Wearables and Kickstarter go hand in hand. Think of the world’s biggest crowdfunding website’s success stories and it’s the likes of the Mio Alpha heart rate monitor and Pebble smartwatch that spring to mind.
The former was one of the fastest ever to reach its target and Pebble still rates as the second largest completed Kickstarter project of all time, backed by a total of 68,929 enthusiasts to the tune of over $10 millon.
Head over to the site now and you’ll see over 100 wearable prototypes vying for your support. So, go for it. Be an early adopter. You have nothing to lose - except your money.
Hang on - nothing to lose?
Kickstarter presents a win-win situation for both the creators and backers. When you make a pledge, you’re not actually handing over your hard earned money. You’re just promising to do so if said concept reaches its target investment within the time allotted.
So, if the idea doesn’t capture the imaginations of enough punters, then you don’t lose out and nor does anybody else. The creator walks away disappointed but more realistic about the potential commercial success of their brainchild in time for them to have not given up their day job.
The danger comes when a project actually makes it. At this point, Kickstarter offers backers no protection. If the project never delivers, despite the cash injection, then it’s tough luck. Fortunately, there are a few systems in place to prevent that happening right at the beginning of the funding campaign. It’s credit to Kickstarter that they’re in place and that they seem to be working pretty well too.
Any project involving a piece of hardware requires a physical prototype and a realistic manufacture schedule in order to get accepted. So, that makes it tricky for the dreamers, the jokers and the pragmatically inept to bleed you dry. Seekers are also required to describe the risks and challenges to help precipitate any problems before they occur.
Kickstarter checks each project before it goes live and responds to concerns from the community throughout the fund raising. The iFind item locator, for example, certainly looked like a good idea; the trouble was that there was no working prototype to back it up. It also relied on harvesting electromagenitc signals from the environment to keep it charged; a technology that's wonderful in theory but just nowhere near energy efficient enough to power permanent wireless communication. iFind raised over $500,000 before it was suspended.
More importantly, Kickstarter also keeps an eye out for projects that appear to be fraudulent, i.e folk who have no intention of ever making or delivering their purported dream devices. The eye3 drone was pulled back in 2012 after the site found that the images used were, in fact, photoshopped versions of an already-available RC helicopter called the Xaircraft. The creators were trying to put together helicopter kit pieces from specialist website cnchelicopter.com and pass them off as something of their own. Further investigation also showed that eye3’s founders had already done a runner with the money from a different, non-Kickstarter project in the past.
There be danger on the crowdfunding seas
In both of these cases, because none of the suspicious projects ever made it past Kickstarter’s filters for long enough, the optimistic backers were never charged. In fact, according to a University of Pennsylvania study on Kickstarter, in 2012 only 14 out of 387 projects successfully funded up until that point had actually failed. That gave a 3.6% chance of losing your money if something you've backed meets its target. Even then, Kickstarter warns the creators that they might be sued by the backers in such a circumstance, although that's yet to happen.
The story, however, is a rather different one the second biggest crowdfunding site on the internet. Indiegogo gives the creator a choice to keep all of whatever's been raised regardless. What would you do?
Fortunately, there are projects doing the decent thing. Take Canonical, parent company of popular Linux OS Ubuntu. It held what's know as a 'fixed funding' campaign to build a phone that could double as a desktop machine when docked. It was a decent idea but it only managed to gather about half of its $32 million funding before time ran out.
Cynically, one might argue that it would have been a PR disaster if a company that promotes free, open-source software had chosen to keep what it had amassed but, either, way Canonical gave all the pledges back. More likely, however, is what seems to be happening with the Healbe GoBe.
Healbe coming round the mountain at some point, hopefully
Healbe has been raising money as part of a 'flexible funding' campaign; one where the project rakes it in whether the target is met or not, minus Indiegogo’s 9% fee. The company claims that its GoBe device is the first and only wearable that can automatically measure your calorie intake and burn by simply looking at your skin.
Just as optical heart rate monitors work, Healbe FLOW technology is said to combine measurements of blood pressure and impedance to get readings of your metabolic rate. That makes a bracelet that knows exactly what you've eaten and how much of it you've worked off without you having to manually log so much as a glass of water. It's the god particle of the fitness tracker universe piece in the fitness tracker puzzle. The only trouble is that it's completely impossible.
