The Problem With Kickstarter: A Lack Of Transparency

Since 2010, over one and a half billion dollars has been transferred from Kickstarter backers to project creators, and with Kickstarter’s 5% cut taken on each dollar collected, that means Kickstarter has had somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 million dollars in revenue in the last five years. That’s a success by any measure, and as with this huge amount of money, questions must be asked about the transparency of Kickstarter.

This is not a post about a Kickstarter project for an impossible project, a project that breaks the laws of physics, or one that is hyped beyond all reasonable expectations. This is a post about Kickstarter itself, and it’s been a long time coming. In the past, Kickstarter has shown at least some transparency by cancelling projects that are obvious rebrandings of white label goods – a direct violation of their rules. Kickstarter has even cancelled projects that violate the laws of physics, like this wireless charging Bluetooth tag. It’s a start, but Kickstarter has a much larger problem on its plate: the Staff Pick problem.

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Where Are They Now: Terrible Kickstarters

Kickstarter started out as a platform for group buys, low-volume manufacturing, and a place to fund projects that would otherwise go unfinished. It would be naive of anyone to think this would last forever, and since these humble beginnings, we’re well into Peak Kickstarter. Now, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and every other crowdfunding platform is just another mouthpiece for product launches, and just another strategy for anyone who needs or wants money, but has never heard of a business loan.

Of course there will be some shady businesses trying to cash in on the Kickstarter craze, and over the last few years we’ve done our best to point out the bad ones. Finding every terrible Kickstarter is several full-time jobs, but we’ve done our best to weed out these shining examples of the worst. Following up on these failed projects is something we have been neglecting, but no longer.

Below are some of the most outrageous Kickstarters and crowdfunding campaigns we’ve run across, and the current status of these failed entrepreneurial endeavors.

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The Digistump Oak; An ESP8266 On Kickstarter

When it was first released, the ESP8266 was a marvel; a complete WiFi solution for any project that cost about $5. A few weeks later, and people were hard at work putting code on the tiny little microcontroller in the ESP8266 and it was clear that this module would be the future of WiFi-enabled Things for the Internet.

Now it’s a Kickstarter Project. It’s called the Digistump Oak, and it’s exactly what anyone following the ESP8266 development scene would expect: WiFi, a few GPIOs, and cheap – just $13 for a shipped, fully functional dev board.

The guy behind the Oak, [Erik Kettenburg], has seen a lot of success with his crowdfunded dev boards. He created the Digispark, a tiny, USB-enabled development board that’s hardly larger than a USB plug itself. The Digispark Pro followed, getting even more extremely small AVR dev boards out in the wild.

The Digistump Oak moves away from the AVR platform and puts everything on an ESP8266. Actually, this isn’t exactly the ESP8266 you can buy from hundreds of unnamed Chinese retailers; while it still uses the ESP8266 chip, there’s a larger SPI Flash, and the Oak is FCC certified.

Yes, if you’re thinking about building a product with the ESP8266, you’ll want to watch [Erik]’s campaign closely. He’s doing the legwork to repackage the ESP into something the FCC can certify. Until someone else does it, it’s a license to print money.

The FCC-certified ESP8266 derived module, cleverly called the Acorn, will be available in large quantities, packaged in JEDEC trays sometime after the campaign is finished. It’s an interesting board, and we’re sure more than one teardown of the Acorn will hit YouTube when these things start shipping.

ChipWhisperer Hits Kickstarter

Even the most well designed crypto algorithms can be broken if someone is smart enough to connect an oscilloscope to a processor. Over the last 15 years or so, an entire domain of embedded security has cropped up around the techniques of power and side channel analysis. The tools are expensive and rare, but [Colin O’Flynn] and the ChipWhisperer are here to bring a new era of hardware security to the masses.

The ChipWhisperer was the second place winner of last year’s Hackaday Prize. It’s an interesting domain of security research, and something that was previously extremely expensive to study. If you’re looking for a general overview of what the ChipWhisperer does, you might want to check out when we bumped into [Colin] at DEFCON last year.

While the original goal of the ChipWhisperer was to bring the cost of the tools required for power and side channel analysis down to something a hackerspace or researcher could afford, this was still too expensive for a Kickstarter campaign. To that end, [Colin] designed the ChipWhisperer Lite, a cut-down version, but still something that does most of what the original could do.

There are two parts to the ChipWhisperer Lite – the main section contains a big microcontroller, a big FPGA, and a high gain, low noise amplifier. This is the core of the ChipWhisperer, and it’s where all the power analysis happens. The other part is a target board containing an XMega microcontroller. This is where you’ll run all your encryption algorithms, and where you’ll find out if they can be broken by power analysis. The main board and target board are held together by a break-away connection, so if you want to run a power analysis on another board, just snap the ChipWhisperer in half.

