What’s Getting Backed on Kickstarter: Technology Edition

I’m a huge Kickstarter fanboy. The creativity that they’ve unleashed is mind-boggling and embodies exactly what the Internet is capable of.

The projects I’ve backed tend to skew tech-heavy and I recently wondered if there were any identifiable trends as to what sort of tech projects get backed. I hear all the time about companies that started with a Kickstarter campaign; are there any patterns?

Kickstarter is really open about what projects get backed (note that it’s not clear how accurate the project counts are; they seem to appear/disappear/dramatically change based on when you access the site), so I went out and scraped some data (code here).

I managed to get data on 1700 successful tech projects, which raised a cumulative total of $212,472,913. That’s an average of $124,984 per project-but this is no even distribution. The winners (like the Pono music player, Reading Rainbow or Zano drone) raise millions while Kymira smart sports apparel is limping in at $8,000 or so (but still successful; kudos). The median raised is $45,992.

I wrote some code to try and cluster these projects and found a few categories that people like to back:

Physical Computing: Arduino clones and shields; Raspberry Pi accessories galore. Examples include Microview, RFDuino and the Touch Board.

3D Printers: Every type you can imagine, including the Micro, the Form1 and the 3Doodler.

Home Automation: Smart plugs, dimmers, remotes – Kickstarters want a connected home. Sample projects are Ube Wifi dimmer, the NEEO remote and  the Ninja Sphere controller.

Lighting: Make it glow-whether lights attached to your stereo, fancy bike lights or an enhancement to your GoPro. Examples are the Notti Smart Light, Lume Cube flashbulbs or Playbulb candles.

Phone Accessories: Anything that can pimp your phone. Check out the Jorno foldable keyboard, Thermodo thermometer or Chipolo item finder.

Solar Powered Gizmos: Kickstarter backers seem to really want to take their electronics outside. Witness the WakaWaka Base, SPOR and Solarpod Pyxis chargers/lights.

Here’s how many projects fall into each category:

That’s a high of 433 for Home Automation versus 181 3D printers.

(Hate that there are no numbers in these graphs? I do, but can’t figure out how to add labels. All the raw data is here.)

The total funds raised varies dramatically across the categories ($M):

Surprisingly, Physical Computing has clocked almost $50M ($46.4M), closely followed by 3D Printers at $41.4M. Solar Power is half this at $21.5M.

There’s a similar difference in the the amount raised per category-both the average and median ($K):

On a per-project basis, 3D Printers have captured peoples wallets (most likely have a much higher per unit cost than other projects) and clock in with a $229.0K/$79.9K average/median raise. This median is almost as high as the average for solar power projects: $89.4K/$42.3K average/median.

A couple of closing thoughts:

  • I was amazed at how much money has gone towards backing Physical Computing. I imagine that most of these devices were bought by geeks to make geeky devices, so I’m guessing that we’re only at the starting of a big revolution in Internet-connected devices
  • There was no major cluster for robotics or drones. This surprised me as I would have guessed more based on the buzz in the press. Big difference between what is bought vs. what is talked about
  • Some of the major success stories (like Pono or Reading Rainbow) don’t fall into an of these categories. I don’t yet know how to interpret these “one hit wonders” but its interesting to think about why they succeeded as a product but didn’t launch a category

2014: Rear View Mirror Edition

So, it’s a wrap. 2014 has mere hours left; 2015 has actually already arrived for most of the world’s population.

As I look back, 2014 is the year that kicked my ass. This blog reflects it: a whopping 4 posts, year-to-date with the most recent one being over six months ago. I also checked the goals I made for the year – and I accomplished 1 of 21. A spectacularly low success rate.

So what happened? Why did nothing turn out as planned in 2014?

One hypothesis: I had a second child. On my daughter’s second day of life in mid-December 2013, we took her to get her inaugural tune-up checkup. The doctor was a true expert: 55 or so & head of pediatrics, on the top of his game like he’d just walked out of Ian McEwen’s Saturday. He grinned and told us “Oh, two kids under three years old? You’re about to enter what most people consider to be the hardest year of their life.”

Right. But what does he know? He’s only been doing this for 30 years. He doesn’t know our family…

And of course he was right. I was destroyed this year by the act of child rearing. The simple act of trying to keep two children alive turned out to occupy an almost unimaginable amount of time. They really do both need 100% of your attention, they don’t understand the concept of sleeping in and why, oh why, would they ever forgive you in the unlikely event you found yourself hungover.

