacturability issues to work out, but I’ll try to get the 3D model in reasonable shape so we can machine a few samples. Those will be the basis for a beta version.

Back to work…

 

 

 

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Optimizing for magic, not for price

Everybody is asking what the price is going to be for the Floyd. It is a bit early to say exactly, but let me briefly outline how we see pricing in the grand scheme of things.

There is a lot of lighting hardware out there. Most of this hardware is mature technology, development is amortized a long time ago, the tech is well understood and many manufacturers are optimizing for price. Which is another way of saying that if you want cheap gear, there is a ton of chinese knock-offs on eBay.
In many ways, it is awesome that photogs can get access to lighting gear for an unbelievably low price. But there are reason this is possible.

Fall Foliage
Fall Foliage by XKCD

Business Economics for by Dummies

When you make something you need to decide what type of product you are making and optimize for that. Say you are in the shovel-making business. Are you making inexpensive shovels? Then you need to use cheap materials that might break more easily. You need to reduce cost of production by lowering the number of parts and operations, e.g use pressfit instead of screws, etc.

By offering a less expensive product you will typically sell more. But if your product is in demand, someone else will soon undercut you, and you find yourself looking for more ways to cut cost. You can see where this is going. Quality, customer support, innovation, all goes out the window in a race to the bottom. In a super-transparent worldwide market you soon find yourself operating on 2% profit margin. But if you sell a shitload of shovels, maybe you are fine with that.

If, on the other hand, you are making the best shovels for some particular purpose, you don’t look for the cheapest materials. You look for the best suited material, the lightest or strongest, or most flexible. You add reinforcements to weak areas, you spend time and effort trying to improve and better the performance of your product. Your product is not going to be the cheapest product on the market, but that is ok. And if your product is in demand, someone else will develop an even better product. Forcing you to innovate and improve again. No rest for the wicked.

As long as there is a significant difference between the “better” and the “cheap” everything is fine. People who need a better product are generally willing to pay more. People who do not need a better product, or don’t know better, will just buy the cheapest one.  I guess a good example is bicycles. There are some friggin amazing bikes out there. Not cheap. And there are super low cost alternatives. Problems arise when people don’t see much of a difference between the “cheap” and the “better” but that is a story for another time.

One major point of this (very simplified) worldview is that it is *not*  possible to optimize for price and performance at the same time. Do you use the cheapest or the best suited material or process? The cheapest and the best is very seldom the same.

What do we want to optimize for?

Around here, we are optimizing for innovation and awesomeness. Not the brightest or the smallest, or the biggest or the cheapest. We are trying to make the most interesting, the most creative, the best. We are optimizing for magic, not for price.

Affordable pricing is is definitely on our mind, we want to get this gear into the hands of as many people as possible. But to paraphrase Einstein: “Everything should be made as cheaply as possible, but not cheaper”.

Hardware, which is expensive to make, is priced at the minimum necessary to ensure the healthy growth of a sustainable business to ensure quality, support and availability of the products.*

Pricing formula

The method we use for pricing is not complicated. Take the BOM (the Bill of Materials), add a markup for us and a markup for the distributor and you have the sale price. The BOM is the cost all the mechanical components (like CNC machined front and rear enclosure, injection moulded button tops, screws, mounts), the electronics (the printed circuit board, the microprocessor, the LCD display, the LEDs, the connectors and all the rest of the electronics), the assembly of all the above, the loading of the firmware, calibration and  quality testing. Add to this the cost of any cables, power adapters and the cost of the packaging. Basically the cost of making one complete product ready to put on a shelf.

The standard pricing formula for Open Hardware is 2.6 times BOM. This allows 40% margin for us and 40% margin for distribution partners.  The margin allows for the cost of labor, sales, taxes, rent, customer support, returns and all the rest that is necessary for running a healthy business and taking care of the customer. It also allows for continued research and development, we plan to stick around for a long time.

So for those of you who wish that eBay knockoffs was even cheaper, you won’t find what you seek here. But I hope you will find some of the most awesome lighting gear around, at prices you can afford.

* The quote is from Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired.

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The big idea

The industrial revolution is over. What exactly does this mean? Well, for starters it means that a new kind of industrial revolution is under way.
It used to be that in order to produce any ‘technological’ product you needed to own a machine. You needed a factory. A machine that could mass produce identical products as inexpensively as possible. Because the economics of scale was everything.

Production

Now, the rules are changing. The economics of scale has changed and production itself is being commoditized. Mass production processes have become more sophisticated and low volume production is economically feasible. You can see obvious signs of this in the flood of dirt cheap, really low quality photo gear that floods the market. Production is cheap; let’s pump out cheap copies of any product we can find, and dump them on ebay.

That doesn’t sound so good, but there is a flip side to this. For someone who actually cares about their tools, who wants to create something of quality, the same production machinery is available.

[quote]Transformative change happens when industries democratize, when they’re ripped from the sole domain of companies, governments, and other institutions and handed over to regular folks. The Internet democratized publishing, broadcasting, and communications, and the consequence was a massive increase in the range of both participation and participants in everything digital — the long tail of bits.
Now the same is happening to manufacturing — the long tail of things.

— Chris Anderson in Wired article Atoms Are the New Bits[/quote]

Creation

Advanced design and engineering tools are available to pretty much everyone; 3D modeling software, electronic simulation, software development, etc. If you have knowledge, or are willing to acquire knowledge, and willing to put your knowledge to work there is almost not limits to what you can create these days.

Collaboration

This is maybe the most exciting part of this. It used to be that a company created a product and then ran out trying to find customers for the product. This process should be turned around. Products for customers instead of customers for products. The Internet enables a model where photographers can discuss what they want in a product and then the product gets made. You don’t need any technical knowledge to discuss products and features, you need to have an opinion on what you want from a product.

This is a multi-disiplinary undertaking. Like making a film. A multitude of skills are needed. If you do have technical knowledge you are welcome to join in the actual creation of the products.

Open source hardware and software

We don’t believe technology lock-in is a good thing. The open source model tend to result in higher quality and more easily integrated hardware and software.
When specifications and designs are accessible to anyone, it is easier to make products that communicate and play well together. Users are not tied in to a company’s proprietary architecture.
Open source means shared knowledge. Shared knowledge drives innovation and progress.

Future products

We are working on a product codenamed Floyd and we’re building prototypes. When it is done, we’ll produce it and you will be able to buy it (or make it yourself, if you’re into that). What will the next product be? That is up to you. You can upload your concept, discuss it with others photogs, refine it and the community will vote on what concepts should go into production. There will a well defined process to this. We’ll launch this when the current product gets closer to production.