Our house was built on an ancient Borrower graveyard, I expect, because we lose things on a minutely basis. Losing things has become a way of life for us. We buy something nice, put it on a shelf. Gone. So we were pretty glad when we heard about The O. The O is a little device alerting you to the fact that you’ve left something behind again.
Thin enough to fit in a wallet and a battery life of over a year it’s the best forget-me-not device we’ve come across. We asked co-founder Rose Wilson to tell us a bit about it.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background?
Sure. We are two founders, Rose Wilson and Christian T. Zeiler and we met during our MBA at IE Business School in Madrid.
Rose spent over ten years working at small UK fashion houses developing design and branding and leading global distribution expansion. In Asia, she launched own-label stores with JV partners. Before that, she ran her own successful jewelry label for almost 5 years.
Christian spent his career advising top management at a leading global financial institution on key strategic topics and implementing challenging business transformation projects. He led diverse cross-functional teams and managed the business side of complex IT projects.
How does THE O work? I’m assuming they’re Bluetooth and once connectivity is lost they’re marked as forgotten.
Yes, THE O works with a Bluetooth Low Energy Chip. And the devices connect to our mobile app to create what we call a “virtual leash”. But we do not wait until connectivity is lost to react! That would not provide a great, responsive user experience. Instead, our app analyzes the strength of the Bluetooth signal and estimates how far each of the items is away from the phone. In the back, we set a specific leash length that we consider critical and let you as the user know if you get too far away from something when you probably shouldn’t.
So the true intelligence lies within figuring out what item to look after when. For example when you leave the house in the morning, the app does an itinerary check of what items you have on you with THE O attached. It then assumes that those belongings should stay with you while you are out and about. So if you start to leave a belonging behind somewhere the app will let you know immediately. In this way THE O will prevent you from leaving your wallet in a restaurant or dropping your keys on the street etc.
But the app does more than just preventing loss. We really wanted to help people also to forget less. I don’t want to give away too much, but the first feature we implemented was what we call “essentials”, things that you need to always have with you every day; keys, wallet, medicine or medical devices for some people, maybe your phone charger. For these essentials THE O silently checks in the background if you take them with you. The app checks for your essentials as you leave the house, and will let you know if you have forgotten something.
What technology did you use to prototype THE O? Arduinos/ specific modules. You say your app at the moment is a hybrid, is it coded with something like Phonegap?
Arduino, the Raspberry Pi and similar modules and mini-computers are great to build an extremely broad array of products. In our case, we needed much less flexibility and possibilities so we simply used an off-the-shelf BLE module and attached some batteries to it. This was very quick. Later on, we had our engineers and our manufacturing partners create a customized PCB that did essentially the same things – just a little bit better. We started building the app on a hybrid platform similar to Phonegap, but experienced problems and changed to another one with better capabilities. We used a hybrid platform for prototyping, because we felt very strongly that we wanted to launch on both, iOS and Android. The US is very iPhone-dominated, but globally the picture is very different and our market research shows a lot of potential in some areas outside the US. Going hybrid seemed the cheapest and quickest way to get a lot of the concepts right. And the app works nicely. In the meantime, however, we have started work on the native apps, too.
Am I correct that the casing for your MVP is 3D printed? Did you design and print them yourself or did you get some help? Was it a conscious decision or is it simply the ‘done thing’ when prototyping?
Oh.. design! We believe that for wearable technology products in general, form and aesthetics are paramount. In fact, we considered design as a top priority for THE O. Over and above the functionality, these are products that you see every day, that you touch regularly, and that you attach to your belongings that you have chosen with care. THE O had to be visually attractive. We found inspiration for the case from intelligent forms found in nature, as we wanted it to feel soft and organic somehow. To optimize the design for mass production, we worked with an experienced industrial designer, Ivan Castro. He had learnt his craft in the Swiss watch industry and formerly worked with Marc Newson (who is believed to be the lead designer behind the Apple Watch). Ivan totally understood what we wanted to achieve with THE O design, he was great!
And you are right, the casing for our first MVP was 3D-printed. That has really become the way to go nowadays for any physical product. Once you have your design in a 3D design file, you can often have it printed within 24 hours cheaply and locally.
But if you want to make something that requires a high level of precision on a small scale and with a beautiful, smooth texture, the easily available and affordable 3D printing options don’t work. The version of the product we have now is already made from a metal mold and the material we use is ABS, the very durable plastic used for Lego bricks.
There were a couple of tricky challenges in the design process as we wanted to minimize size, make it waterproof and prevent the battery from starting to drain before a customer starts using the product. We now use only two plastic parts that are assembled with a technique called ultrasonic welding, so it becomes completely waterproof. And we use a small PET slip that needs to be pulled out for the battery to connect to the circuit. A highly pressurized silicon rubber fills the tiny gap so it stays waterproof.
There’s not a lot of information available for hardware startups at the moment in terms of finding manufacturers and the pitfalls involved. I’m not sure if you’ve found one yet, but if you have – what would you say you would do differently the next time when sourcing one?
While we made several mistakes with the hardware and software development in the beginning, we have been really lucky with our manufacturers. They have done an amazing job so far. We were both new to this process, but we had pretty high standards we wanted to meet. Our strategy was to only go through personal references. This took a long time as neither of us had a background in tech hardware production so we were starting from scratch. But we found friends of friends that were extremely kind and helpful to get good leads.
A big challenge in the beginning was that we did not even know what kind of criteria to apply to assess them. In fact, we did not even know what we needed exactly. What we took away from this was that there was a big value in speaking to as many people as possible. It took sometimes about 10 suppliers for one to come up with a question we had not thought of before. And with every new question we went back to the whole list, asked them and learnt more about options available or best practices. And then for the next supplier our request would already include more specification.