Hence the 1 of 21 goals achieved.

However, all was not for nought. I feel like I still got a lot done. Both of the two above-mentioned children are not just alive, they’re healthy. To the best of my knowledge, my wife is no planning to divorce me and considers our relationship a success.

More seriously, I got a new job mid-year (no more worrying about getting paid) and we bought a house. I started running again and managed to do two 50km races. I learned how to cook sous vide. I picked up a new programming language (R). I raised $750 for charity and helped out with Seattle Coderdojo. I squeezed in a night photography class. And I built Cam a blinkybox.

And I read a few books: The Everything Store. The Bone Clocks. The Peripheral. Hooked. Scarcity. Your First 90 Days (guess why). Invisible Engines. Influence. Elements of Japanese Design. Too much seriousness; not enough fiction.

All in all, a year that kicked my butt. But not a failure. Tomorrow I’ll write about what I hope to do in 2015.

More importantly: happy new year y’all.

And let me close with a ridiculous photo from the fundraising period.


The Blinky Box

Last year this awesome story by Miria Grunick appeared in one of my feeds. I was immediately inspired to create one for Cam and this year I finally built him his very own Blinky Box.

I made a few changes to her design: a switch in the upper left toggles a solid color vs. flashing lights mode. Plus the knob in the upper right rapidly changes the frequency of flashing.

I had the top laser cut as I have no idea how to cut a plastic box. (If you’re in Seattle, get it done at Metrix Create Space so you can watch them do it – and it only costs $7 or so)

The Box

Here’s a video of it in action:

If you want to make your own, the code’s on Github; feel free to fork as it’s definitely not optimal. I also included the .SVG for the laser cutting; I recommend making the holes for the arcade buttons a little bigger as mine stick – 0.5mm should be enough.

You can get the bill of materials on Miria’s Github repo; if you make my version you’ll also need a switch.

For anyone who tries it and gets stuck, here are some photos of some of the major breadboarded items. Should be enough to get you over any hump:


More Wires

Google Maps: Confusing Time & Place

One of the most incredible pieces of software developed in the past few years in Google Street View. The notion that you can use your computer to see what a neighborhood looks like is literally magic. What’s more, you can virtually drive through the neighborhood, experiencing it like a local.

I mean, a person had to drive a car to take that photo, a machine had to stitch all those photos together and it’s now available to you anywhere you can get a decent web connection.

The mind boggles.

What’s even more mind boggling to me is that sometimes your linear trip down the street turns into a trip down memory lane. As you seamlessly slide your “drive” from place to place along the street you suddenly find yourself whisked through time. Drivers change, leaves fall off trees – but more interestingly, sometimes entire cityscapes change.

A building disappears and its replacement reappears or you change an angle and suddenly there’s a construction site.

This happened to me recently looking at New York’s Astor Place.

I wanted to see the new building that’s going to house IBM’s Watson group. Here is it, looking from Astor Place & Lafayette:

Watson BuildingI drove my virtual car across Lafayette so that I could get a closer look:

Missing Building

But wait; what building is that? That yellow building wasn’t there a second ago…

Let’s drive a bit further and look backwards:

Watson Building Under ConstructionTime has shifted yet again and now we see the building under construction.

On the one hand the techie in me thinks there’s nothing interesting here: Google’s servers will update their imagery over time and eventually become consistent.

The romantic in me likes to imagine a scenario where the algorithm occasionally burps and historical images begin to appear when you least expect them. 25 years from now you’re trying to find a place on the map when suddenly a long-vanished building appears only to disappear when you turn the virtual vehicles view.

Or perhaps there’s a new feature that turns Google Maps into a virtual version of Ed Ruscha’s All The Buildings on the Sunset Strip.

He’s been going back every few years to the strip to update the photos but now Google will have done it globally on a regular basis. You’ll literally have a map of all places in the world for regular intervals since 2005.

SIM As A Service

One of the things that interests me in 2014 is whether or not T-Mobile is going to be sold. I work at a company that, among other things, runs a virtual network on top of TMUS’s network-so I’m definitely interested in what might happen.

I keep thinking though, who else might want to buy T-Mobile’s network?

The one dark horse I keep imagining is Amazon (this might be bias induced by the fact that I both live in Seattle and my wife works there-although she’d know nothing of their telecom plans).

Now, why on earth would AMZN buy TMUS?

First thought: Prime.