All the same, that hasn't stopped a rush to back this wearable and the Russian company from raising over $1m, 10 times more than it was looking for. Despite some excellent investigative work by website PandoDaily during the fundraising period, Indiegogo decided against killing the highly unlikely sounding technology project, stating its neutrality as a web service.
With the campaign now completed, the original August 2014 shipping date of the GoBe has predictably been delayed with 22 September the next promise. We're not holding our breath.
Even when backers of crowdfunded projects do receive their goods, the story doesn't always work out well. The much-anticipated Kreyos Meteor smartwatch has recently started arriving on people's doorsteps after its $1.5m campaign came to a close just over a year ago.
The device promised full voice and gesture control as well as heart-monitoring and activity tracking all on iOS, Android and Windows Phone too. What turned up seems to be a shonky, cobbled together piece of plastic and circuitry with terrible battery issues, faulty firmware, semi-existent app support and none of the advertised waterproofing – and that’s if you're lucky.
For others it's been simply dead on arrival. The Kreyos Facebook page is plastered with an aggregate of negative review and vitriol from angry backers and none of this was helped with the publishing of photos on social media of Kreyos CEO Steve Tan pictured driving a Ferrari and crouched grinning ear to ear in a pile of designer bags after an apparent shopping spree in Italy.
To do Kreyos and Tan its dues, those images were snapped in 2010, two years before the company or campaign ever existed, and members of the team have been working hard to not only push out firmware updates but also reply to every single one of the those Facebook comments.
Still, on the surface there seems no excuse for shipping such a turkey when the funding brought in 10 times the amount request in the first place. The whole operation looks shoddily managed at best and is hardly an ideal advert for crowdfunding.
Victims of their own success
But then there is an obvious problem with some of these projects. They can become victims of their own success. If your initial target gets smashed by 50 times the amount you were expecting, then that could be the difference between creating a few hundred products and tens of thousands of them. Suddenly knocking gadgets out from your garden shed might not be realistic and so the cascade of logistical delays begins.
That's one of the issues sited by Jerry O'Leary, the Chicago based Brit behind the world's thinnest watch, the CST-01. The over-successful Kickstarter venture for this 6g, 0.9mm timepiece concluded with excess of 7,000 backers to supply. The estimated delivery time was originally marked down as March 2013. Sixteen months later and the watch has yet to materialise.
In many ways, it's not really fair for the creators to be put in this position. They're nailed down to a launch date by their crowdfunding service of choice even though it's impossible to tell what the future holds in terms of budget, scale and production complications. It's not surprising that creating a realistic schedule seems so hard to achieve.
It's also important to remember that the imaginative minds behind these ideas are less likely to be experts in management and operations. And so there rolls in a classic dilemma for the honest project creator as the issues mount up. How long is it reasonable to make people wait?
The Meteor and CST-01 illustrate both ends of the spectrum nicely. One company has chosen to kick a half-backed device out of the door to appease the crowd while the other, hopefully, seems to want to make sure that the product is perfect first, even if that means missing one deadline after another.
According to UoP study of 2012, the majority of successfully funded Kickstarter projects are delayed with a mean added wait of 2.4 months. Bear in mind, though, that figure is smoothed out by those that raise somewhere near what they set out to. Projects over-funded by ten-fold are half as likely to deliver at the time given. The more impressive something is, the bigger its success and the far greater the chances that you're in for a large amount of thumb-twiddling.
Worth the wait?
So, where does all of this leave the wearables enthusiast? The simple way to look at things is that, if you want you want to play it safe, then pledge on Kickstarter and Kickstarter only. The chances of you getting you money back or your product delivered are very, very high; even if you end up waiting for a while.
It’s key to remember that these are not retail sites with regular products. If a product looks technologically impossible, then it probably is.
If you're willing to sail a little closer to the wind, then try some other crowdfunding websites like Indiegogo, but make sure you know the difference between fixed and flexible funding campaigns and use some due diligence to minimise your risks. If a product looks technologically impossible, then it probably is. Do an internet search on the company behind it and its executives, read around what other people are saying and then make up your own mind.
It’s also key to remember that these are not retail sites with regular products. They're for providing funds to make things possible. What you're really doing is something more akin to the ancient Roman system of patronage than it is a trip down to the shops.
Just because an Indiegogo idea never reaches its target, why not support it financially anyway? If it's a project that you believe in, then let it keep your pledge to take that dream as far as it can. If we're not prepared to take risks in the search of a better world, then we'll never get there.
Just make sure that you have an idea of what those risks are and whether you expect to see your money, or the fruits of it, ever again.