A pair of fledgling California companies have each combined modularity with ingenuity to create new consumer electronics platforms targeting makers, do-it-yourselfers and consumers of all types. Both Nascent Objects Inc. of San Carlos in Silicon Valley, and Microduino Inc. of Westlake Village, near Los Angeles, won top honors in the International Design Excellence Awards (IDEA) presented by the Industrial Designers Society of America this past August.
Nascent Objects won Gold in the Home & Bath category, while Microduino took home Gold in the Children’s Products category of the 2016 IDEAs, which attracted more than 1,700 entries worldwide.
Founded in 2012 by four friends, Microduino launched its mCookie product on the Kickstarter crowd-funding site in the summer of 2015, attracting more than 850 backers and raising nearly $170,000. It shipped its first product last November.
Combining mCookie modules is a snap
mCookie takes the popular, open-source Arduino board and transforms it into small, stackable modules that are color-coded and snap together magnetically using spring-loaded Pogo pins to ensure a good connection, according to company cofounder Bin Feng. Each module is purpose-built to perform one core function, stacked on top of a main processor.
There are modules for Bluetooth, wi-fi, USB, GPS, storage, sound, sensor readings and more, including everything necessary to build popular products such as drones, robots, GPS trackers, 3D printers, open-source watches and smart gardening gadgets.
Additionally, Feng explained, its modules are Lego®-compatible and only fit together when the right connection is made, making them more accessible to people of all ages and eliminating the need for soldering. For projects that need reinforcement, spring pins provide rugged surface-to-surface connections between circuit boards for a longer usable lifetime, and M2 screws can securely fasten more robust designs.
The plastic blocks are injection molded out of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) resin, Feng said in a recent email interview from Brazil, where he was traveling. The company sells Basic, Advanced and Expert kits to consumers.
“First and foremost,” Microduino says, “mCookie lowers the barrier to entry for potential DIY hobbyists everywhere. Yet, the implications go far beyond that. We want mCookies to be in every company as an easy-to-use prototyping solution, every classroom as a way to bring ideas to life, and every family to bring the joys of DIY creation to everyone.”
Microduino has grown into a 40-person company across the U.S. and China, aiming to bring easy-to-use electronics hardware to makers, designers, engineers, students and curious tinkerers of all ages and levels.
“We are gradually entering the era of smart hardware and Internet of Things,” Microduino has noted. “Making smart hardware easy to program as well as stimulating to use is a tremendous challenge.” Feng thinks his company is succeeding at this, and the 25-person IDEA jury this year obviously agreed.
mCookie basic kit
mCookie expert kit
Interchangeability promotes sustainability
Nascent Objects, meanwhile, describes itself as “the world’s first modular consumer electronics creation platform and marketplace.” The firm says it was founded in 2014 on the simple principle that product development shouldn’t be hard. By pairing cutting-edge 3D printing and modular electronics with user-friendly software, Nascent is striving to create a world where anyone, anywhere can quickly make their ideas a reality.
“We've developed a process to print highly conductive traces directly into your 3D object,” the company explains on its website. “In one central platform, you build your physical products, connect the product to the cloud and create apps to access/control the product.”
The goal is to give consumers the choice to have the features they want—when they want. By combining CAD tools, 3D printed circuitry and a library of electronic component modules, the platform helps creators take their consumer electronics ideas from concept to finish with market-ready products in a matter of days. With Nascent modules and shapes, the firm says its products can be upgraded and customized so consumers get more use and innovation out of consumer electronics products—for a fraction of the cost.
Its dozen or so modules include such items as a camera, microphone, speaker, LED array, altimeter and barometer sensor, infrared and visible light sensor, small battery, ambient sensor and the like. Its Nascent Shapes “turn modules into products.” Many of its various pilot products incorporate injection molded plastic housings, using such resins as PC/ABS.
Nascent Objects -- which says it raised more than its goal of $60,000 via a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo -- declares it has “an audacious vision for a world with less waste, cooler stuff, and lower costs for better devices.” It suggests that consumers with its products aren’t stuck with single-use products that go obsolete almost overnight. Rather, Nascent’s modularity allows users to extend the life of their gadgets, reuse pieces to reduce waste and get more for less money.
Since its initial crowdfunding campaign, Nascent Objects was acquired by Facebook in September 2016. According to Tech Crunch, Nascent will have a role in Facebook’s Building 8 lab, which works on rapid prototyping projects that can help move products quickly from concept to deliverable.
Nascent Objects Modules
Offering lightning-fast speed to market
For creators, Nascent says its process enables them to go from a concept to shippable product in less than a month, compared with the industry average of 12 months. In one turnkey system, they drag and drop modules onto the shape of their product, and the Nascent tool automatically creates all the mechanical, electrical and software components necessary to generate a fully functioning, cloud-connected product. The physical product is then created by the Nascent process, which combines highly conductive traces with 3D printed shapes to connect the modules together. Plug the modules in and you have a fully working product.
Ammunition Group -- the San Francisco and New York design consultancy -- worked alongside Nascent Objects to test and refine the system, design the library of reusable component modules, and create finished pilot products using the platform. Ammunition also created a brand identity and packaging system for the company.
Droppler, the first pilot project built using the Nascent Objects platform, is a countertop water-use monitor that helps people understand and adjust their daily water-use habits. Rather than being integrated into the plumbing, Droppler has a powerful sensor and processor that uses the sound of flowing water to detect consumption. By connecting with the Droppler app, users can further analyze their water use, set goals, and track progress (hence IDEA’s Home & Bath award).
“And when water conservation becomes second nature,” Ammunition notes, “consumers can reuse the speaker, light and processor component modules in other products created using Nascent Objects.” IDSA also honored Nascent Objects with its Considered Design Award.
Nascent isn’t shy when outlining its vision. The company states it is “ambitiously rethinking the way manufacturing works and how products get sold,” and suggests it is “realizing a future where consumers have choice and control of their devices, and where products are reused rather than wasted.”
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