Say you’ve always wanted to build a Wi-Fi-controlled robot that spits carrot chunks at your pet rabbit. Impossible you say. How about a solar-powered, plant-watering device that remotely triggers a siren when a new episode of “Vikings” is on? Even though that’s completely practical for a number of reasons, the ability to do it may seem a far reach. Using various open hardware components, extended with Wi-Fi modules and shields makes it all easier, but nothing to this point has combined the luxury of Wi-Fi, programmable hardware, world-wide accessibility and the fun of making your own things. Spark Devices has launched a Kickstarter campaign doing just that. Launching May 2, they blew past their $10,000 funding goal in 75 minutes, pushing closer toward the $200,000 mark each day. WOW. We asked Zach Supalla, Founder and CEO of Spark Devices, more about the wee board and how it’s different from the rest.
WiFi for Everything
You may remember another project launched by the Spark team called Spark Socket, a Wi-Fi enabled socket you can control from your mobile device. Ingenious, and yet it wasn’t funded, but we are extremely excited to see how they’ve boiled down that concept to bring the power of creating cool Wi-Fi enabled devices to a broader audience. How is it different from other platforms? Say for instance, a Pinoccio microcontroller?
“The biggest difference between the platforms is that we’re using Wi-Fi while they use a mesh network.” Zach says, “Technically you can add Wi-Fi to one of the modules to bring a system online, but that raises the cost quite a bit–a Pinoccio plus the Wi-Fi shield costs $100! Since the [Spark] Core has Wi-Fi built in, it means that every product or project is completely stand-alone, and can be connected directly to the internet at an affordable price.”
The affordable price Zach mentions is $39. That’s all you need to start creating your own things. From there, more Cores can be bought, linked together, extended with various shields or integrated with other electronic hardware. It includes 128-Bit encryption, the Spark Cloud that links you to your device via the web and a complete REST API flexible enough for software development on multiple devices.
The board and all that it entails is completely open. The communication standards being used are open. The design files and firmware will also be open source. “We used EAGLE for all of our electrical design work, and when we publish the design files we’ll be sharing the EAGLE files so others can modify and improve the design. The rendering towards the front of the video was done in SolidWorks, but that was mostly just for fun :-)”
How have they brought the price down so low? By comparison, an Arduino Uno cost $29.95 with a Wi-Fi shield running close to $100. As mentioned earlier, the Pinoccio board with Wi-Fi runs $100, so along with an easy-to-use platform, Spark needed a low-price. “The biggest challenge was making this product affordable. We’ve been living and working in Shenzhen for the last three months, and coming to China has really been a big boon for us. Product development is so much cheaper and faster here [which] means we can move really quickly without breaking the bank.”
While in Shenzhen the team has participated in HAXLR8R, a hardware incubator. If you’re in San Fransisco on May 13th, they’ll be presenting at the HAXLR8R’s Demo Day at the Autodesk Gallery along with 9 other start-ups. And of course, they’ll be at the Bay Area Maker Faire May 18th-19th.
Open Hardware Simplicity
We were curious to learn what has made the Spark Core such a successful project. A lot of variables go into a successful Kickstarter campaign, the preparation for manufacturing and deliverables, along with the promotion. Spark Devices knew from their previous campaign what was needed and in this case, it was the right product at the right time. “I think we scratched an itch that has been present in the Maker world for a while now. About a year ago, people really started fiddling with Wi-Fi and Arduino.” Zach tells us, “First, the only thing you could get were surface mount modules, so those were out for most people. Then, Electric Imp came out, and it had a lot of promise but the closed nature of the system scared a lot of people away. Then there was the Wi-Fi Shield for the Arduino, but it’s *so* expensive. Then there was Pinoccio, which looks great at first, but the Wi-Fi Shield and the Pinoccio together cost $100. So I think there have been a lot of people following this whole thing just waiting for someone to build, something that’s cheap and easy and open, and we came along at exactly the right time. In contrast, with the Socket, we had the world’s worst timing; we launched 6 weeks after LIFX and Philips Hue launched, and while we had something cool, it just wasn’t new or exciting enough.”
We jumped on funding this project right away. With all the features, the size, the team… it was a no-brainer and we’re looking forward to seeing the possibilities. The $29 early-bird special is gone, but you can still snag a Spark Core for $39 and start making September 2013 when they ship.