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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Hackaday Links: August 16, 2015

[Matt] created an animated gif of New Horizon’s Pluto flyby. The source images were taken from the the raw LORRI images, modified so the background star field could be seen, and assembled with OpenCV. Because Pluto and Charon orbit each other around a point above Pluto’s surface, simply putting Pluto in the center of each frame wouldn’t work. It’s the best visual explanation of this weird arrangement yet, all brought to you by the magic of OpenCV and Python.

On the subject of Kickstarter creators that don’t understand the conservation of energy, I present this.

We don’t know exactly what’s going on with this one, but here’s a swimming pool covered with RGB LEDs. It’s controlled by two Rainbowduinos, and looks like the coolest disco floor you’ve ever seen.

[Frank]’s 2011 Hundai Santa Fe wasn’t cool enough, so he added an F16 flight stick to his shift knob. The choice of joystick is paramount here: Saitek joysticks look too techy, Logitech ones are too expensive, and the Warthog H.O.T.A.S costs $400. Joysticks are extremely niche peripherals these days, it seems. He ended up strapping an old F16 joystick from the 90s on his shift knob, and it looks close enough to the real thing.

Two bodgers are stuffing the engine from a Toyota Celica into a 1980 Mini, and they’re trying to make it look stock. We’ve seen their project before, and now there’s a new episode. In this episode: the pedal box, the steering wheel, and figuring out how to make the car drive straight.

LightBlue Bean+ adds Battery, Connectors, Price

PunchThrough, creators of the LightBlue Bean, have just launch a Kickstarter for a new version called LightBlue Bean+. The tagline for the hardware is “A Bluetooth Arduino for the Mobile Age” which confirms that the hardware is targeted at a no-hassle, get it connected right now sort of application.

lightblue-bean-plus-thumbFor those unfamiliar, the original LightBlue Bean is a single board offering meant to marry Bluetooth connectivity (think Cellphones with BTLE) to the capabilities of a microcontroller-based hardware interface. The Bean+ augments this hardware with a 300m+ range increase, an integrated LiPo (600mAh or more), and headers/connectors where there were only solder pads before.

On the software side of things the Bean+ has four firmware options that make it speak MIDI, ANCS, HID, or Peer-to-Peer, only not all at the same time. The good news is that these are ecosystem upgrades and will work for existing Bean hardware too. The entire thing comes with online-platform integration and easy to use Smartphone tools to guide you through connecting and making something useful.

The board includes a battery tending circuit that allows it to be charged via the USB port but can run over a year between recharges if you use it judiciously. There is a slider switch near the pin sockets marked “A3, A4, A5” which toggles between 3.3v and 5v so that no level shifters are needed for sensors and other hardware you might use with it. The white connectors seen near the bottom of this image are Grove connectors. These provide I2C and Analog support to that ecosystem of add-on boards.

All in all this is a pretty sweet upgrade. The MSRP will be $45 but early backers can get in around 10-25% less than that. The price doesn’t mean it’s a no-brainer to pick one up, but the header options make this much more versatile and reusable than the original Bean and we like the idea of a rechargeable battery of the coin cells used by Bean+’s predecessor. It is an each choice for drop-in no hassle connectivity when bottom line isn’t your top concern.

Original LightBlue Bean is available in the Hackaday Store.

Hackaday Links: July 19, 2015

Everybody needs an external USB drive at some time or another. If you’re looking for something with the nerd cred you so desperately need, build a 5 1/4″ half height external drive. That’s a mod to an old Quantum Bigfoot drive, and also serves as a pretty good teardown video for this piece of old tech.

The Woxun KG-UV2D and KG-UV3D are pretty good radios, but a lot of amateur radio operators have found these little handheld radios eventually wear out. The faulty part is always a 24C64 Flash chip, and [Shane] is here to show you the repair.

Last year there was a hackathon to build a breast pump that doesn’t suck in both the literal and figurative sense. The winner of the hackathon created a compression-based pump that is completely different from the traditional suction-based mechanism. Now they’re ready for clinical trials, and that means money. A lot of money. For that, they’re turning to Kickstarter.

What you really need is head mounted controls for Battlefield 4. According to [outgoingbot] it’s a hacked Dualshock 4 controller taped to a bike helmet. The helmet-mounted controller has a few leads going to another Dualshock 4 controller with analog sticks. This video starts off by showing the setup.

[Jan] built a modeling MIDI synth around a tiny 8-pin ARM microcontroller.  Despite the low part count, it sounds pretty good. Now he’s turned his attention to the Arduino. This is a much harder programming problem, but it’s still possible to build a good synth with no DAC or PWM.

