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This week’s maker has been working on children’s products for nearly twenty years and is the creator of Hackaball: a throwable computer that helps kids learn the basics of programming.

Lately, we’ve been focussing a lot on EdTech and the future of education, and over the last twelve months we've been interviewing key players in this space like Technology Will Save Us, Primo Toys and Vai Kai, but we’ve never come across a throwable computer before...Fresh from CES, Seb took the time to tell us about his latest project: Hackaball.

Hackaball Hackaball

Q: First off, we’re very jealous you were at CES, how did it go?

A: Actually, our presence at CES came about through a press event called Showstoppers, which we really decided to attend at the last minute. Showstoppers is a four-hour demo event where hundreds of the world's tech media and investors visit you and you have about two minutes to demonstrate your product and convince them to cover you. We had a fantastic reaction to Hackaball from everyone who saw it, and Engadget nominated us as one of the best startups at CES, which was a huge honour.

Q: Aside from yourselves then, what was the best bit of tech you saw?

A: I didn't get much time to see the show this year - it's a truly enormous event spread out over several conference centres. The one thing that did really catch my eye though was a modular robotic arm called KATIA. Technology like this will revolutionise the automation of small-scale manufacturing, and I can't wait to get hold of one when they launch.

Q: Back to you, what’s your background?

A: I've been working at a mix of start-ups and larger media companies on children's products for the best part of twenty years now. My career started by lucky accident - I dropped out of university where I was studying Chemistry because I wanted to swap to Computer Science and there was a two year waiting list. Since then, I've worked for a video game publisher, helped run a digital agency, and more recently worked as a Product Manager for kids' hit brand Moshi Monsters, and 3D printing startup Makielab.

Q: What inspired you to create Hackaball?

A: Hackaball came out of a summer intern project at digital strategy agency Made by Many. The goal was to learn about how connected technologies will influence our lives, and a designer and developer were given the brief of creating something based around play. They came up with an idea called Rule Ball - a ball connected to an app with simple rules that can be combined into complex games - which is the basis of what later became Hackaball.

Q: So what exactly does Hackaball do?

A: Hackaball is a programmable rubber ball designed to teach kids aged 6-12 the fundamentals of computer programming in a way that's fun and gets them up and active instead of sitting behind a screen. At its heart is a smart core that can detect a huge range of different actions like bouncing, rolling, spinning and being thrown, and light up, play sounds and vibrate. We've created a free app which kids can use to create their own games from a set of simple rules - such as "when the ball is dropped turn red and play the 'you lose' sound" - upload them to the Hackaball, and go outside and play them together. 

Q: . What's the technology behind it?

A: Hackaball is built using a custom circuit board with eight super-bright LEDs, a speaker, a powerful vibration motor, motion sensor, and a bluetooth module all controlled by an ARM Cortex M0 processor. We've written firmware for the electronics that turns the motion sensor data into a set of actions that everyone will recognise playing with a ball, and a simple rule-based system that allows you to control the LEDs, sound and vibration in response to those motions. The app connects to the ball via Bluetooth LE to upload games that you've created to the ball, and also for the app to show what the ball is doing whilst it's being played with.

Q: With initiatives like BBC micro:bit and changes in curriculum, do you think we're entering a phase where children become more distant from their parents in terms of tech skills?

A: I think that this amazing rise in technology will actually bring kids closer to their parents. Learning and playing with technology in this way is a very social experience, and kids naturally seek out friends and parents to play with and to help them. Some of these new technologies are definitely aimed at a more technical audience, and that's why it's important that we keep developing products that are suited to a wide range of abilities. We've worked hard to make Hackaball as simple to understand as possible, so that parents can join in with their kids without needing any specialised knowledge.

Q: In terms of investment, have you noticed a shift in how investors or institutions are looking at consumer IoT? Has it been hard for you to get going?

A: Over the past couple of years we've seen many more investors who understand the very different funding requirements for hardware companies, and are willing to work with IoT startups to help them manage the huge uncertainty around manufacturing. Unfortunately, the UK is still lagging far behind the US in terms of the ease of access to capital, and I know several founders currently struggling with the question of whether or not to relocate to the US.

Q: You were phenomenally successful on Kickstarter, do you have other streams of funding or are you going to stick with crowdfunding?

A: We've been very lucky in that Hackaball was funded by both a Kickstarter campaign and supported by Made by Many to get to manufacturing. We've had huge demand for more orders both from consumers and from retailers, so our next step is to try to secure funding to be able to really scale manufacturing to meet that demand. Manufacturing has a significant cash requirement once you get into large production runs, so we're primarily looking at Angel and professional seed investment.

Q: Tell us about your manufacturing challenges, are you 3D printing? How are you going to scale production?

A: We've used 3D printing extensively in prototyping, but for the final product the plastic housing for Hackaball has to be incredibly tough, and the best way to do that is still through injection moulding. As well as the plastic case, we have a custom circuit board, a polypropylene shock absorber, a silicone shell and jacket, and then card and plastic for the packaging. Working with each of these different materials has unique challenges and our industrial design partner MAP has been phenomenal in working with our suppliers in Shenzhen; both to help us achieve the high level of quality that we demanded, and to create a process that will scale easily into tens of thousands of units.

Q: What's been the toughest part of your journey so far?

A: I think this definitely has to be the shift in mindset needed to approach manufacturing. There's an enormous wealth of incredible user-friendly tools available for prototyping connected products, and I think that gave us a false sense of how easy it would be. We were able very quickly to get a functional prototype, and so initially we tried to manage the electronics manufacturing process in-house. We were fortunate to have partners who have been through this process before many times, and who helped us get on the right track.

Q: So when can we buy one?

A: We've just sold out of our first batch of pre-orders, which we're aiming to deliver with our Kickstarter pledges at the end of March. We hope to announce a second production run very soon with likely delivery in June, and the best way to get one is to sign up on our website.

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