You could imagine a world where being a Prime customer means that your Kindle Fire comes with unlimited Prime video anywhere in North America. Ditto for Amazon music served up by the cloud. Partner with Facebook for them to make their messenger app free.

Yet another way to get people to pay $79 a year.

Plus it also facilitates the launch of a Kindle phone (which could also include a free amount of minutes/data as part of a Prime membership).

But what about existing T-Mobile customers?

Simple: make them an MVNO. Rather than converting them all to Amazon, sell the T-Mobile brand and customer base to their management team and let them run it.

But Amazon could take it further: offer SIM as a service via AWS.

Amazon could create a new category for data-driven devices that piggyback off its existing infrastructure.

Want to create a network of sensors that measure air quality across your city? No problem, just buy 500 SIMs from AWS and their pay-as-you-consume data service can be added to each unit.

Cost too much? Just call up the console to shut off a couple of units.

And data is free if you pass it inside the AWS cloud.

Amazon could literally open up an entirely new category of services and end up owning the Internet of Things – even though all they set out to do was let people watch video for free.

Let’s see what happens to TMUS.

Revoltingly Delicious

The other day I was exploring Little Saigon and found myself in a grocery store where I discovered this:

Yes, durian is now available as jam. And it’s not your everyday breakfast experience.

When you open the jar, it’s hard not to gag as a whiff of durian greets you. It’s like someone let something rot in your kitchen.

As you spread it on your bread a bit of buyer’s remorse sets in. Why did I spend $5 on this imported crap? Is it fair to subject bread to this? Does bread have feelings?

When you go to eat your toast, you let it pause for a second above your lips and the aroma starts to trickle into the back of your throat. A gag is imminent if you don’t bite, so you take the plunge.

And the world instantly changes. A sweet, smooth flavor rolls over your tongue. And as you chew then swallow a slightly smoky sweetness lingers in your mouth.

Revolting the delicious. Revoltingly delicious. And not for everyone or everyday but a great find.

Great Science Writing

If you like science and want to read more about it, you should be reading Nautilus. And if you like Nautilus, you should subscribe to its quarterly for more unique writing.

I’m spending my Saturday morning flipping through it and there’s a beautiful essay by Caspar Henderson on the current frontiers of our knowledge.

Here are a few reminders of just how little we know:

Working memory and episodic memory are widespread among animals, as are social inclinations born of environmental pressures that favor their evolution. The distinction between cognition and emotion is also increasingly seen as a false one. Crows and other members of the corvid family have self-awareness and a theory of mind. Octopuses can solve some problems as well as 3-year-old children, not to mention perform feats of dexterity far beyond the scope of humans. Chimpanzees grieve for non-related individuals, and records of their reactions to stimuli such as a majestic waterfall and the birth of a baby chimp suggest that they may be capable of a sense of wonder.


The microbiologist Lynn Margulis was rejected by about 15 leading journals before her pathbreaking paper on symbiosis was published in 1967. She argued that the complex cells of protists, plants, and animals resulted from earlier and simpler organisms merging and cooperating. The ancestors of chloroplasts and mitochondria, the organelles in plants and animal cells that provide them energy, were once free-living bacteria that larger organisms then swallowed. But instead of becoming lunch, the bacteria took up residence, like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Unlike Jonah, however, they paid for their keep by performing a new role as ‘batteries.’

Today the evidence for Margulis’s theory of endo-symbiosis, as it has become known, is overwhelming. The physician and essayist Lewis Thomas captured the essential point in an essay published in the 1970s, proposing “some biomythology.” A bestiary for modern times, he argued, should be a micro-bestiary, since microbes teach us an essential lesson: “There is a tendency for living things to join up, establish linkages, live inside each other, return to earlier arrangements, get along whenever possible.”

And finally this intriguing thought:

If extraterrestrial life does exist, how “weird” might it be? The adjective can be used in a semi-precise way to mean any life form with which, unlike everything we know of on Earth, we do not share a common ancestor. On the principle that life can evolve or endure where there is a flow of energy to be harvested, one of the most statistically likely places is in the vicinity of white dwarf stars common enough objects in the universe—where collisions with dark matter will continue to provide a steady trickle of energy until the universe is 10^25 years old, or about 10,000 trillion times long as it took life to appear on Earth. Life on these stars, if it were to exist, would have a very slow metabolism and rate of consciousness, taking 1,000 years to complete a single thought.

Give it a read; you will definitely learn something new.