Walk Your Pet Robot

Anyone who’s ever tried to build a bipedal robot will quickly start pulling their own hair out. There are usually a lot of servos involved, and controlling them all in a cohesive way is frustrating to say the least. [Mark] had this problem while trying to get his robot to dance, and to solve it he built a control system for a simple bipedal robot that helps solve this problem.

[Mark]’s robot has six servo motors per leg, for a total of 12 degrees of freedom. Commands are sent to the robot with an RC radio, and the control board that he built, called the Smart Servo Controller, receives the signals and controls the servos appropriately. There are 14 outputs for servos, operating at 12 bits and 50 Hz each, as well as 8 input channels. The servo controller can be programmed on a computer with user-selectable curves for various behaviors for each of the servos on the project. This eliminates the need to write cumbersome programs for simple robot movements, and it looks like it does a pretty good job!

Full disclosure: [Mark] currently has this project up on Kickstarter, but it is a unique take on complex robot control that could help out in a lot of different ways. Since you don’t need to code anything, it could lower the entry barrier for this type of project, possibly opening it up to kids or school projects. Beyond that, even veterans of these types of projects could benefit by not having to do as much brute-force work to get their creations up and moving around!

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Crowdfunding Follies: Proof That Ohm’s Law Is Arcane Knowledge

This is a cell phone case that can recharge a cellphone using energy captured from its own radio. It’s been featured on dozens of tech blogs, wowed judges at TechCrunch Disrupt, and it’s a Kickstarter Staff Pick. It’s also proof that nearly everyone in the media who claims any knowledge of technology has no idea behind the foundational properties of technology.

What it is

The Nikola Phone Case from Nikola Labs is a very special phone case for the iPhone 6 and Samsung Galaxy S6. The claims behind this cell phone case state it will recharge your battery by capturing radio energy put out by the cell phone itself. This means capturing RF from the WiFi and cellular transmitters. This captured energy is then converted into something that can recharge the phone, is sent to the USB or Lightning port, and – theoretically – the cycle of electrons turning into photons begins again.

Why it’s crap

Astonishingly, this is not a perpetual motion machine, a device that is completely impractical, or an outright fraud. It’s deceptively correct when it comes to the physics of this device, and as always implementation is everything.

Inside each Nikola Phone Case is a small antenna, boost converter, and circuitry to capture the RF energy coming from the phone. This phone case will actually harvest RF energy, but it will never be able to extend the life of the phone’s battery. Nikola Labs claims their phone case will recover 30% of a battery’s life by harvesting RF energy and using that energy to recharge the phone. However, the energy for this RF energy harvesting scheme comes from the phone itself. The captured energy that would – ideally – end up at a cell phone tower or WiFi router will disappear into this cell phone case. This results in both a dramatic decrease in reception and most likely an increase in power draw due to the phone increasing its transmit power.

To Nikola Labs’ credit, the FAQ on their Kickstarter does address concerns that a phone’s transmitter and antenna may be affected:

The device may change the impedance and overall pattern slightly. We are performing detail characterization of these changes, if any.

Nikola Labs has not performed due diligence on their design. There is a method that will report the RSSI of the cellular radio in an Android phone. Any competent engineer would, upon first seeing this device, figure out if signal strength is affected. This can be done in a few dozen lines of Java. It can be done in under an hour by someone who has never programmed an Android device. Nikola Labs does not provide a comparison of the signal strength of a phone both with and without their case. This is evidence of incompetence, if not malice.

Simply by definition, any device that captures RF energy will ‘shadow’ the transmission. Just like putting a solar panel in front of a flashlight, energy will be captured, but the overall light output of the flashlight and solar panel system will decrease. Nikola Labs has an answer to that:

The device harvests the RF energy around the phone, which is usually absorbed by the hand holding the phone.

It is true that the human body will absorb RF coming out of a phone. WiFi works on the same frequencies as a microwave oven, and defrosting a piece of chicken in a microwave isn’t that much different from grabbing an antenna on a router. Lower powers and different geometries aside, you are right now absorbing microwaves from a WiFi router.

The best way of understanding why simply holding a phone isn’t a very big deal is coming at it from the direction of designing a smart phone. One of the biggest drivers behind the design of a cell phone is how long it will last on a single charge. You can design a phone with a powerful CPU and a huge screen, but the battery won’t last long. Likewise, the engineers that design cell phones will put the antennas in an out of the way place, where they won’t be absorbed by the human body. The Nikola Labs case destroys the engineering decisions inside each cell phone. Think about it; if power was wasted inside a cell phone, wouldn’t engineers at Apple and Samsung work to reduce that waste?