[Colin] is offering up a ChipWhisperer Lite for around $200 USD – far, far less than what these tools cost just a year ago. We’re looking forward to a successful campaign and all the neat findings people with this board will find.

PortableSDR Needs a Cinderella Story to Finish its Kickstarter

If you haven’t backed PortableSDR on Kickstarter, now’s the time to do it. [Michael Colton’s] project which frees a Software Defined Radio from being shackled to a computer is in the final three days and needs about $17,500 to make it.

We’d really like to see this one succeed, and not just because PortableSDR took 3rd place in the 2014 Hackaday Prize. Many a time we’ve heard people forecast the death of amateur radio (ham if you will). The ham community is special, it’s a great way to get mentorship in electronics, and deals in more than just digital circuitry. Plus, as [Greg] has pointed out, having a license and some know-how lets you build and operate really powerful stuff!

We see the PortableSDR as one way to renew interest in the hobby. We especially like it that you don’t need a license to operate the basic model — the transmitting circuits aren’t enabled when it arrives. This means you can learn about SDR, explore what’s going on over the airwaves, and only then take the leap by applying for your license and hack the unit to transmit. To be fair, the transmitter portion of the project hasn’t been published yet, which is about the only real concern we read in the Kickstarter comments. But we have faith that [Michael] will come through with that part of it. And if he needs help we’re sure he’ll have no problem finding it.

Now’s the time… let’s pull this one out in the final days!

PortableSDR Makes It To Kickstarter

Last year’s Hackaday Prize saw a lot of projects that were crying out to be Kickstarter Campaigns, but non has seen people throwing money at their screens quite like [Michael]’s PortableSDR. It’s a small, handheld, battery-powered shortwave software defined transceiver that can do just about everything with coverage up to 30MHz. It’s the ultimate apocalypse radio, a contender for to the throne now held by the ‘my first radio’ Baofeng, and now, finally, a campaign on Kickstarter.

The PortableSDR (now called the PSDR) started off as [Michael]’s ideal radio. It just so happened the Hackaday Prize gave him the impetus design, develop, and build the radio that would eventually land him third place in The Hackaday Prize.

The radio itself is completely self-contained and battery-powered, implementing a software defined radio on an STM32F4 processor. The design includes an LCD for the waterfall display, vector network analysis, and the ability to receive GPS.

In keeping with its ham heritage, [Michael] is offering the PSDR as a kit, with a PCB, enclosure, and all the parts you can’t get on Digikey available for a $250 pledge. Get those toaster reflow ovens warm, because there’s a lot of SMD parts in this build.

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Anonabox: How To Fail Horribly at Kickstarter

Late last week, Anonabox hit Kickstarter, glomming on to concerns over security, privacy, and censorship. The project was picked up on the usual tech blogs, lauding this project as the pinnacle of the Open Source, Open Hardware movement and a great investment for the privacy-minded technocrat in a post-Snowden world.

Then, the creator of Anonabox did an AMA on reddit. It was quickly discovered that the entire project was an off the shelf router found on AliExpress with reflashed firmware. The router sells for $20 in quantity one, and the Anonabox Kickstarter is giving them away with a minimum $51 pledge. The new firmware is basically a standard OpenWrt installation with a few changes to the config files. The project claims to solve the problem of hardware backdoors, but ships with a backdoor root password (the password is ‘developer!’), open WiFi, and ssh open by default. The Anonabox also claims to be a plug and play solution to security and privacy on the Internet, meaning if this project ever ships, there will be a lot of people who won’t change the default configuration. That’s rather hilarious in its implications.

According to the Kickstarter campaign, the Anonabox has gone through four years of development and four generations of hardware. [August] even has a great graphic demonstrating that each successive generation has reduced the size in half and doubled the system resources:

Unscaled
Image taken from Kickstarter campaign

Anyone with the slightest eye for detail will quickly realize that components, like Ethernet jacks, SD cards, and CF cards are always the same size. I wonder what this graphic would look like if all the boards were scaled so they were in proportion to each other?

Rescaled
Image rescaled so all boards are proportional to each other

Oh. That’s not fishy at all.

As with most Kickstarters that have seen this much negative attention, the project was suspended just a few hours ago, but not before gathering more than $600,000 in pledges at its peak.

suspended

Although the Anonabox failed, there is a market for a Tor-enabled router, and luckily we have one on hackaday.io. It’s so great that some of the copy for the Kickstarter campaign was lifted directly from this project. With a wealth of market research available, we can only hope that [CaptainStouf] runs his own campaign for the UnJailPi.