Why everything else is crap, too

There is simply no excuse why hundreds of people would give tens of thousands of dollars to a company that makes outrageous claims with zero evidence. One could attribute this to the public’s severe lack of understanding when dealing with electricity or radio. This, in my opinion, is far too kind.

Nikola Labs’ Kickstarter would not exist without the help of Kickstarter itself and members of the tech media. We first heard of Nikola Labs at TechCrunch Disrupt, where four judges could not find anything wrong with this technology. The presentation at Disrupt went on to be covered by Engadget and a flurry of other tech blogs. Now, dozens of other tech blogs have reported on this Kickstarter, and Kickstarter itself has named it a Staff Pick.

Yes, there are stupid people out there. There are people who will throw money at anything. There are also people who will Barnum up the place sell snake oil to rubes. The fact that Kickstarter would endorse something without a technical assessment defies belief. The only conceivable reason this could be a Staff Pick on Kickstarter is because Kickstarter believes it will be funded, thus earning them a percentage of gross.

This is the end of capitalism, folks. No longer do you need to innovate and make a better mouse trap. All you need to do is convince enough people that you’ve made a better mouse trap.

Hacklet 51 – Crowdfunding Projects

Ah crowdfunding. You might say we have a love/hate relationship with it here at Hackaday. We’ve seen some great projects funded through sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and the like. We’ve also seen projects where the creators were promising more than they could deliver. While the missed deliveries and outright scams do get a lot of press, we believe that crowdfunding in general is a viable platform for getting a project funded.

Closer to home, hosts thousands of projects. It’s no surprise that some of these have had crowdfunding campaigns. This week’s Hacklet focuses on those projects which have taken the leap into the crowdfunding arena.

matrixWe start with [Louis Beaudoin] and SmartMatrix. [Louis] has created an awesome Teensy 3.1 based system for displaying images, animated graphics, and random patterns on a 32×32 RGB LED panel. The LED panel is the same type used in commercial LED billboards. SmartMatrix is open source, and includes extra pins for hacking. Our own [Mike Szczys] hacked the SmartMatrix to create a 1-pixel PacMan clone. [Louis’] Kickstarter is almost over, and needs a huge boost for fully-assembled SmartMatrix to make its goal. Even if the campaign isn’t successful, we think its a great project and you can always get a solder-it-yourself kit from The Hackaday Store!

psdrNext up is [Michael R Colton] with PortableSDR. PortableSDR was one of the five finalists in The 2014 Hackaday Prize. This pocket-sized software defined radio transceiver started as a ham radio project: a radio system which would be easy for hams to take with them on backpacking trips. It’s grown into so much more now, with software defined radio reception and transmission, vector network analysis, antenna analysis, GPS, and a host of other features. [Michael] raised a whopping $66,197 in his Kickstarter campaign, and he’s already delivered the hand assembled prototypes to their respective backers! Even the lower level rewards are awesome – [Michael’s] PSDR key chains are actually PCBs which can be turned into maple compatible ARM devboards with just about $10 of additional parts.

chip whisperNext we have The ChipWhisperer, [Colin Flynn’s] embedded security testing system, which won second place in the 2014 Hackaday Prize. We’ve covered both [Colin] and the ChipWhisperer  several times on the Blog. You can always buy the full ChipWhisperer from [Colin’s] company, NewAE Technology Inc. At $1500 USD, the ChipWhisperer is incredibly affordable for a hardware security tool. That price is still a bit high for the average hacker though. [Colin] created a Kickstarter campaign for a light version of the ChipWhisperer. This version is a great platform for learning hardware security, as well as an instrument for testing embedded systems. The campaign was a huge success, raising $72,079.

wingboardNot every crowdfunding project has to be a massive megabuck effort though. [ZeptoBit] just wanted to solve a problem, he needed a WiFi shield for Arduino using an ESP8266 module. ESP8266 WiFi modules have been all the rage for months now, but they can be a bit of a pain to wire up to an Arduino Uno. The dual row .100 headers are not bread board friendly. The ESP8266’s 3.3 V power and interface requirements mean that a regulator and level shifters are needed to get the two boards working together. [ZeptoBit] put all that and more on his wingboard. It worked so well that he launched a Kickstarter campaign for a small run of boards – his initial goal was kr3,500, or $425 USD. He ended up raising kr13,705, or $1665 USD. Not bad at all for a hobby project!

If this isn’t enough crowdfunding goodness for you, check out our Crowdfunding list! That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of!